"We need to run a marathon but at the speed of a 100-meter race," said Stefanos Fotiou, the United Nations' food systems coordination hub director, about the work needing to be done for food system transformation.
But at the UN’s Food System Summit Stocktaking Moment in Rome last month, it was clear that time is already running out for food systems and we have a lot to do.
I caught up with Keenya Hofmaier, policy officer at the FAIRR Initiative, and Sara Farley, food initiative vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, to get the three topline takeaways from the UN’s meeting you should have on your radar.
Based on their takes, I’m cautiously optimistic that Dubai’s COP 28 in December represents the tipping point from dialogue to accelerating action — as long as food companies lace up their running shoes and governments set the right pace. Here are the three big things you should know.
1. The Food and Agriculture Organization will release a 1.5-degree Celsius roadmap for the food system in Dubai
The roadmap will create a single science-based vision for all parties outlining how to use food systems to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In developing the roadmap, the FAO is following the lead of the International Energy Agency, whose energy system roadmap has proven crucial for public, private and financial sector actors to align on their energy transition strategies.
2. COP28 announcements put food systems center stage for this year’s climate conference
COP 28’s Food Systems and Agriculture Agenda has four pillars — focusing on non-state actors, scaling up innovation, finance and national leadership.
Shifting the mindset is the most effective way to intervene in a system and fuels my hope that the tipping point for food systems is nearly upon us.
The first three pillars highlight the importance of private sector actors in reaching climate and broader sustainability goals. The last pillar emphasizes governments' role in setting the course for those businesses. Specifically, there will be a Leaders’ Declaration on Food Systems, Agriculture and Climate Action where countries will promise to integrate food and agriculture into national climate agendas. Currently, most country-level strategies lack a coherent approach to food system emissions.
3. The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Fund’s Window on Food Systems
This fund will provide $350 million to help 126 nations implement national food system transformation pathways over five years. Hofmaier was particularly excited by the potential for this funding to catalyze further investments from global food companies and investors to achieve the SDGs. This type of development funding can unlock and pile on private-sector financing in blended finance structures. The funded projects will weave solutions for climate with hunger, nutrition, biodiversity and social justice.
Pockets of paradigm-shifting
Beyond these headline developments, Hofmaier and Farley noted how the conversation around the transformation of food systems is shifting.
Hofmaier remarked on an uptick in conversations about pivoting agricultural subsidies — estimated at over $600 billion annually — toward incentivizing climate- and biodiversity-smart, nutritious and equitable farming practices. This would be a giant policy change indicating a substantial shift in how the business community views nature’s resources away from merely exploitable.
For Farley, her optimism came from sectors starting to grasp the importance of systems. She specified two initiatives implementing systems thinking into practice: First, the School Meals Coalition is leveraging free school meals to concurrently boost nutrition, environmental resilience and local economic development outcomes. Second, the community-managed natural farming movement in Andhra Pradesh, India, which is being assessed using accounting methods that account for economic, social and environmental costs and benefits. So far, significant boosts to farmer income and health and positive environmental outcomes have been measured.
Shifting the mindset is the most effective way to intervene in a system. These developments fuel my hope that the tipping point for food systems is nearly upon us.
Food systems are slowly moving toward center stage
Food has only recently entered the climate conversation for the UN despite its significant climate impact. In 2021, the UN held its first Food Systems Summit, which focused broadly on the role of how food systems can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Last year’s Conference of the Parties, COP 27, in Egypt, was the first of the landmark climate conferences to focus on food systems significantly. And the over 2,000 attendees that made it to Rome signal that food systems are gathering momentum in the lead-up to COP 28 in December. The COP organizers have continually emphasized that food and agriculture will be a primary focus.
For skeptics, that increased focus is a distraction technique from Dubai's position as a petrostate (this is the first COP to be hosted by one). Decreasing fossil fuels still needs to be at the forefront of the conversation, no matter who is hosting, but food must join energy on the center stage. We can’t have a zero-sum mentality to tackle our global challenges.