As the world continues to confront the coronavirus pandemic, it also has before it a striking opportunity — and obligation — to bring about a fairer, more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient food and land use system.
Recent research from WRI and the Food and Land Use Coalition set out a vision of a world in which all people have access to healthy and sustainable food, while protecting biodiversity and saving the climate. WRI’s report described a menu of 22 actions needed to achieve this goal, while the Food and Land Use Coalition focused on 10 “critical transitions” to guide the decade ahead.
The issues articulated in both these publications have come into even starker relief since the outset of COVID-19, which has had major negative impacts on people’s access to food and delayed much-needed progress on sustainable agriculture and ecosystem protection.
To achieve such a food and land use system will require concerted international effort, involving all actors — from heads of state and national governments, to small and large companies, farmers’ associations, scientists, communities and individuals.
2021 Is a Key Year to Make Progress on Sustainable Food
A series of high-profile events in 2021 will position food high on the international agenda, presenting an opportunity to drive significant political commitment, regulation and financial flows in the direction of a more sustainable food and land use system.
The UN Secretary-General’s Food Systems Summit in September 2021 — on the sidelines of the General Assembly, and to which all heads of state in the world have been invited — will be a particular highlight. This is the first summit of its kind in the UN’s history, with five action tracks on food security and nutrition, sustainable consumption, environmental protection, poverty and resilience, as well as work on four cross-cutting levers of change: human rights, gender equality, finance and innovation. Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the summit, expressed her hope that this will be “a people’s summit,” reaching 5 billion people through its communications and outreach. In preparation, Food Systems Summit Dialogues are underway in more than 100 nations.
Additionally, the G7, hosted by the UK in June 2021, will focus on climate and nature. It’s likely to include a drive for global leadership on nature protection, tropical forests and deforestation-free commodity supply chains, the ocean, and food loss and waste. The G20, hosted by Italy in October 2021, declared that it will focus on hunger and the need for a more sustainable food and land use system. The CBD COP on biodiversity in China in late October 2021 will see nations signing up to a new global biodiversity framework, with significant commitments on food and land use. The UNFCCC climate summit (COP26) in November 2021 will bring a major focus on sustainable agriculture and tropical forest protection as part of the UK government’s COP26 Nature Campaign. And the Japanese government will host the Nutrition for Growth summit in December 2021, a landmark meeting in which new financial commitments to nutrition are likely.
4 Urgent Priorities for Sustainable Food in 2021
All these events offer big opportunities for change. Decisive action in 2021 across four areas in particular will be critical in ensuring that the decade ahead delivers what is needed on the food and land use agenda:
1. Increase political commitment and finance to fight hunger.
The first-order priority is to address global hunger, exacerbated by the pandemic. The number of chronically hungry people in the world increased by an estimated 130 million in the past year, to more than 800 million.
Of these, 235 million people — up 40% from last year — are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance and protection, including communities facing famine in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
Investment in local food supply chains is also important, as are global trade measures to keep national and global agricultural markets open, sustainable and fair. (This is likely to gain a favorable reception from the next Director General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala).
The pandemic revealed farmers (as well as people working across the food supply chain) to be some of the world’s most essential workers. They deserve to be appropriately remunerated for the food they produce, and more generously rewarded for their efforts to shift to more sustainable agricultural practices.
These efforts to “produce” and “protect” can then link up with a parallel effort to “reduce” and “restore.”
In some countries, the “reduce” agenda refers to efforts to encourage less meat consumption and greater adoption of plant-based diets. In almost all countries of the world, it also refers to efforts to reduce food loss and waste, where the adoption of a “target-measure-act” approach has already led to significant reductions in the UK and the Netherlands.
Finally, and across the world, there is an urgent need to invest in greater efforts to restore degraded land, with major positive impacts for rural economies, climate change adaptation, ecosystem recovery, and the prevention of future hunger and humanitarian crises. Countries as diverse as India, Brazil and Malawi are showing the way forward here.
Building a Better Food System in 2021
There is little time to lose, and, amidst the continuing impacts of the pandemic, a real chance in 2021 for countries to build forward better in response to COVID-19. This includes focusing on one of the most important things binding together the whole of humanity and our relationship with the natural world: food.