The UN Food Systems Summit: Hopeful outlook, complicated reality

October 7, 2021
iStock photo.

By Todd Post

The UN Food Systems Summit that we’ve been writing about for months in Institute Insights took place at last on September 23. As I noted last month, events like this are intended to forge global institutions—structures to address problems that no government acting independently can solve.

The summit didn’t disappoint in this regard. Several new coalitions were announced—to expand school meals, reduce food loss and waste, and accelerate climate-smart agricultural growth, among others. At this point, the new coalitions are launch pads that could enable nations to cooperate more effectively. I don’t want to overstate their role in solving current problems in the global food system.                             

Before the summit, organizers faced a barrage of criticism from academics and civil society groups who were suspicious that corporations and corporate interests would dominate the agenda. Some critics staged their own event, dubbed the Global People's Summit on Food Systems, in protest. Although I too have concerns about Big Food and its power to influence key policies, I saw little evidence that summit participants were openly pushing to increase corporate power in the global food system.

Businesses in the food system range from seed producers to pesticide and fertilizer companies, from beef and poultry processors to equipment manufacturers, from retailers to chains of coffeehouses. It is certainly true that large corporations dominate the global food supply chain. Yet I think that their representatives may have found some of the speeches more than a little disquieting.

Let’s start with what was not a focus of the summit. Somewhat to my surprise, there was less attention given to increasing yields, and less anxiety expressed about whether the world can produce enough food, than there would have been as recently as a couple of years ago. We’ve all heard these concerns: “There will be 10 billion people on the planet soon and we have to produce x percent more food to feed them all.” It was a relief to hear fewer such statements since I believe that a constant drumbeat of “We need to produce more food!” places too much emphasis on this issue. More importantly, it takes much-needed focus away from the food system’s other urgent problems.

I’m concerned about whether people will continue to be able to produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That will always be essential. But we need to pay much more attention to the kinds of foods we produce and how we produce them, rather than allowing these issues to be crowded out by overemphasizing yields.

It is far more likely that a “business as usual” food system will be able to produce enough calories for 10 billion people by 2050, when the population is expected to reach this level, than that it will be able to provide 10 billion people with the nutrients they need. Calories are not the same as nutrients, and the global population already includes 3 billion people who cannot afford a healthy diet. The reality is that the global food system will not succeed in producing all the nutrients needed to solve the global malnutrition crisis unless nations rethink and modify the dominant industrial production model.

The food system is currently sowing the seeds of its own destruction by depleting the natural resources it depends on. The global food system also produces more than one third of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Without a shift to more sustainable food production, the food system’s responsibility for climate change impacts will only continue to increase as other sectors lower their emissions.

At the UN Food Summit, heads of state and spokespersons often sounded as though they were all reading from the same page about the urgent need for reform. This makes sense, because all countries must face the problems being discussed: how to enable everyone to eat healthier foods, and how to avoid destroying the natural resources that future generations will need to produce food for themselves.

A White House document, released the day of the summit, states: “The administration is committed to building food systems that support the health of Americans, combat climate change, and address the needs of the most vulnerable by empowering youth, women, and disadvantaged communities.”

I’m struck by the radical difference between that statement and what government leaders were saying on this subject just a few years ago. If any national food system is hyper-focused on yields, it is the U.S. food system. Government policies designed to increase yields have been in place for generations. They have created a food system that exists mainly to produce a handful of staple crops—at the expense of most other foods.

The legacy of decades of reliable government support for farmers who produce high yields of staple crops is one reason many observers are skeptical as to whether the Biden administration—or any other administration—can spur major transformations in the U.S. food system. Another reason is that the food industries that profit from the status quo employ powerful lobbyists to fiercely oppose most changes, especially changes that could be described as transformational.

It is very difficult for me to imagine a group of CEOs of the major food companies agreeing to revolutionary changes. In contrast, the heads of major U.S. auto manufacturers came to the White House in August 2021 to do just that—more specifically, to pledge that they would roll out fleets of electric vehicles by 2030.

So far, we have been mainly talking about the supply of food. The leaders at the U.N. Food Systems Summit emphasized supply as well. Speakers were much more circumspect when they talked about the other, equally important side of the equation: demand. The problems created by the relationships among the demand for specific foods, health conditions, and climate change are complex, and thus they defy simplistic solutions. Food preferences are established at an early age, and they are often difficult to change even when people are highly motivated to do so.

Animal-source foods are particularly popular in most countries. Consumer demand for meat and dairy products simply continues to grow rapidly, as increasing numbers of people in middle-income countries can afford to purchase these foods regularly. The significant problems linked to the heavy production and consumption of meat and dairy still receive far too little attention, although the impacts on human health are causing more concern than they did even a few years ago. These include, among many others, rising obesity rates and increased risk of noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.  

The implications for climate change are also dire. This is because raising animals for meat and dairy is a highly inefficient way of producing food. It consumes far more resources, including land and water, because it requires first planting and harvesting crops that then serve as livestock feed. The practice of feeding harvested crops to livestock rather than people adds considerably to the time required and the costs of producing meat.

The United States grows more corn than any other nation and is also a global leader in soybean production, because corn and soy are what we feed farm animals. Farmers grow more than U.S. consumers need, since they realize that they can always export surpluses to other countries to feed their own livestock.

It is demand that determines what farmers grow, so containing climate change requires making demand, or the types of food consumers want to eat, far more sustainable. It is difficult to persuade even a fraction of Earth’s population to shift their food preferences away from meat and dairy and toward a plant-based diet that is more climate-friendly--far more difficult than it is to grow more fruits and vegetables. Currently only 3 percent of U.S. farmland is dedicated to producing fruits and vegetables, so there is plenty of scope to expand supply.

Supply and demand are inextricably linked. This means that making food system transformation a realistic prospect will require shifting both supply and demand. Finding ways to do this is the central task following the world's first-ever Food Systems Summit.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World.

The food system is currently sowing the seeds of its own destruction by depleting the natural resources it depends on.

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