Conversations with Food Systems Champions

We know enough to act and it is a shared responsibility to take urgent action now. This was one of the key messages that came from the series of live-streamed independent dialogues Food Tank, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) collaborated on. With 25 members of the U.N. Food Systems Summit Champions Network we dove into the Global Alliance’s seven Calls to Action – seven critical pathways to food systems transformation.

Over the course of six months, between January to June, we spoke to experts and advocates from around the globe about the transformations they believed were necessary to build resilient, equitable, and diverse food systems that coexist in harmony with people and the planet. The process demonstrated—unequivocally—that dialogue is a powerful tool for systemic change. There were countless areas of convergence and similarity in the points raised and there were multiple areas of contention and divergence too, which are equally important to elevate.

By bringing together all these insights, it is impossible to deny that action to transform the future of food requires a systems-approach. Indeed, this was expressed in many different ways by food systems stakeholders who took part in the dialogues: from unfair wages and labour conditions, to food insecurity, oppression, contribution to climate crisis, and so on. Interestingly, as we reviewed the feedback, we learned that the perception of risk associated with the way food systems are currently designed and working today is simply not commensurate with what is at stake.

We also came away further convinced that food can be a brilliant source of the solutions we need. Joao Campari (WWF and lead of Action Track 3) reminded us of such when he said: “We need to be aware that what we put on our plates has the power to transform and reduce the hidden cost of the food system on the planet.”

Importantly, each of the dialogues placed significant focus on equity, inclusion, and social justice – especially in the COVID-19 context. Across dialogues, the diverse world views and wisdom held by Indigenous Peoples, smallholder farmers, pastoralists, traditional rural communities, fisherfolks, food workers and other caretakers of our food systems was held up as needing to be attended to, at the heart of governance and decision-making, and prioritized in the action on food systems.

Without these kinds of discussions, we will continue to experience the negative impacts of dysfunctional food systems, buoyed by harmful policies and practices that degrade the environment, and that wreak havoc on human rights, livelihoods, and human, animal, ecological health and well-being. There is a clear and urgent need to put a diversity of voices, perspectives, evidence, and approaches at the heart of holistic efforts to transform food systems. As Denisa Livingston (Diné Community Advocacy Alliance / Slow Food International), one of our panelists, said: “Everyone is a changemaker, everyone has a seat at the table, everything is related, and we have to grow through COVID-19.”

Similarly, Jessica Vega (Co-chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus), “If we do not work together it will be a similar crisis to this one. It is crucial to protect the biodiversity, traditional systems and life itself.”

Through each dialogue, speakers called for a recognition of: different scientific practices, terminologies, and their histories; the need to develop solutions specific to different contexts; diverse sources of evidence; and different types of investment at different scales. We gained important insights, too, on the need for alignment amongst funders, both private and public. “Finance is still a very fractured landscape lacking a systems approach … This is going to be very critical where we’re able to bring the investors, the technology, the multilaterals, the public sector and really think through how to sequence interventions in a way that the whole system gets recalibrated,” said Bettina Prato (Smallholder and Agri-SME Finance and Investment Network; vice-chair, women, Champions Network).

It was in these exchanges that we also heard that there are countless examples of transformation to give us hope. Vijay Thallam (Chairman, Rythu Sadhikara Samstha – India; vice-chair, production, Champions Network) summarized it powerfully when he said: “Each society needs a beacon of hope. Let us amplify wherever good things are happening across the planet, and bring all these beacons together.” Lana Weidgenant also held up young people as a source of hope: “For me, a lot of what gives me hope is young people, especially young activists, and young people who are engaging in these better methods and innovation as well, whether it’s around championing better consumption or more on the production practices side.”

Additionally, in a subject close to both our hearts, we heard about the need to really value food and embrace tools like True Cost Accounting as an immediate way to transform the system. Ajay Vir Jakhar (Chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj – Farmers’ Forum, India), when speaking to governance of the food system, argued that “… we need to rework the matrix for measurement. We always talk about increasing productivity but what about the loss of biodiversity because of monoculture? We should go to the basics and rethink how we define success.”

Ultimately, the best laid plans for change will continue to fail unless the underlying factors contributing to vulnerability are addressed and a systems approach is taken. When speaking about diets and nutrition, Dorit Adler (Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition) argued: “We need to confront this from multiple entry points and a multidimensional approach. Education for the consumers alone cannot confront the massive marketing and advertising. There is enough evidence to show that we need to change our food environments, and we have to change the food systems by regulations and taxes. We have huge vulnerable populations that need to be brought to the main focus.”

With that reminder that it is the most vulnerable in our societies that carry the most unequal burden of food insecurity and climate impacts, we simply have no time left to wait—the time for action is now!

To find out more, take a look at this post-event report created by IFAD, Global Alliance and Food Tank and submitted to the UN Food Systems Summit as an input: Action for the Future of Food: Panel Series with UN Food Systems Summit Champions Network

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