More from UNDESAVol 26 No. 2 - February 2021

The pandemic has revealed the true cost of inequality

By Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit

In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions went without enough to eat, the many victims of COVID-19 were starved of air, and the lonely and remote were deprived of human contact.

Yet while no one was spared the impact of the pandemic, for many it was a taste of the challenges that those at the bottom of the pyramid have long faced, while the most vulnerable have been pushed even closer to the very limits of existence.

Millions of people in several countries are now facing famine. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. And conflict and violence are making life even more precarious.

The pandemic has revealed the real cost of long-term inequality around the world.

Our food systems nourish 7.8 billion people and counting. It is food that employs more than a billion worldwide in agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Food systems offer real possibilities we can build on to improve and make them more appropriate for the well-being of people and our planet, but there is much that needs to change if we are to be successful.

COVID-19 has brought to the fore the connection between food, health and quality of life, but also how many of our food systems are failing us, especially where inequality is most prevalent.

Poor diets, leading to obesity, disproportionately affect low-income communities that are already experiencing the worst challenges to quality of life. It is because of inequalities that the impact of COVID-19 is three times worse among low-income communities where conditions directly related to food are more prevalent.

The pandemic has powered an unprecedented global appetite for change, from the movements to secure free school meals for disadvantaged children to agricultural reforms taking place worldwide. The urgency created by COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly the global community can respond and adapt to existential threats, and it is this energy that must be channelled into transforming food systems to be more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food. A year when the right to safe and nutritious food, and the production, consumption and disposal of food finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit.

The change needed will require everyone around the world to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. Now, more than ever, national leaders must chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to challenges and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the well-being of mankind and our planet.

Policymakers must listen to the millions of farmers and indigenous communities as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments that level the playing field.

Progress is already under way. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union and African Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than three dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

Everyone around the world must feel invited and empowered to participate in the Food Systems Summit to start the journey of transitioning to more just and sustainable food systems. It is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. The writing on the wall is clear that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

* The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

Follow Us