Photo: Avinash Kumar, Unsplash

Experts call for an integrated approach to transforming food systems

Reflections on the latest developments in food systems

This article is brought to you by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

Globally, around 735 million people faced chronic hunger last year – a number that has swelled by 122 million since 2019.

To meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger to improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030, farmers, scientists, financiers and policymakers will need to work collectively  to transform food and conserve biodiversity.

That was the main takeaway from a live-streamed conversation on GLF Live aired in October, featuring experts Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jyotsna Puri, associate vice-president for strategy and knowledge at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Christopher Brett of the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program and lead agribusiness specialist at the World Bank.

The experts reflected on the outcomes of two recent international major food-related conferences: the Seventh Assembly of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment.

Held from 22–26 August in Vancouver, Canada, the former saw the launch of the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund. This new fund will finance protection for global ecosystems under the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which includes four goals and 23 targets to be achieved by 2030. Pledges have been made by the governments of Canada, the U.K. and Germany so far.

Read the highlights from the conversation, or re-watch the full live stream below.

What were your main takeaways from the GEF’s seventh investment cycle (GEF-7), especially in terms of what it achieved for food systems?

(Editor’s note: GEF-7 was a joint pledge of USD 4.1 billion made by almost 30 countries in 2018 to help safeguard forests, land, water, climate, and oceans, build green cities, protect wildlife and address other environmental threats.)

Maria Helena Semedo: GEF and its partners have been visionaries on the importance of food systems. Why food systems? Because the world is facing hunger. The way that we produce food is not sustainable: we have climate change, the biodiversity crisis and other crises affecting us. 

I think it was clear to everyone that the food systems approach, this integrated and cross-sectoral approach, is the solution for producing better, nutritious food, and preserving the environment at the same time. That is my first takeaway.

Secondly, the food systems agenda is a global agenda. For leaders, for farmers, for science, for innovation, for financial institutions – we all need to work together. No one can be left aside in this process.

It was important to women, youth and Indigenous Peoples in the debate that they are part of the solution and they have to come up with approaches and responses.

Jyotsna Puri: First, the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund was ratified and started off by the entire membership and the GEF Council. This was really exciting because it highlighted the importance of biodiversity in the overall global dialogue, and primarily also for us in the operational work that we do at IFAD.

The second part was the integrated agenda – the recognition that biodiversity cannot be protected unless we are looking at it as a lens through which food systems must be dealt with.

The third part was financing. There were several very high-level commitments that were made to the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund at the GEF Assembly.

The commitments in terms of biodiversity were clearly important. The importance of biodiversity-linked and biodiversity-based investments are clear. But for us, it was clear from the discussions that it’s important to build a pipeline of projects that can absorb this financing so that it is linked both to food systems and to ensuring that we are integrating nature-based solutions.

My last point is that if we really want biodiversity to be one of the key pillars of our overall development agenda, we’ve got to look at smallholder farmers.

In a recent publication, my co-authors and I found very strong evidence that small-scale producers, farms and plots are far more likely to integrate biodiversity as part of their production methods than large-scale monoculture farms.

Recognizing this, and the fact that small-scale farms feed 75 percent of the global population, gives us a very strong way forward in terms of both securing food systems resilience and ensuring the overall resilience of planet Earth through biodiversity.

Christopher Brett: The GEF Assembly in Vancouver strongly emphasized the importance of partnership.

Through the FOLUR Impact Program, which the World Bank leads, we have built strong partnerships with FAO, with the GLF, with WBCSD, IFC and UNDP at a global level, but also very importantly with GEF-7 in the 27 countries that are part of the FOLUR network.

Our focus is on eight commodities in 27 countries and on issues related to deforestation, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. We look at how those commodities can be at the forefront of rebuilding these environmental and biodiversity systems.

GEF brings continuity as it is constantly replenished through four-year cycles, unlike other programs that may only be five or six years long before funding ends. Before GEF-7, GEF-6 built a solid platform and a lot of knowledge around biodiversity and commodities. Now we’ve got GEF-8, the fund that supports FOLUR, which will look at sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and livestock.

There is a tremendous amount of interest in food systems. At the World Bank, to address the global food crisis, we’ve been mobilizing finance, but we are now further emphasizing ‘the right finance in the right place.’ That acknowledges the role of youth, Indigenous communities, gender and also the mobilization of private capital around these programs.

My last point is that there are more than 500 million smallholders, but only about 11 percent of them are actually integrated into markets. That’s a big weakness. Integration into markets creates the opportunity for finance, technology transfer and increased digitalization.

In addition to the GEF Assembly, the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment was held recently in Rome. How can we capitalize on this momentum coming out of this event to drive sustainability in food systems?

(Editor’s note: The UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment, held from 24–26 July 2023, saw countries convene to review progress on the commitments made during the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.)

Brett: At the original Food Systems Summit in 2021, we at the World Bank were tasked along with IFAD to lead on the food systems architecture around finance. We have done a tremendous amount of work on the repurposing agenda. 

We see a vast amount of money going into subsidies, which can be effective, but there are concerns over short-termism as well. We see USD 750 billion a year going into subsidies related to agricultural inputs, price support and trade distortions. We’ve been working with governments to analyze their approach in terms of where they’re putting their money and whether it’ll be sustainable in the long term.

Lots of governments have been talking about environmental commitments: changing approaches, investing in climate-smart agriculture – a whole host of areas of new technologies. But only about 4 to 5 percent of money that governments are putting into the food system space is actually going into climate change adaptation

If we really want to transform food systems, transformation means more than 5 percent investment. There’s got to be a tipping point of change.

I’m also very proud to have worked with IFAD over the last year developing the 3FS tool, which looks at where governments are actually spending money. We analyze domestic expenditure within the food system, looking at where money is going into agricultural productivity and support, emergency support, food security support, nutrition, rural infrastructure and adaptation.

Governments really want to ensure their money is being allocated effectively  and how they can negotiate with organizations to improve their expenditures and rationalize their own budgets.

Semedo: Since the original Food Systems Summit in 2021, the world has changed the way it looks at food – the food we produce, the food we consume, and how to transform our food systems. In 2021, we discussed food production, but we were unable to bring the environment and climate to the discussion.

I think we have been able to connect the dots now on how we are protecting our environment and how we can be climate-smart. And now we have this global overview. This year, we had many more heads of state than in 2021, all of them embracing this integrated approach, and also adopting a One Health approach.

At FAO, even before food systems, we had our strategic framework on agrifood system transformation. Agrifood systems include agriculture, forestry, fisheries – bringing all of these sectors together and looking at how they can be more resilient, more sustainable, leaving no one behind.

Now we move to the UN COP28 climate summit. I think it’s important that all those messages on the integration of our food systems are brought to COP28 and to the UN Summit of the Future (22–23 September 2024) so that we don’t lose any momentum.

The Global Biodiversity Framework Fund was launched at the GEF Assembly with pledges from the governments of Canada, the U.K, since joined by Germany. What will this mean for the agrifood agenda?

Brett: We’re very grateful that GEF has taken that initiative and raised money for that fund. As it develops, I see a fantastic opportunity to lead considerably more finance into the critical biodiversity space. With GEF-8 coming up, I also see huge opportunities to collaborate. The funding mechanism will be different from the typical GEF model – it will create more opportunities for organizations and civil society to connect to the GEF.

Semedo: We really welcome the launch of the fund. I think it was an important step and very timely that we approved the Global Biodiversity Framework and months later, we are able to approve the fund that will contribute to its implementation. It will be an instrument to leverage other funds to bring in the private sector and to have innovative ways to increase the fund. 

Conserving and encouraging the sustainable use of biodiversity is very important to achieving our main goal of ending hunger. We talk about conserving 30 percent of ecosystems, but we need to also sustainably manage the remaining 70 percent to feed the world. 

We hope that with this biodiversity framework and fund, we will be able to bring innovation, science and data, because we need innovative solutions that can solve the problems we are facing and keep our biodiversity alive.

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