The food world becomes systemic: interview with Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit 2021

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres convened the first food systems summit at the UN Secretariat Building in New York for September 2021, as part of the decade of action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The summit will launch new, daring actions to achieve progress in all 17 sustainable development goals which, to a certain extent, are all based on healthier, more sustainable and fair food systems.

The New York Summit, as stated in the UN communiqué, aims at shaking up the way in which the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food, starting from the commitments taken by the various governments. Conceived with the aim of finding multi-level solutions – from the single individual to corporations, up to national resolutions – the summit will start its preliminary activities during the pre-Summit, which will be held in Rome (26-28 July), hosted by the Italian government and focused on five issues. This meeting, which has already been renamed “People’s Summit”, will be joined by key players from the world of science, civil society, politics, healthcare, and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous populations, youth organisations, consumer groups, environmental activists and other key stakeholders. The event in Rome aims at providing the latest, evidence-based scientific approach to food system transformation worldwide, as well as at launching a series of new commitments through the establishment of action coalitions, mobilising new funding and partnership programmes. All this will be achieved promoting a diversified commitment from all parts, so to discover the broadest array of solutions and have, together, the most positive impact possible.

Rwandan scientist Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, has the responsibility, guidance and strategic direction of the works leading up to the New York Summit. Kalibata is also president of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which focuses on fast and sustainable agricultural growth, improving the productivity and livelihood of millions of small farmers in the continent. Previously, she also has been Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources of Rwanda (MINAGRI) from 2008 to 2014. During her office, she put the systemic approach at the centre of her work, involving a large number of ministries to make the food system of her country resilient. She has peasant roots, lived as a refugee for 30 years, and her father was able to provide livelihood thanks to a small plot of land made available by the UNHCR. Kalibata is definitely the kind of person who loves to work and be involved in first person.

Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy per il Food Systems Summit 2021What is the Summit’s goal, Dr. Kalibata?
The United Nations and the third sector have acknowledged that, for several SDGs (that is, UN’s development goals), there was some regression, such as in the case of the fight against hunger, climate change and fight for biodiversity. A boost is now needed to accelerate all goals at the same time. Therefore, thinking about the whole food system in an integrated way might be an extremely transformative solution, able to influence several goals at the same time, making the system more resilient and addressing the issue of climate and biodiversity, generating positive impacts on health, food safety, water, and poverty. That being said, the goal is to channel this transformation, providing real examples, creating new working groups, increasing the commitment of each nation and, most importantly, putting people at the centre of the Summit’s decisions, giving voice to the ideas and requests of the various populations.

So, for the United Nations, the systemic approach represents the key to rethink the way we produce, consume, and work the land?
Exactly. The New York Summit and the pre-summit in Rome are completely devoted to finding a systemic approach. From education on oceans, to youth employment and food consumption in cities — the topics discussed are many. The goal is to see the establishment of action coalitions, identify solutions and leaders, and to launch a call for action involving all levels of the food system, including national and local governments, companies and citizens. The solutions will be proposed divided into five “solution clusters”, after receiving more than 2,000 innovative ideas in the last 18 months. These action clusters are divided as follows: Ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for everybody; transition towards sustainable consumption models; increasing the production with a positive impact on nature; promoting fair livelihood means; building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses. On the whole, approximately fifty solutions have been submitted, such as ideas and projects aimed at re-imagining school food programmes such as those of the World Food Program, which must be scalable and have holistic impacts, connecting children’s health to environmental sustainability. Numerous solutions will focus on the issue of agroecology and regenerative agriculture. Some of the solutions submitted during the pre-summit in Rome are extremely technical and complex, while others are extremely simple.

In New York, politics will be at the forefront
During the three days of the summit, which will be held in a mixed physical-digital form, governments – but also the private sector and civil society – will have to take real commitments in these five areas. What we expect is seriousness and concreteness. Today, more than 680 million people are on the verge of hunger. Millions are exposed to issues connected to climate change. The time has come to offer truly integrated proposals, which are able to address health, climate, development, and education issues all at the same time. This is the first time that a UN Summit addresses an issue in a systemic way.

How would you measure the success of this Summit?
The most important outcome will be Guterres’ message as Secretary-General, which will describe in a very clear way the kind of change we need to see if we want to stay on track and achieve the SDGs in 2030. His call to action will be based on the information we have collected during the past two years, as well as on the requests for change and science. The second outcome will be the reactions of the different countries, and the kind of initiatives that will be created on a national level. At the moment, there are so many decisions that are kept confined in each single ministry’s silos. Some of them deal with environment issues, others are focused on health, or agriculture. What we need is a commitment to find new solutions and operational processes.

You have a long experience in food issues. In Rwanda, you have been Minister of Agriculture. How difficult is for politics to act in a systemic way?
As ministers, in order to rebuild our country after the crisis, we decided not to work in a vertical manner, or divided in silos. Instead, we have chosen a horizontal approach. One of the hardest obstacles we had to face was achieving a good level of nutrition, which is a much more complex goal than increasing agricultural productivity. In order to achieve this, we need to have a significant number of players around the same table. We need to involve local administrations, Ministry of Health, but also the Ministry of Education. Finding together the weaknesses which lead people to malnutrition, we were able to assess all variables: what is the importance of educating the parents, what is the impact of promoting natural breastfeeding? This integrated approach is precisely the reflection we need.

Another major topic for the Summit will be the role of science.
It is one of the coalitions which will be established to provide scientific information on the paths to be adopted by the UN. It will be science to give us that evidence which will lead us to integrated solutions. Making this information available to everybody will be one of the Summit’s challenges.

Talking about food, the issue of food products cost still remains: on the one hand, it is strongly accessible in the markets of industrialised countries (a phenomenon which leads to food waste); on the other, it is extremely burdensome for the most fragile countries (a trend leading to malnutrition and hunger). How important will be this issue?
We need to link the cost of food to the one on health, as well as to the cost on nature. We cannot buy an expensive food in terms of environment or health for a low price. So, we need to carefully consider which changes have a real impact on the actual cost of food. The examples given must show their synchronous benefits, from generated value to employment – all changes which can become a reality through the transformation of the private sector. We need to realise that investing in young farmers should not be a niche endeavour; rather, it should be regarded as essential for the future of agriculture and food systems.

There is still so much to do in terms of food waste
It will be important to insist on cold chains, food preservation and on excessive consumption. Eating an excessive amount of food is a kind of waste that weighs on our health for tens of billions of dollars. Instead, we could invest this money to improve the food system. Additionally, 80% of biodiversity loss is caused by farming systems, which often produce food destined to be thrown away and never consumed. Moreover, we are strongly contributing to climate change. The ‘business-as-usual’ approach cannot be tolerated anymore.