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EATx event at UNHQ explores causal links between the world’s food systems, sustainable development and global health

arton4566On 24 September, an EATx event, entitled “Feeding the 9 billion: leveraging healthy sustainable diets for climate change mitigation, environmental protection and public health benefits,” gathered global leaders from governments, business, science, and civil society, providing a platform for discussion on the causal links between the world’s food systems, sustainable development and global health.

The EATx event was presented by the EAT Initiative and the Avatar Alliance Foundation and co-organized by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UN-NGLS, the SDSN  and EDF. A key message of the event – organized at UNHQ on the sidelines of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit and the high-level segment of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly – is that all sectors of society must urgently reverse the global explosion in diet-related disease and the increasing environmental impacts of food systems. This article summarizes the keynote addresses of the event.

The speakers and panelists in this event included:

Keynote addresses: Børge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway

George Chaponda, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, Malawi

José Graziano da Silva, Director General, UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme

Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals; Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University

Gunhild Stordalen, Director of EAT Initiative

Rajendra K. Pachauri, Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Christiana Wyly, Director of Avatar Alliance Foundation’s Food-Climate initiative

Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate Action, European Commission

Feike Sijbesma, CEO & Chairman, Managing Board, DSM

Panellists

Olav Kjørven, Director of Public Partnerships, UNICEF

Sam Kass, Executive Director, Let’s Move! And Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition

Frank Rijsberman, CEO, CGIAR Consortium

Shawn K. Baker, Interim Director of Nutrition, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet

Johan Rockström, Executive Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre; Chair of EAT Advisory Board

Moderator

Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist, The New York Times

The UN Climate Summit on 23 September outlined eight action areas for mitigating climate change, one of which was agriculture. The EATx event the day after highlighted the need for a holistic approach to agriculture in the post-2015 development agenda. To sustainably feed 9 billion people in a manner that promotes health, co-benefits and synergies must be identified that can transform the global food system towards healthier diets and more sustainable food systems.

Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende opened the event by highlighting the important role of a convening platform such as the EAT Initiative, as it enables leaders across various food-related sectors and disciplines to co-develop and implement measures to improve the health and sustainability of the global food system.

Dr. Pachauri pointed out that nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and land use. To stem these emissions, major investments must be made in research and development for the agriculture sector. Beyond climate change, many other environmental and health consequences result from the way we produce our food. Dr. Pachauri explained that in some areas of India, the freshwater is so polluted by pesticides and agricultural run-off that it has resulted in high cancer rates among the local population.

Professor Sachs urged the global community to take rapid action to make the global food system more sustainable. Because of its major influence on public health and the environment, the sustainability of the global food system directly affects the world’s ability to achieve sustainable development overall. Professor Sachs highlighted that “we barely have time to keep our planet safe” due to the amount of time and resources spent on warfare by national governments. He further pointed out that many of these wars are related to resource stress. A proactive approach that addresses the root cause of these issues is needed, rather than a reactive approach, which enables the problem to perpetuate.

Dr. Stordalen highlighted the need for three major shifts. First, research should be conducted in an integrated manner, as food, health and sustainability issues are highly interconnected and interdependent. Second, rather than continuing a siloed approach to action, efforts must be co-created and cross-sectoral, bringing together state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, policy support from decision-makers, and market shifts by the food industry. Third, problems must be addressed through preventive rather than curative approaches.

Malawian Minister of Foreign Affairs George Chaponda shared the government of Malawi’s success story in translating their integration of intersecting food, health and sustainability issues into action. Nutrition was incorporated as a central element across key ministries (health, environment, tourism etc.). Cross-ministerial collaboration is also focusing on ensuring human uptake of micronutrients in food, in addition to ensuring enough supply. Polluted water is a cause of chronic diarrhea and other bodily dysfunctions that prevent absorption of the food’s micronutrients. To tackle these interconnected issues the Malawian government has created a strategic plan and implementation structures (including upscaling of nutrition-sensitive programmes), and is conducting high-level advocacy. A Nutrition Board has been established in the Parliament to provide support to specialized committees on various specific nutrition issues. These measures have led to improved nutrition and reduced obesity and stunting among the Malawian population.

Mr. Graziano Da Silva emphasized that in order to achieve healthy and sustainable food systems, the world must go beyond addressing food production. Consumer lifestyles, culture and food choices must also become more sustainable.

Ms. Wyly pinpointed that dietary change is a key strategy for mitigation of health and environmental impacts. The shift needs to start in the public sector; and through school programmes to foster long-term behaviour change.

Ms. Cousin drew attention to the potential to achieve win-wins by adopting an agenda that integrates food, health and environmental sustainability issues. She recognized that the biggest challenge is to achieve zero hunger, but explained that tools are at hand to enable sustainable, climate smart agriculture that does not require extensive increase in land conversion and inputs. “We need action by the people on the ground, and for that we need to work with women, support girls’ empowerment, and ensure that mothers receive the right micronutrients,” she stressed. The World Food Programme (WFP) works at the frontlines of acute food crises; four out of five of these crises are due to human conflicts, resulting in high food prices and lack of access to food. WFP raises more than US$4.4 billion annually, of which 70% is used to address acute food crises. “Hence the way to solve climate change is peace,” Ms. Cousin stressed, “because only then can we direct resources to long-term issues rather than those caused by human conflicts.”

Ms. Hedegaard highlighted the importance of a comprehensive regulatory framework. “We know that businesses and consumers alone – the market – won’t manage to achieve a global transformation of food systems on their own. We need regulation and pricing mechanisms.” Ms. Hedegaard also pointed out that food waste is an unacceptable problem. In the EU alone, 90 million tonnes of food are wasted every year. A shift is underway in the EU, however: 20% of the new EU budget will be allocated to implementation of policies that integrate climate and sustainability, promote a circular economy and resource efficiency, and tackle waste, she told participants.

Mr. Sijsbema underlined that because the food industry has a lot of power to leverage change, it should also take on a lot more responsibility. The industry should work for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Responsibility needs to be embedded in all core business operations, not just Corporate Social Responsibility activities, Mr. Sijsbema stated. He explained that cost is a matter of convention. “If we keep subsidizing fossil energy instead of clean energy, of course the clean alternative will be more expensive,” he illustrated. “The same goes for food systems: we must stop accepting the junk food industry’s active opposition against shifting away from the status quo.” A transition towards sustainable and health-promoting food systems is a “must-do” for the long-term survival of the food industry – and it is profitable: it has been shown that every dollar invested in adequate nutrition will come back at a factor of fifty-nine. Mr. Sijsbema shared that DSM has been taking steps towards this transition, and is spearheading the business component of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement in partnership with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the WFP, involving 51 companies worldwide. More companies need to stand up and bring innovative solutions to market, he underscored, “Stop lobbying and fighting against the obvious. Scale up, and act now.”

 

EAT is an initiative of the Stordalen Foundation, with Stockholm Resilience Centre as main academic partner. For more information, please visit the EAT website.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.

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