Q&A: UN envoy on building back a better food system

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Agnes Kalibata, United Nations special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Photo by: Neil Palmer / IWMI via CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequality that was already present in the global food system, according to Agnes Kalibata, United Nations special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

“The fragility of our food system was something that was not very obvious to all of us,” Kalibata said. “COVID-19 has shown that really that is a very important part of our society that was not extremely visible.”

Q&A: New UN guidelines target 'out of whack' food systems

The U.N. Committee on Food Security will release voluntary guidelines that recommend policy change to better address food systems and nutrition challenges.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the 2021 Food Systems Summit last year on World Food Day to focus global action around Sustainable Development Goal 2 — ending hunger — and other goals related to the food system. Even before the pandemic hit, global hunger levels were on the rise.

“Our job, from a summit perspective, is to prepare the landscape, encourage people, build the narrative, demonstrate what is possible but also then really work towards ensuring that people have clarity around what is at stake and what needs to be done to achieve the SDGs and what we need to be shooting for,” Kalibata said.

An exact date for next year’s event has yet to be set, but Kalibata recently spoke with Devex about how COVID-19 has brought even more urgency to the work of the Food Systems Summit and why food system reform will look different from community to community.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is a conscious effort to bring the different aspects of the food system together so vital if we are to reach the SDGs?

Until now, you’ll find that a lot of us work from a thematic perspective or sector perspective. If I work in the environment, I work in the environment — I really don’t care what happens in the other sectors. If I work in agriculture, I work in agriculture. There’s a whole lot of siloing around how we work, how we do business as a community, and failing to recognize that food is actually a thing that pulls all these sectors together. All these groups are not talking to each other.

The summit recognizes that we need to come together from a systems perspective. We need to understand that the public initiatives are good and public work is good, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that sits in the private sector, there’s a whole lot of stuff that sits with us as individuals, and there’s a whole lot of stuff that sits in civil society. So it’s really how you remove these silos and have one conversation around what is at stake.

What has COVID-19 laid bare about the food system?

What it has shown is the very basic reason that COVID is here: We are using the food system out of its boundaries.

But more importantly — probably most importantly — COVID-19 has shown that anywhere across the world, our societies have extremely vulnerable populations that are living on the edge. This has been seen from the fact that we have over 2 billion people now that don’t have jobs, that with the lockdowns in some countries, 50% of the people that were working in the informal sector lost jobs overnight.

These people now are living in a very difficult situation with regards to food. They have to make decisions with regards to how many meals they’ll eat a day. They have to make decisions with what type of food they’ll put on the table, compromising their nutrition.

The second part is how interconnected our food systems are. We talk about trade, we talk about short supply chains versus long supply chains, we talk about the role of markets. We need to be very intentional around how these systems are laid out and how they are working together and how interconnected we are as a globe. The food you are producing in your country is feeding my people, and that understanding has to be very clear and grounded and protected.

But also the last bit then that COVID-19 has laid bare for us is the fragility of the food system. We produce so much more food than we need, but right now there are so many people that are out of food.

What needs to be done to fix these inequalities?

When we talk about “building back better,” what do we mean? What do we mean given what we know now and what we have learned? What would that mean for our world? If what we are doing on the other side of COVID is not about addressing some of these inequalities that we have seen — the right to food as a basic human right, the right to better nutrition as a basic right — then we are basically not addressing the problem.

The food system and building back better must be about defining a better place for our world, knowing very well that we are already pushing our planet outside its limits to feed us. That’s the biggest challenge that we have to address — we have to be comfortable with the fact that coming out on the other side will define a different food system for us, and we have to be OK with that.

What role does localization play in building back the food system?

I think localization will mean different things for different communities. In some of these island states in the Pacific and in many other places, food is imported. It’s not something they have to think about, how they produce food. For those states and many other states in that situation, the global interconnectedness is going to be extremely important.

“COVID-19 has shown that anywhere across the world, our societies have extremely vulnerable populations that are living on the edge.”

— Agnes Kalibata, United Nations special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit

But in other places, smallholder farmers do agriculture but they are the world’s poorest. So you ask yourself: How does our global interconnectedness help this group of people? We probably need to rethink and redefine a food system that works for these people as well. Is it shorter supply chains? Is it different types of supply chains? In some cases, it will also be about what we eat and the value of what we eat.

Right now, as we begin to understand more and move toward healthier diets — more green and more plant-based — supply chains are going to have to be shorter, and the localization of supply chains is going to be very important. What COVID has taught us is that supply chains are going to have to be more reliable, and in some cases, they’re going to have to be shorter.

This year’s “Global Nutrition Report” focused on inequality. How do we look at reform when there are nuances in a food system on a community-by-community level?

From my own experience, addressing the challenges of nutrition are more complicated than addressing the challenges of hunger or food security because it goes beyond food. It goes to the type of food and the quality of food that people have access to, and the affordability of food.

There are going to be pockets where people either are suffering or have to make difficult choices from a nutrition perspective. In each country, addressing the nutrition issue is going to always have to be about mapping the structure of the population and trying to understand the basis of malnutrition or lack of nutrition or poor nutrition in those countries.

At the end of the day, they have to make difficult livelihood choices. Livelihood choices have to do with sending kids to school. Livelihood choices have to do with buying clothes for kids. And sometimes nutrition is the last thing they think about.

Nutrition is more complex than just food, and it has to be looked at from a society’s structure perspective. That’s why the bottom line around all these things is about inclusivity and how inclusive we can be at the end of the day.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.