Q&A: Why the World ‘Can’t Afford to Wait’ for Transparent, Equitable Food Systems

The UNFSS hopes to transform how food is produced, packaged, and distributed to tackle food insecurity and wastage. Credit: Alison Kentish
  • by Alison Kentish (roseau, dominica)
  • Inter Press Service

Through Pre-Summit and national dialogues, scientists, policymakers, farmers, NGOs, private sector representatives and youth groups have been building momentum ahead of the United Nations Food Systems Summit in September. The goal is to ensure that the world produces food with greater attention to climate change, poverty, equity, sustainability and waste reduction.

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food is one of the partners addressing the urgency of food systems transformation for food security, equity, the global economy and COVID-19 recovery. Since 2012, the alliance of philanthropic foundations has engaged in global discussions, supported and led global food transformation research and advanced initiatives in climate, health and agroecology.

The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) collaborates with the Alliance to share ideas and knowledge to design projects capable of guaranteeing a more sustainable food system for future generations.

IPS spoke to the Alliance’s Senior Director of Programmes, Lauren Baker, about the urgent need to overhaul food systems, the impact of COVID-19 on those systems and why true cost accounting is essential to the international effort to revamp the production, sale and distribution of food.

Inter Press Service (IPS): The Global Alliance for the Future of Food has been on a mission to make food systems more sustainable and equitable. The UN Food Systems Summit has the same goal. What do you want to see the Summit achieve?

Lauren Baker (LB): Through the summit process, we have been committed to engaging a network of champions in food systems. We are championing systems thinking, transparency and accountability. We uphold the need for diverse evidence and inclusive representation throughout the process.

Our goal has been to bring the focus of research on one issue, which we think is a significant lever for food systems transformation, and this is being echoed by many in the summit process. This is the issue of true cost accounting.

Over and over across the action tracks, we have heard people emphasize the need for measurable and transparent approaches like true cost accounting to move us forward. What true cost accounting is: we look at the negative externalities of food systems that are not fit for purpose. The industrial food system has several significant impacts on human health and the environment. We need to take these into account, use that information to think differently and make different decisions that advance and uphold the true value of food and bring the alternatives to light.

There are many food systems initiatives proliferating around the world that are healthy, equitable, diverse, inclusive, renewable and resilient. How do we shine a light on those integrated benefits of food systems when they’re managed properly, and they’re not extractive?

(IPS): What are some of the food systems lessons you think we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

(LB): I think the Summit comes at this time when everyone’s awareness of food systems issues is heightened, and this makes the work of the Summit even more critical.

One of the key lessons has been just how vulnerable equity-deserving groups are in the context of this kind of global emergency. If you extend that into future emergencies that will come our way because of climate change, then we need to address those issues of equity and the social systems that lift people instead of making them more vulnerable in the context of something like a pandemic.

We have seen essential workers continue to be stressed. We have seen the impact of COVID on migrant workers, farmers and supply chain resilience. We have seen that the global supply chain through COVID, on the one hand, has been very vulnerable. On the other hand, it’s been durable, but there has been increasing interest because of COVID on resilient local and regional supply chains. Throughout the Pre-summit, I heard government officials and other actors emphasizing the importance of building and strengthening local and regional supply chains.

I think it’s just highlighted resilience overall - the idea of resilience and how food systems are connected to our other crises, like our crisis of inequality globally, our climate crisis and our biodiversity crisis. We now see that those things are intimately connected, and the solutions will have to be interrelated as well.

(IPS): How important is indigenous knowledge to this mission of food systems transformation?

(LB): In our work on true cost accounting, I think indigenous knowledge is very undervalued if you consider the true value of food systems.

Indigenous people historically have managed and stewarded their food systems and have knowledge that they can offer to the world. Their knowledge is very place-based, and I heard throughout the summit process about how important place-based science knowledge innovation is. That type of knowledge provides a grounded perspective, a different worldview that connects us to the places we live in different ways than we are connected presently.

(IPS): Food systems experts also continue to push for agroecology to be at the centre of these discussions. What is your take on this?

(LB): For me, when you look across the food system, agroecology is a systemic solution that brings forward all of these values that I was talking about in a really clear way.

Agroecology can improve livelihoods in terms of shifting from a system that has negative impacts to positive benefits. It is creative and knowledge-intensive. It is also placed based and ecological. It is diverse, so we need to uphold the importance of agricultural biodiversity and agriculture as connected to, wild landscapes too. Agroecology connects in a nice way to our wild spaces, to agroforestry, where biodiversity and habitat can be preserved and enhanced.

We’re doing some great work right now to assess using a true cost accounting framework, all of these agro-ecological initiatives around the world to look at their positive impacts on the environment, socio-cultural impacts on human health and their economic impacts.

We are excited to be launching that work at that the food system summit in September. We think it’s an important way to hold up agroecology, indigenous knowledge and the creativity in urban communities that we see around food systems.

(IPS): What do you think is the key message ahead of the Food Systems Summit?

(LB): One key message for me is just the importance of transparency in all of this.

How do we ensure that our global leaders act boldly right now and embrace measurable transparent approaches, systemic approaches, that actually can facilitate inclusive transformation as quickly as possible? We just can’t afford to wait!

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