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United Nations Food Systems Summit

The United Nations Food Systems Summit was held in September, 2021. The Summit was called to address the critical role food systems play in global challenges such as the double burden of malnutrition (under-nutrition and over-nutrition), climate change, and inequality.

H.E. Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN
H.E. Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN presenting at the Summit

The outcomes of the Summit will deliver progress towards achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goals that Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand have formally committed to.

Was it the “people’s summit” the world needed?

Over the past 18 months, the Summit brought together global leaders and communities from around the world to collaborate, share best practices, foster innovation, influence local and global agendas and transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food.

Locally to feed into the Summit process, DFN held an Independent Food Systems Dialogue, uniting experts from a range of healthcare and food-related fields in our region and beyond.

Although the Food Systems Summit was praised by many, it was boycotted by a wide array of scientists, researchers, food producers, advocacy and Indigenous groups. Criticism included the heavy influence of industry interest groups, the inability to address the role and responsibility of the corporate sector in the food systems and a lack of interactive or meaningful participation from grassroots movements, Indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, and other marginalised populations.

One hotly debated topic was the place of animal source foods in a sustainable food system. ‘Solution clusters’, or thematically organised groups, have been established to bring together a menu of possible actions. The ‘solution cluster’ for sustainable livestock could not reach a unified set of actions for its final proposition, ultimately three separate papers were submitted, rather than one.

Far from wasted effort

Regardless of its shortcomings, the message from the Summit has decisively hit the world stage: clear and radical actions are needed to ensure that our broken global food system can deliver on the triple challenge of health, economic livelihoods, and environmental outcomes.

Three-quarters of the UN member states have submitted a National Pathways document, a commitment to build on existing initiatives and leadership. Initiatives, alliances, coalitions and commitments have also been formed by a breadth of Summit participants. Commitments include: promises to improve Indigenous People’s participation in food systems transformation, addressing malnutrition in adults and children, promoting gender equality, and protecting biodiversity.

Local action

Aotearoa New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has committed to elevate the role of the Māori people in the food system and encourage a Māori worldview through every step of the process. This mirrors the view of our keynote speaker at our DFN Independent Food Systems Dialogue, Professor Boyd Swinburn from the University of Auckland, who outlined the nascent Mana Kai policy that draws on Māori concepts around the social and environmental aspects of food, and how these are interrelated.

Australia has not yet submitted any firm commitments in the form of a National Pathways document although the member state dialogues, convened by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment earlier this year, did acknowledge that there are important synergies between a healthy diet for people and the planet. The dialogue report noted that key changes required in Australia involve increasing the proportion of healthy plant-based foods in diets, decreasing energy intake and decreasing intake of unhealthy food and drinks.

Australia played a very active role during the course of the Summit in promoting livestock as key to a sustainable food system. Greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring high-income countries like Australia, where protein and calorie excess is the norm, shift towards supporting the consumption of more plant foods. These shifts have been highlighted as a non-negotiable prerequisite to remaining below the 1.5°c warming threshold set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and necessary to secure a safe operating space for humanity.

The Australian Government has joined the Global Sustainable Livestock Coalition, established as part of the Summit process, alongside the World Farmers’ Organisation, International Livestock Research Institute, International Dairy Federation and others. The coalition has been established to, among other objectives, provide governments, investors, donors, and multilateral institutions, with ‘accurate science-based information about livestock’s role/actions in delivering the SDGs’.

National dietary guidelines for a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system

The Summit has identified Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) as a solution area that needs to be substantially improved and used much more effectively. A 2019 review indicated that 90 countries had FBDGs, yet most had not had their intended effect, including in Australia.

Few countries’ FBDGs consider sustainability issues, such as environmental aspects, food waste, food safety, access, affordability, the important roles of traditional foods, or cultural acceptability. The proposition is that all countries should have FBDGs, based on sound science, tailored to their specific country, and incorporating sustainability as well as health concerns.

The onus is on high-income countries such as Australia to make radical shifts in diet, especially in relation to animal-sourced foods. This requires improvements not only to the content of our current dietary guidelines but also to their implementation. They are an informational instrument that needs to be backed up by a supportive policy environment. FBDGs should be applied in guiding other relevant public policy such as public procurement, hospital and school food, food labelling, fiscal policies, etc.

A page from the Brazilian food guide
A page from the Brazilian food guide.

Brazil’s FBDGs are often hailed as world-leading. Notwithstanding, their commitment at the Summit includes implementing dietary guidelines based on scientific evidence, to support public policies in different sectors. These policies will aim to “strengthen consumer information and reinforce agendas that foster healthy diets, in particular, the consumption of fruits and vegetables”. And rightly so. Research has shown that if FBDGs were redesigned and fully adopted, the economic value of reduced mortality is estimated to be US$7.2 trillion to US$8.9 trillion, or equivalent to between 10 and 15 percent of global GDP.

Locally the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs) review is currently underway, led by the National Health and Medical Research Council. They are committed to a transparent, inclusive process that will provide the public and interested parties the opportunity to contribute. The aim is to ensure the revised guidelines use the most relevant, high-quality evidence and are user-friendly.

The revised ADGs can be an important catalyst for change. If the guidelines consider the impacts of diet on our food system and the SDGs, it is more likely that other government portfolios start engaging with them as a lever. We must get them right.

Sustainable Development Goals
Food systems touch every aspect of human existence, from individual health to the health of our environment and our societies. They have a direct or indirect bearing on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Image: United Nations Development Program

Leveraging the momentum

Food systems are one of the most fundamental elements of modern human society, forming complex webs of food producers, supply chains, regulators, markets, and consumers. This complexity may leave us feeling powerless. Has the Summit simply created even more policy inertia, more recommendations that will never see the light of day? What role, if any, do we all have to play in transforming our food system?

Two comments from keynote speakers at the DFN Independent Food Systems Dialogue remind us that we have the power to drive change together.

        “The only way we are going to overcome policy inertia is by lifting the voice of civil society and holding the main power brokers to account, that is the government and the food industry.

Professor Boyd Swinburn

       “We have the power as individuals…we must use our fork, our note and even our vote for a better future and a better food system.”

Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO of VicHealth

Keynote presentations from the DFN event are available to watch now.

DFN looks forward to the momentum from the Summit continuing with the upcoming COP26 climate conference and, closer to home, the ongoing review of the ADGs. Like many across Australia, we eagerly wait to learn if Australia will step-up to the calls from other G20 countries and greatly improve our contribution to global climate action.

If you are interested in helping our work to inform the review of the ADGs, please get in touch by email or via our contact form.

If you are interested in helping our work to inform the review of the ADGs, please get in touch by email or via our contact form.

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