UN Secretary-General António Guterres says every day, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry, three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet while two billion are obese and yet 462 million are underweight globally.
Guterres said these were just some of the problems and contradictions laid bare on Thursday at the opening of the landmark UN Food Systems Summit at UN headquarters in New York.
The Summit is bringing together farmers and fishers, youth, Indigenous Peoples, Heads of State, governments and many more, in an effort to transform the sector and get the world back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
For Guterres, “change in food systems is not only possible, it is necessary”; for the people, for the planet and for prosperity.
The UN chief warned, though, that COVID-19 has made the challenge much greater.
The pandemic has deepened inequalities, decimated economies, plunged millions into extreme poverty and raised the spectre of famine in a growing number of countries.
At the same time, Guterres said the world is “waging a war against nature and reaping the bitter harvest”, with ruined crops, dwindling incomes and failing food systems.
Food systems also generate one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, he added. And they’re responsible for up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss.
Over the last 18 months, through national dialogues, governments gathered businesses, communities and civil society to chart pathways for the future of food systems across 148 countries.
Over 100,000 people came together to discuss and debate solutions.
From those discussions, came many proposals, out of which Guterres chose to highlight three key areas of action.
First, there’s a need for food systems that support the health and well-being of all people.
Recalling that nutritious and diverse diets are often too costly or inaccessible, Guterres said he is pleased to see many Member States rallying around universal access to nutritious meals in schools.
Second, he argued that the world needed food systems that protect the planet.
“It is possible to feed a growing global population while also safeguarding our environment. And it takes countries coming to COP26 in Glasgow with bold, targeted plans to keep the promise of the Paris Agreement.
“The war on our planet must end, and food systems can help us build that peace.”
Third, and finally, food systems need to support prosperity.
“Not just the prosperity of businesses and shareholders. But the prosperity of farmers and food workers, and indeed, the billions of people worldwide who depend on this industry for their livelihoods,” argued the UN chief.
The secretary-general assured that the UN would continue towards this end, together with the international community.
The organisation is convening a follow-up summit, in two years, to take stock of the progress.
In the meantime, the UN chief said more businesses need to join in the work and the voice of civil society needs to continue pressing for change.
“And throughout, we need the engagement of the people at the centre of our food systems. Family farmers, herders, workers, Indigenous Peoples, women, young people.
“Let’s learn from each other, and be inspired by one another, as we work together to achieve the SDGs,” he said.
Speaking at the opening of the event, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Food System’s Summit, Agnes Kalibata, said “food systems have incredible power to end hunger, build healthier lives, and sustain our beautiful planet”.
Highlighting the intense level of debate over the issue of food production, on the eve of the Summit, three independent UN human rights experts said they were deeply concerned that the event would not be a “people’s summit” as promised.
They voiced concerns that it could leave behind the most marginalised and vulnerable.