The hot topics of the UN and other global agencies engaged in food

It was a valuable experience attending the recent annual Committee on World Food Security (CFS) meet, held at FAO in Rome, to hear what are the issues engaging the attention of global agencies and the approaches they are supporting to tackle these.

It was a clear and sobering message when the Chair of CFS, Amira Gonass opened the meeting with a hard-hitting reality: “We know we are not on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030.” Showing a way out, she emphasized, “We all have a responsibility for ensuring the universal right to food. Success will only be a reality if we break away from our silos and work in collaboration.
Speaking on the biggest issues for the World Food Program – Executive director, David Beasley, at the Committee on World Food Security, October 2017

We also must think holistically and with an integrated approach.” She also noted that this requires a multi-stakeholder approach implemented within countries.

In September this year the UN released hunger figures showing staggering truth that for the first time in over a decade, the number of people going hungry had increased. This was an additional 38 million more hungry people from 2015 to 2016 – reaching 815 million people. This was reported as being mainly caused by conflict and climate change.1

However, the opposite end of the spectrum also figured prominently on the agenda, with statistics showing that for every one person going hungry there are more than 2 who are overweight. Overweight related deaths is now also higher that deaths related to being underweight. An inescapable reality is that 41 million children under five are overweight (including obese).2

Just as jolting was the message from IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo which rang true: “Hunger can reappear and come back even stronger than before. We need strategies with sustainability.”

He also stressed the need to work with national level strategies, noting that “two main principles must be followed: leave no one behind; and the issue of national ownership of the SDGs. We need to review our strategies and see what will have the biggest impact – especially for smallholder farmers. Also engagement with civil society and private sector should be increased.”

World Food Program (WFP) Executive director, David Beasley, seemed frustrated with the focus they had to have on emergencies when they would like to focus on development and solutions. He stressed that, “80% of our expenditure today is in war-torn zones… We are spending a fraction of our money on development. Instead of trucking in water, let’s take that money and dig more bore wells.”

WFP released a new form of reporting that looks at the affordability of food rather than the cost – comparing the cost of a plate of pulse stew and a carbohydrate, but as the percentage of average daily income.

The pulse and carbohydrate used in the calculation were the ones most commonly available in each country. The results from the report Counting the Beans The True Cost of a Plate of Food Around the World 3 were staggering.

One comparison given is, “while a New Yorker might expect to spend just 0.6 percent of their daily income on the ingredients to make a simple 600 kilocalorie bean stew, someone in South Sudan would need to spend as much as 155 percent of their income. Or, to approach it from the other end, it would be as if a resident of the Empire State were to pay US$321 for their stew.”  (p11) Some other examples are shown in Diagram A.

Diagram A: Some examples of the relative cost of a plate of food (in USD)

Diagram A: Some examples of the relative cost of a plate of food (in USD)

(Extracted from Counting the Beans The True Cost of a Plate of Food Around the World, p12)

Countries in conflict had such extremely high relative costs for the food they were almost off the graph. The issue of conflict was certainly also high on the agenda of discussions around food security.

The release of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 by five UN agencies reported on how the nature of conflict is changing with more conflict within countries and localized, and less across countries. Also, post-conflict violence was increasingly being observed. The conflict-poverty-malnutrition nexus is clearly reflected in 60-70 percent of undernourished people who live in conflict areas.

“Food Systems” is the popular framework being discussed now. FAO has created an entirely new division called ‘Nutrition and Food Systems’. Concrete solutions were put forward including the release of the CFS committee’s report, Nutrition and Food Systems.4

This was the first high-level report I had seen that included a major focus on ‘marketing’ to the consumer. It includes but also goes past awareness raising and education, with one of its 10 overarching recommendations being to “Create consumer demand for nutritious food”. Many of the suggestions were policy based, encouraging consumer behavior through mass media campaigns and community mobilization together with other examples of marketing and communications.

Similar suggestions were echoed at CFS, from Peter Schmidt, Member of the European Economic and Social Committee, who called for direct action on awareness raising on the value of food, and specifically for a campaign to do this.

There were seemingly contradictory comments, with many sessions stating that food prices are too low and that prices must increase for them to be viable for farmers and to be able to better look after the environment. Yet non-affordability of food was often hailed as one of the major reasons for people going hungry.

Interestingly, the last couple of years have seen the emergence of cross-sector alliances and new innovative approaches to nutrition and food systems, challenging past approaches and bringing in new thinking. These involve multi-group stakeholders with strong private industry linkages as well as research and multilateral agencies.

An example is the FReSH initiative (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health) 5 launched this year by the EAT Foundation and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. They are bringing together business and science to develop business solutions that create “Healthy, enjoyable diets for all, produced responsibly, within planetary boundaries by 2030”. In less than a year they have grown from 25 founding member companies to 40 companies today, spanning across the food value chain from fork to farm.

There are five work streams to keep a track of the outcomes that are all being worked on now. These are reported in the FReSH Interim Report of October 2017:

  1. ‘Healthy and sustainable diet’ which will have 12 countries selected as pilots to identify the gaps between national dietary recommendations and actual consumption. Studies have started for Brazil, China and Spain, and India and others will come on board in 2018.
  2. ‘Food system mapping’ to identify the drivers of its food system.
  3. ‘Consumption’ stream aims to create consumer awareness and enable the shift in food consumption patterns towards healthy and sustainable diets. Data is being analyzed from more than 80 reports in eight regions to synthesize deep insights into consumption behaviors and trends across the globe.
  4. ‘Food loss and waste’ stream will develop solutions to reduce this.
  5. ‘Performance measurement and reporting’ to ensure high level KPIs for deriving business solutions.

FReSH also organized a panel discussion at a side event at the CFS44. As part of this, Karnataka’s Minister for Agriculture Krishna Gowda elaborated on how the Indian state of Karnataka was changing the norm of their food systems. “We started at the production end but then realized this was not going to have lasting change unless we also worked with consumers in driving demand for Smart Food that is healthy and sustainable, and then linking this back to the farmers to ensure they get a fair deal.” The state has been proactive in doing this specifically for millets and sorghum.

Speaking on the Smart Food initiative focusing on food that is good for you, the planet and the farmer - Director of Strategic Marketing for ICRISAT, Joanna Kane-Potaka, at the FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health) event at the Committee on World Food Security, Oct 2017
Speaking on the marketing approach the Karnataka government has taken to build new business opportunities and value chains for millets - Karnataka’s Minister for Agriculture, Mr Krishna Gowda, at the FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health) event at the Committee on World Food Security, Oct 2017

My presentation on the panel delved into how the movement is part of a larger Smart Food movement which is popularizing foods like millets and pulses that fulfil the criteria of being “Good for You, the Planet and the Farmer”. One aim is to identify foods that fulfill all these criteria and mainstream them back as a staple while ensuring the value chain is developed and the supporting environment in place. Achieving this will help tackle some SDGs goals in unison, especially overcoming malnutrition, rural poverty and dealing with some environmental issues, in unison.

Other multi-spectral initiatives are the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and iPES (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) which released in October Unravelling the Food- Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems. 6

Ruth Richardson, Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food 7 opines, “We have enough evidence telling us that the current food system is not supporting health – we must take action to trigger a shift from a system that too often results in harm to a system based on health promotion.” Also providing momentum to new collaborations is the SDG2 Advocacy Hub which set up only this year and is a platform for different groups to share solutions. They saw a gap and need to help bring the different players together. The aim was not to create anything new but help share information and connect the right people and activities. They will work with groups ranging from chef associations to UN agencies. One initiative is to create a chef’s manifesto, bringing together all the major chefs’ associations.

It is inspiring to see that not just the UN but companies, civil society and others are all adopting the SDGs as their own targets. In conclusion, I would like to highlight what Rafael Flor, Director YieldWise, The Rockefeller Foundation, commented at the Heads of States September session of the UN General Assembly – that food and nutrition are at the core of the world’s agenda and that more than half of the 17 SDGs relate to global food security and nutrition. He noted that part of the solution lies in promoting more nutritious crops and reduce our exposure and dependency on the 20 crops that currently constitute our food system. This resonated well with our own efforts to mainstream Smart Food – i.e. food that is good for you, the planet and the farmer. 8

He continues emphasizing that this should be part of the plan to redesign global food systems. Among the other solutions listed were to follow climate-smart agriculture, the promotion of ethical sourcing and the inclusion of smallholder farmers. This would also include more efficient resource use and therefore more sustainability, promotion of more nutritious crops and diets, and overall, redesigning food systems to be friendlier to investments and businesses, and most of all, to people. 9


  1. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/world-hunger-report/en/
  2. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
  3. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/WFP-0000023327.pdf
  4. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-12_EN.pdf
  5. http://www.wbcsd.org/Projects/FReSH
  6. https://futureoffood.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/FoodHealthNexus_ExecSummary_Digital_FINAL.pdf
  7. https://futureoffood.org/unravelling-the-food-health-nexus/#
  8. https://www.icrisat.org/SmartFood
  9. https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/food-nutrition-core-worlds-agenda/

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