Reflections on a Virtual Summit

A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them

Warning: More Food Systems Summit, which shall be known as FSS from here on, in this issue. In case you want a rehash, below is last week’s issue.

Thin Ink
It’s All About The Summit
Yes, it is finally here, and it is big and it is quite dizzying. Have a look at the programme and you’ll understand why. Also, it was in New York hours. Yikes. There are still dozens of Ministers left to speak as I write this + closing remarks and I’m also rushing multiple deadlines so sharing some interesting stuff I saw about the Summit and at the Sum……
Read more

Thing is, the event was/still is a big deal. This was the first-ever summit that looked at food from a “systems” perspective.

We’ve compartmentalised food into many different sectors and industries and for too long, we’ve only looked at the production side of it. But agriculture and yields don’t exist in a vacuum. You need water and energy to grow food and how you grow food affects the environment.

There is energy and manpower involved in manufacturing inputs like fertiliser and pesticides as well as farming equipment. If you’re rearing animals instead of cultivating crops, you are importing feed and this still applies.

Once that food is harvested, it needs to be transported and processed and then get to the consumers. Again, you need energy - for cold chains, for storage, for processing, etc.

When the food is consumed and depending on whether they are nutritious or not, we will either be - in very simplified terms - healthy, hungry or overweight/obese. And then there is waste management - waste from food we didn’t eat, waste from food we did eat, and waste from all the inputs that went into producing that food.

There are emissions associated with pretty much every single step in this food chain and it is so important we look at this as a whole system instead of separate supply chains. So yeah, the FSS was/still is a big deal.

We can afford not to own a car or even a mobile phone. We cannot afford *not* to eat. So we really should care about where our food is coming from and how it is being produced.

And if you really care about having a livable planet, food is one of the most tangible ways of making changes because we come into contact with it every single day. Three times a day, in fact, if we’re lucky.

Anyway, that was my little rant on why you should care about food systems, even if not the FSS.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

If you want to know what went down, here’s a piece I wrote for The New Humanitarian where I tried my best to give a nuanced analysis. I spoke to those who took part, who observed and who boycotted and asked them what they thought.

I have to say I really appreciate the editors for letting me write nearly 1,600 words for this piece and also love Kylee’s illustration.

As the headline said, the event didn’t succeed in bringing everyone together but I thought there was some good progress, particularly in getting heads of state to take this issue seriously and come up with commitments that could lead to real changes.

I also thought the $10 billion pledged by the U.S. was a good thing. Others have told to me on social media that this is not new money so I need to check that out, but even if that is the case, I still think this is worth celebrating because the $5 billion that is slated for global food insecurity is going through the Feed The Future programme, which was sidelined by the Trump administration who was more focused on GMO and what not.

I am encouraged by a host of new coalitions that have popped up too, particularly the ones on Indigenous People’s Food Systems, to repurpose subsidies, public development banks and fighting food crises in a more strategic manner.

There is also the agroecology coalition which is co-chaired by a Filipina farmer, Estrella Penunia, who was thoughtful and circumspect about outcomes from the FSS (read the story link above).

Just a recap - agroecology is a farming system that applies ecological and social concepts (emphasis mine). It seeks to address not only the environmental destruction but also inequity. You can read about the 10 elements of agrecology here.

Surely it’s good that we have a coalition on agroecology, I asked Martin Wolpold-Bosien, coordinator of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) Secretariat, a group of more than 500 organisations that boycotted the event.

He agreed this was good but said this alone could not salvage the event.

“If the train is going in the wrong direction, even if the wagon looks nice, it is still not changing the direction of the train.”

Lots of attendees, from UN officials to governments and the World Economic Forum in between, talked about the need for innovation. This is a bone of contention in itself because different people define innovation differently. Some see it purely as science- and technology-related. Others have broader views.

Anyway, I wrote something short for AgFunder News about some of the discussions and announcements around innovation which you can find here.

But More People Interested

One big ‘win’, at least for me and a few others, is that people have heard quite a lot about food systems over the past 18 months, including the controversies around the FSS, which has raised this issue to another level. Many more people are aware and equally many want to do something about it.

In fact, three new newsletters on food have been launched in the past few weeks alone! If this isn’t a sign that there is a demand for these things, what is?

  • Devex Dish, from Devex, a platform for the development folks, is a weekly newsletter “on the transformation of the global food system” and was launched just before FSS.

  • Cropped is a “fortnightly digest of food, land and nature news and views” from the folks at Carbon Brief. They also did a very thorough piece tracking what governments said at FSS, particularly around climate issues. There were 86 heads of state plus dozens of ministers so I meant it when I said thorough.

  • Countdown to COP26 is a newsletter from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which does what it says on the tin.

Investors are getting in on the act too. This piece I recently did for AgFunder News is based on a mid-year review by Climate Tech VC which found that start-ups working to combat climate change through food and water attracted the largest number of unique investors over the past 12 months.

These findings are also consistent with the latest data from AgFunder, agrifoodtech-focused VC and AgFunder News’ parent company, which said 2021 is expected to set a new record for investment across the food and agriculture value chain, which has already raised $24 billion so far in the first half of the year. The record-breaking haul for the whole of 2020 was $30 billion.


Rural Development and Indigenous Systems

Now, if you have 90 mins to spare, I want to share with you two really interesting events I had the privilege of moderating over the past week.

One was the launch of Rural Development Report, a flagship publication of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This year’s report focus on how to bring prosperity to rural areas through a transformation of food systems. The experts were stellar and we spent a good chunk of time talking about power imbalances and what they hope to get out from FSS (it was held two days before FSS).

Another was a discussion on the lessons we can learn from indigenous food systems around the world. Two speakers dropped out at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances, which stressed me out quite a bit, but the resulting discussion was still so rich and full of examples and thought-provoking remarks that it’s really worth listening if you’re interested in these issues.

As you can see, I have had a few busy weeks.


As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail thin@thin-ink.net.