To raise awareness and spur action, the UN Secretary-General is convening a summit in 2021 to look at the global food systems and make them work better for all. Ms. Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda is the UN Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. In an interview with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu, she explains why it is important for the world to come together and find a different way of producing, processing, and consuming food. Excerpts:
Africa Renewal: In this time and age, the world is probably producing more food than it ever has. Yet 690 million people are going hungry. Isn’t this a paradox?
Agnes Kalibata: The paradox is why we have 690 million people going to bed, every night, hungry. The paradox is why one in three people are malnourished, or not eating well or are suffering from diet-related diseases. The fact is, we are producing 500 times more food than we produced about 50 years ago. Some countries are even producing 10 times more food than they need.
We can explain it through how we look at inclusion in terms of availability of food to people, by how we earn and how we are able to translate earnings into the ability to purchase food. It is one thing to have food, it is another thing to have nutritious food. We may have enough food, but it's not necessarily affordable to all levels of society. So, most of the challenges we are facing are linked to affordability.
The other is access. We are producing food but access to food production means or technologies is not evenly distributed across the world. You have parts of the world that had neither seen improved varieties of seed, nor had the opportunity to use good fertilizers to be able to improve food production. In parts of Africa, for example, the idea of agronomy has gone very much backwards. The ability to produce good quantities of food has become a challenge.
But there's yet another factor - the market and how markets are structured. Markets drive production. If markets are not working for farmers, especially smallholder farmers, then there's no incentive to engage around better production and to invest in productivity. Because of that, the capital base of these people in society remains very small and they become vulnerable.
The system was like that even before the pandemic. To what extent has COVID-19 made it worse?
COVID-19 has affected our affordability and accessibility to food significantly. In terms of affordability, just think about the number of people that had informal jobs. In almost every city in Africa, 50% or more of the population are in informal jobs. These jobs have been lost because of COVID-19. People’s ability to provide good food for their households has become extremely shaky and this has mostly affected their nutrition capabilities.
Second, is the movement of food. As food trade is country-dependent, trucking became difficult because of COVID. With borders and small markets closed, food becomes more expensive. Even if people kept their jobs, they're still not able to afford food because it's increasingly becoming expensive. But I'm really glad to say the worst is over. The biggest fear was this would translate into a food crisis. It hasn't yet happened because we've had good seasons.
A few weeks ago, you said the impact of COVID-19 was not just negative, but it also could be looked at positively because it made policymakers aware of things that need to happen for the system, at least in Africa, to be resilient. What are some of these things?
The first thing is that COVID-19 has demonstrated the value of SMEs [small and medium enterprises] in the agricultural sector. Some governments have stepped forward and put significant resources to keep the SMEs going. What I would now like to see more is strengthening the place and role of our private sector in our agricultural sector.
Secondly, COVID-19 has shown that the agricultural sector can keep us going. So, we need to double down, invest and actually make it transformative. In most of the countries in the West, everybody is screaming that their economies are going down because people have no spending power. Our people have never had spending power because they were locked in poverty in the agricultural sector. We have the opportunity to strengthen the sector so that people can come up and be part of growing our economy.
Thirdly, and probably the most important, is the regional trade and how we are all inter-connected. Sometimes, when you are a good producer, you may lack the market. And if you are not a good producer of anything, you are suffering from lack of supply. We need to move forward and deal with some of these challenges now that we have a regional trade perspective. Those never-ending conversations need to end so that the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) can work.
Many people agree that, as much as we are still surviving, the world food system is broken. How badly broken is it, really?
The brokenness of the global food system comes from three places. We committed to reducing hunger, but it is increasing instead. We committed to reducing malnutrition and non-communicable diseases coming from poor nutrition, instead they are increasing. We now know that the way we produce food is contributing to climate change. And then, we are also causing a lot of biodiversity loss. These are what we consider the ‘broken parts’ of our food system.
Is it repairable and would the UN Food Systems Summit be able to fix it?
The Summit is going to build consensus around the type of transition our food system needs. It's not going to happen overnight. We are going to build consensus so that we can move from what is considered ‘broken’ today towards a more effective food system and deal with the challenges.
One of the objectives of the Summit is to look at ensuring safe and nutritious food for all; while another is moving to sustainable consumption patterns. How do you see those changes happening?
Ensuring safe and nutritious food focuses on affordability and access to food, and hunger and malnutrition. It is to ensure, first, that we have access to food so that 690 million people around the world don't go to bed hungry every night, but we also want to deal with the quality of food.
Secondly, on sustainable consumption patterns, the focus is to recognize that how we consume food is impacting us as people; it is causing non-communicable diseases which we need to reduce; and is also impacting negatively on our world. It's causing emissions that are contributing to something that's not sustainable.
We are also wasting about $1 trillion worth of food. So why are we producing food and wasting it at the same time? It is not sustainable. So, it's about recognizing that how we produce, process, transport and consume food is no longer working for our environment.
Boosting nature-positive production at sufficient scale is another of the five objectives of the Summit. What does it mean at a global scale to boost nature production? Is it another word for eco-agriculture?
That's exactly what it is. It's eco-friendlier agricultural practices but think about it from a perspective of reducing the impact of agriculture on the carbon footprint of our environment.
So, do you have a sense in your dealing with all stakeholders ahead of the Summit, that there's commitment from all sides to get to a better place?
When I took up this role, I definitely was doing it from a perspective of being African and living in Africa. I see how food systems are becoming unsustainable from where I am, because we are impacted every day by climate change and farmers are suffering.
I joined the process to try and change the trajectory of where our agriculture is going, which is not a good place. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started engaging with the rest of the world to find out that the fact that we need changes was on everybody's mind. It is something that everybody cares about, but more importantly, COVID-19 has heightened, even for those that didn't care before, the need to build the resilience of our systems.
What is the stance of the African continent going into the Summit? Does the continent have any specific ask? After all, it is one of the regions having to deal with food crises on a regular basis.
For me, the specific ask for Africa should look like this. First and foremost, we need to reverse climate change. Whoever is contributing to climate change, including in Africa, needs to stop because this is not sustainable for us.
Number two: Africa is going through some unique challenges around zero hunger and malnutrition that we have committed to end as a world. One hungry person in the world is one too many, we need to assist people that are hungry. As a world we've committed to this and we need to come through on it. So, those would be my asks: come through on zero hunger, come through on nutrition, and also come through on climate change.
We are seeing a lot of innovation on the continent, especially in response to COVID-19. How can this spirit of innovation and the digital transformation help address issues with food systems?
There's a lot already happening and probably nowhere more so than in the food area. From a production perspective, we are seeing opportunities where we work with what we call Village Best Advisors using SMS. They are sending messages to farmers informing them where to find and pick inputs, don't exceed 10 people at this hour, where or which market is going to be open today. I need to be able to find that out without going to my neighbour to get the information. This way, we can increase the value and the flow of information and the movement of goods and services without increasing physical contact.
One hungry person in the world is one too many, we need to assist people that are hungry. As a world we've committed to this and we need to come through on it.
COVID has shown that we can move a lot and ensure that we are minimizing contact while increasing services. So for me now, digitalization and data need to be treated just like electricity and as basic structural requirements to get society moving.
In the end what would you like to see happen at the Summit that would get everybody on board?
I would like to see that we come up with game-changing ideas that really give confidence of a transition within our food system, that if we take this direction our food system will change. I would like to see political commitment to change from governments and leaders. We must also have commitment from the private sector and leaders of industry to fix the things that are broken. So being able to commit to that change is very important.
Individually, as people, we all make decisions, the question is: are we all committed as people to change our world? Because the future of this world depends on the changes we will commit to at the Food Systems Summit. Otherwise, it will continue going down the drain.
For updates on the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, click here: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/food-systems-summit-2021/ and follow @FoodSystems