“Hidden” Costs of Our Food Systems
September 3, 2020
By Zoltán Kálmán
ROME, Sep 3 2020 (IPS)
Five years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda we are far from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the recently launched SOFI Report (The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020), we are not on track to eradicate poverty, hunger and malnutrition. On the contrary, with the current trends, the global number of undernourished people in 2030 would exceed 840 million. Moreover, WHO has reported alarming rates of overweight and obesity, globally affecting 39% and 13% of the adult population, respectively.
What are the reasons?
The SOFI Report identifies conflicts and climate-related shocks as main causes, adding that even in peaceful settings, food security has worsened, due to increased inequalities and economic slowdowns affecting access to food for the poor. Unhealthy diets contribute to increasing rates of overweight and obesity, creating serious social, health problems, triggering heavy burden on public health expenditures. Our broken food systems have negative impacts on the environment as well, leading to biodiversity loss, soil degradation, increased GHG emissions, etc. Food losses and waste, as preventable consequences of unsustainable food systems, are also contributing to food insecurity. This year’s SOFI Report makes a clear reference to some of the externalities, the so-called “hidden” costs of our food systems. It quantifies the increased medical costs: Diet-related “health costs are projected to reach an average of USD 1.3 trillion in 2030” and the costs of climate damage: “The diet-related social cost of GHG emissions related to current food consumption patterns are estimated to be around USD 1.7 trillion for 2030 for an emissions-stabilization scenario”. In addition, the costs of inaction on biodiversity loss, described by a recent OECD report, should also be taken into consideration: “The world lost an estimated USD 4-20 trillion per year in ecosystem services from 1997 to 2011, owing to land-cover change and an estimated USD 6-11 trillion per year from land degradation.”
The shocking figures confirm the urgent need for an overall assessment of all positive and negative externalities of our food systems. Results of this assessment, based on neutral science, could be a solid foundation for policy decisions to elaborate and apply appropriate policy incentives aiming at more sustainable food systems. Scientists agree that transforming our food systems is among the most powerful ways to change course and realize the vision of the 2030 Agenda. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that in 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030. As UNSG said: “Transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals.”
According to the concept of the Summit “we are all part of the food systems, so we need to come together to bring about the transformation that the world needs”. Transformation of our food systems should be a bottom-up, inclusive process, where all stakeholder groups are involved: FAO and other UN organizations, governments, local communities, private sector, civil society, academia, famers’ associations. In this regard, the unique, inclusive and multistakeholder model of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) could apply. The reports of the High Level Panel of Experts are valuable, relevant instruments and the CFS policy recommendations and other CFS “products” (adopted by consensus) can also provide proper guidance for governments and all other stakeholders in their policy decisions.
To enhance the role of private sector in the process of transforming our food systems, it is much appreciated that the new management of FAO decided to prepare a revised strategy for the private sector engagement, following the recommendations of FAO governing bodies.
From FAO Members’ perspective, the basic values such as transparency, accountability, inclusivity, neutrality and independence and regular impact assessments could be guiding principles of the new FAO private sector engagement strategy. For the sake of transparency and accountability, it would be desirable to make available some basic information on existing private sector partnerships (main objectives, the financial and non-financial contributions, etc.). Naturally, it requires the (hopefully granted) consent of the private sector partners. What does it mean if they do not agree? It might mean there is something to hide and this lack of transparency would be a matter of serious concern.
FAO has an important role and responsibility to ensure, as honest broker, that private sector partnerships follow the principle of inclusivity, address the real needs of people and contribute to eliminating poverty and hunger. FAO should guarantee the participatory and needs-based approach and make sure that all private sector investment projects and initiatives are developed in consultation and close collaboration with national governments, local communities, civil society organisations and farmers’ associations. This would increase ownership of the rural communities. In addition, FAO could help countries with policy advice to create the enabling economic policy environment where private sector finds its profit interests while the investments are serving the needs of the local communities, contributing to their development.
Neutrality and independence of FAO has been a great value and it should be preserved, in particular when private sector engagement is extended to fields like policy dialogue, norms and standard setting. In this regard, appropriate process for selecting partners should be in place to reduce and manage any potential risks (conflicts of interests, reputational risks, interference in standard setting, etc.).
In addition, compliance with CFS policy recommendations and other CFS “products”, such as the RAI principles and the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure (VGGT), could be a prerequisite for private sector partners wishing to engage in partnership with FAO. Why? Because CFS “products” are relevant instruments, they can guide governments and all other stakeholders in their policy decisions. CFS “products” are adopted by consensus, after inclusive, multistakeholder discussions, including by the Private Sector Mechanism at CFS. Compliance with the CFS VGGT is a rather serious issue, statistical figures clearly show that in many parts of the world land grabbing situation has been worsening also in the past decade.
In order to improve efficiency and effectiveness of private sector partnerships, it is essential to regularly assess their impacts, possibly involving external, independent experts. Appropriate benchmarks should be in place to understand the extent to which the private sector partnerships contribute to the achievement of SDGs, in particular SDG 1 and 2, eliminating poverty and achieve zero hunger. Based on these assessments, private sector partnerships performing well should be scaled up, and those with poor results should be improved or terminated.
All in all, private sector has an essential role to play (engaged with due respect to the above principles) to achieve the common goals. As Agnes Kalibata, UN Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit has put it: “We believe in a world where healthy, sustainable and inclusive food systems allow people and planet to thrive. It is a world without poverty or hunger, a world of inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, and social justice. It is a resilient world where no one is left behind.”
Zoltán Kálmán, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome, Member of the Advisory Committee of the UN Food Systems Summit
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