The Harvest Through the Weeds: Sustainable Food Systems and the UN Stocktaking Moment

We are now past the UNFSS+2 Stocktaking Moment, which served as a mid-point assessment on the progress made since the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the initiatives launched, the challenges encountered, and most importantly, to recalibrate strategies to meet the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 

More than two years ago, the Center for Earth Ethics formed the Faith + Food Coalition to contribute to the Summit. We hosted seven dialogues culminating in two reports, an Interfaith Statement and a reflection offered during the Summit. Our dialogues brought together stakeholders from across the spectrum to raise awareness, surface solutions and build new pathways for cooperation. 

To support the Stocktaking Moment, CEE, the Faith + Food Coalition, the MENA Women’s Coalition, and World Vision International hosted three dialogues this summer that brought in voices of farmers, advocates, development agencies, and nonprofits. We focused on grassroots efforts to transform food systems to allay hunger and meet the nutrition needs of communities.

The world has experienced increased food insecurity around the world due to accelerating climate change, unmet monetary and development commitments and outright greed by corporate actors

Panelists across all three of our webinars were clear in naming what we are up against. But there was also a general agreement that there is a pathway forward if we are willing to change our approach to food systems. From the panels, we distilled five calls to actions that will help facilitate systemic change:

  1. Integrating human rights, ethics, and values into food system development plans
  2. Uplifting land rights to preserve culture and local food systems 
  3. Increasing investment in agroecology
  4. Attracting a diversity of input (international, national, subnational) that places competing interests at the same table
  5. Understanding and raising awareness of the linkages between the success of healthy food systems and the success of the SDGs (food systems and climate change and biodiversity, and food systems and inequity) 

Given the state of our food systems, we need to be acting quickly to implement these recommendations. In the last two years, the world has experienced increased food insecurity around the world due to accelerating climate change, unmet monetary and development commitments and outright greed by corporate actors.

According to research from World Vision International: 

  • 3.1 billion people are unable to afford a nutritious diet.
  • 148.1 million children under five stunted and unable to reach their physical potential.
  • 828 million people were affected by chronic hunger in 2021 — 60% of those were women and girls.
  • 75% of children under two years old do not eat a minimally diverse diet; 50% do not eat enough meals during the day. 

These are heartstopping numbers.

While the UNFSS championed circular economies, agroecology and the adoption of dicurlar economies, along with many of the solutions championed by our panelists, these recommendations have been drowned out by the megaphones given to Nestle, Bayer, Unilever, and other such companies to push for precision farming and AI-based technologies, as well as increased chemical fertilizer and pesticide use (which is devastating to pollinators, soil, and water sources),  usurping time from meaningful conversations about the root causes driving food systems collapse and the climate crisis. 

The People’s Autonomous Response put the onus squarely on the shoulders of the UN, claiming that it kowtowed to corporate pressure and demands. From the experience of working directly with many of the heads of the UNFSS, I can speak to their authentic desire to fix our food systems. The organizers worked tirelessly to raise awareness and bring forth meaningful suggestions. But these ambitions can run up against corporate and agribusiness interests, which hold an unbalanced sway over food policy, food production and distribution, and the lives of workers. Just four companies – Bayer, Syngenta Group, Cortiva Agriscience, and BASF – control roughly two-thirds of the industrial seed and pesticide market, and dominate our food systems from seed to table. Naturally, the trash and waste and externalities from our food systems fall on municipalities and the public to deal with.   

The foodscape created by large agribusiness corporations is monolithic, monocropped, and increasingly monotone in its offerings. Due to over-fertilization and generations of monocropping, coupled with the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the nutrition levels of fruits and vegetables have plummeted. Meat production has seen a massive increase (due to emerging markets in Asia) as has the market share of processed and ultra-processed foods. These last two trend lines – increased meat consumption and processed foods – have supercharged deforestation across South America and parts of southeast Asia to make room for cattle, sugar cane, and palm trees.

Without significant innovation and investment in local food production, current projections suggest that hunger will continue to skyrocket alongside rising food costs and decreasing food yields. Food waste remains  a colossal issue that must be addressed at every level, from production to consumption. (According to the UN, around 14% of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17% of total global food production is wasted.) By adopting sustainable practices, promoting local food systems, and advocating for healthier dietary choices, we can create a harmonious relationship with the planet, providing nutritious food without depleting natural resources.