ON the sidelines of the ongoing United Nations General Assembly, a food system summit was held on September 23 and 24 to set the stage for global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This is the sixth such summit on food since 1943, and the first with heads of States in the UN General Assembly.
The summit comes at the backdrop of rising hunger and economic disparities. About 690 million people — 8,9% of the world’s population — regularly go to bed hungry, according to a 2020 report. It is no surprise that almost the same number — 689 million people or about 9,2% of the world population live in extreme poverty on less than $1,90 a day, according to the World Bank.
The link between income and access to food is indisputable raising the question whether countries need to broadly prioritise growing their economies or adopt a targeted and localised approach to addressing hunger. It also raises the question on whether addressing hunger should start at local or global level.
But that is not the only anomaly the world has to grapple with. One in four is overweight while more than one-third of the world’s population cannot afford a healthy diet.
Again, it is not the question of the world being unable to produce enough food for everyone but some nations and families having more access to food than others. And again, the economic imbalances sway the pendulum that way – a scenario that require local, national and global attention.
Seven priorities were tabled at the food system summit. Among these include that in order to end hunger and improve diets, scientists need to identify optimal conditions and opportunities for investments to make healthy and nutritious foods more available, affordable and accessible. The second priority is a call to de-risk food systems. The more global, dynamic and complex food systems become, the more open they are to new risks. Scientists need to improve how they understand, monitor, analyse and communicate such vulnerabilities.
The third priority is a call for protection of equality and rights. As noted earlier poverty and inequalities have a strong link which assume different dynamics when associated with gender, ethnicity and age as these determine accessibility to healthy foods. Strangely, this is critical priority is left to scientists to identify pathways out of inequitable and unfair arrangements over land, credit and labour, and empower the rights of women and youth.
This should be the role of government unless we are assuming scientist must play a leading role over politicians.
Linked to this as the fourth priority is a call to scientists to boost bioscience by finding ways to restore soil health and improve the efficiency of cropping, crop breeding and decarbonising the soil and biosphere. And the fifth priority is to protect resources and to ensure people have the necessary tools to help them manage soils, land and water sustainably.
The sixth and seventh priorities include sustaining aquatic foods and harnessing digital technology. While soil-based agriculture remains the mainstay of global food supply, it is equally important to give attention to aquatic foods. And to improve access to food, the production industry must urgently harness the power of technology and artificial intelligence.
These are the seven priorities that heads of State discussed at last week’s food system summit. Of course, there are several questions to be asked. First, while scientists have played a major role in the technological advancement that have contributed to economic and human development today, it is inadequate to put global food system in their hands alone without demanding commitments from governments to facilitate these priorities.
Second, perhaps in an attempt to depoliticise the global food system discussion, the authors of the seven priorities focused mainly on the demand side of hunger while casting a blind eye on the supply side.
Greed for political and economic power is the major driver of hunger and poverty in the world.
Badly managed politics manifest into coups, instability, wars and protracted conflicts, bad economic policies, destitution and displacement. More than a third of hungry people in the world are victim of wars or political instability. Badly managed economies account for other third, mainly economic refugees and those that have been rendered jobless and unable to feed themselves and their families.
And of course, natural causes such as heatwaves, floods, droughts and others have major roles to play in disrupting food production but their impact is always a result of human negligence. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the number of people going hungry rise by 15% compared 2019.
Assuming these seven priorities are adopted, which is more likely as their political-correctness does not threaten anyone, there is need for a commitment from heads of State and leaders of global and regional government institutions to foster peace in their countries and regions and to create a conducive environment to enable communities to utilise traditional methods of producing local food while adopting new ways of doing so.
Localised food systems tend to be more resilient to shocks than the centralised system and people tend to be more protective and conservative of their local food supply environment. While it is profitable for global corporates that run the food production industry, it is clear that centralising the global food system of supply and production is unsustainable and cannot meet the growing food demands created by bad politics and economic wars and conflict. Food produced from centralised food systems tend to follow good economies living poor societies hungry.
- Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.