Experts today outlined innovative approaches to transform global food systems — assuring that an end to hunger can be within reach — as the Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Population and Development opened the second day of its annual session.
The Commission kicked off its morning meeting with a high-level panel on the road towards the United Nations Food Systems Summit, set to take place later this year, with experts discussing links between population trends and policies, food systems, nutrition and sustainable development. Afterwards, the Commission continued its general discussion.
Joachim von Braun, Director of the Centre for Development Research at the University of Bonn, and panel moderator, reminded the Commission that the Food Systems Summit is around the corner and will allow Heads of State and Government, with the input of relevant stakeholder groups, to address key issues on food security and discuss the role of science and technology in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. He expressed hope that a “can-do” spirit will dominate the Summit to drive the view that hunger can be ended by 2030 through appropriate action and investments.
Throughout the morning, panellists discussed the main impacts of current food systems on nature and climate and how they limit the ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. They addressed proposals to transform food systems — through science, technology and youth-led initiatives — in order to end hunger and improve the well‑being of vulnerable populations, including indigenous communities.
Ligia Noronha, Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the New York Office of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), noted the negative environmental impacts of current food production chains and said 50 per cent more food will be needed to feed the projected global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. She stressed that unsustainable consumption and production affect the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and uncoordinated action poses a major threat to global well‑being. She called on stakeholders all across the food value-chain to consider the environmental impacts of food systems, adding that leaders must ensure large industries behave responsibly. Further, rural systems have taken a back seat to urban needs and the pandemic now offers the opportunity to shift focus back to improving food systems in rural communities.
Maximo Torero Cullen, Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said 690 million people were malnourished before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that figure is likely to increase as a direct result of the global health crisis. To address this issue, he called for increased focus on agricultural reform that accounts for the lived reality of the 1.5 billion people directly employed in that sector. “Food-system transformation must be people‑centred and requires acting beyond sectoral boundaries to promote interventions that protect the environment and provide financial assistance to the most vulnerable populations,” he said, at the same time warning policymakers to consider the trade-offs that will emerge as efforts intensify to end undernourishment by 2050.
Jyotsna Puri, Director of the Environment, Climate, Gender, Youth, Nutrition and Social Inclusion Division of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said the international community must direct greater financial support to small-scale producers to address inequalities and imbalances, adding that: “It is a terrible injustice that small-scale producers who produce 50 per cent of all food calories are those that suffer most from food insecurity and malnutrition.” Greater investment is needed as food systems grounded on prosperous and productive small-scale farms are more likely to contribute to reducing hunger, to building equitable and harmonious communities and to sustainably managing natural resources. Further, vulnerable populations, including indigenous communities, must become key stakeholders in discussions to advance equitable livelihoods and value distribution. “For food systems to be sustainable, they must create decent livelihoods for the people who work within them,” she stressed, adding that women comprise 43 per cent of the global agricultural labour force and have significantly less access to, control over and ownership of land and other productive assets compared to their male counterparts.
Ousmane Badiane, Founder and Executive Chairperson, AKADEMIYA2063, said the growing food import bill in Africa is driven primarily by the combination of stronger economic growth, rising population and rapid urbanization. It is not a reflection of slow agricultural growth, which has been much stronger over the last two decades. Still, there is an urgent need to boost productivity to create wealth and transform rural areas, making technological innovation a critical component of strategies to enhance food systems and make them work for all communities. New and emerging technologies offer significant promises for Africa’s agriculture and food systems, he said, adding that taking advantage of such advances requires investments and institutional innovations targeted at making rural areas more liveable and sustainable.
Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, said food systems cannot be considered transformed so long as vulnerable communities continue to suffer from hunger, anaemia and wasting. On ending hunger, he said that, with a $33 billion investment, the amount of people suffering from hunger can be reduced from 700 million to 200 million in the midterm. While the pandemic has undone progress in this regard, he said it has shifted the attention of the international community towards addressing issues that directly affect children. A drive towards healthy diets will rely on incentivizing governments, the scientific community, civil society and the business sector to implement responsible food practices, including purchasing healthy foods for school programmes. Further, all government policy must be developed by incorporating healthy diets and food system transformation as core principles.
Christine Gould, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Thought for Food, said future generations are ready to lead food system transformations as they are the most educated and best-connected generations of all time. “Young people deserve a seat at the table to discuss food systems because the future belongs to them,” she said, noting that global youth are accustomed to navigating complexity and operating within diverse systems. While young people may not have all the answers, policymakers must take advantage of powerful technologies and the generations that know how to use those technologies to make real progress towards transforming food systems. “Young people have the will and tools to accomplish incredible things,” she stressed.
To close, the panellists were asked to share, in one sentence, what issues must take precedent as the Summit’s agenda takes shape.
Mr. Badiane said that, if he had only one dollar to invest, he would put it towards skills development across the whole of the food chain to address all aspects of food system transformation.
Ms. Gould said she would invest in bridging the digital divide to increase access to digital tools for young people.
Ms. Noronha called for enhanced responsibility in upholding human rights, creating jobs and ensuring equity across the value chain.
Mr. Haddad said people must recognize they hold power simply because they purchase food, and therefore must work together to defragment efforts to transform food systems.
Mr. Torero said that reducing inequality rests at the heart of efforts to ensure everyone can eat healthy diets and move out of poverty.
Ms. Puri said there is a need to increase the resilience of food systems by focusing on the needs of small-scale farmers.
When the floor opened for discussion, civil society representatives brought attention to the relevance of proper maternal and early-childhood nutrition and called on global leaders to provide youth with a platform for change and to invest in health‑care systems reeling from the pandemic.
The representative of Action by Churches Together said that access to good nutrition for newborns must become a clear priority and that breastfeeding plays a central role in ensuring proper nutrition. The representative from the International Federation of Medical Students Association said young people and activists want to be included in food system transformation efforts. A representative of Women’s Health and Education Centre said developing countries face a vicious economic and health crisis that requires the strengthening of health care systems to build their resilience.
The Commission will reconvene to hold another virtual panel discussion at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 April.
As the Commission continued its general discussion, many speakers drew attention to the relationship between food security, nutrition, the production of healthy food and support for small-scale farmers. Several spotlighted long-term demographic trends, which for many countries around the globe include ageing populations, or spotlighted the crucial role being played by young people. In that vein, some speakers sounded alarm about the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on youth — especially girls and young women — and called for reinvigorated policies to help them become the agents of change they are meant to be.
GHEORGHE LEUCĂ, Secretary of State, Ministry for Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, cited a demographic decline in his country over the last decade, characterized by ageing, relatively low fertility, high mortality rates and massive migration. The Republic of Moldova currently faces the double burden of malnutrition, with undernutrition on the one hand and obesity on the other, as well as an increased incidence of deaths due to noncommunicable diseases caused primarily by unhealthy diets. Meanwhile, food security is under threat from extreme climate events such as heat waves, droughts and storms. As in other countries, COVID-19 has further deepened the Republic’s inequalities and generated new vulnerabilities. “The vulnerability to global epidemics has demonstrated the need for reform to ensure universal access to essential health services, robust social protection schemes and basic income coverage,” he said, describing each of those items as top priorities for his Government.
OLGA MARÍA DEL CARMEN SÁNCHEZ CORDERO DÁVILA, Minister for Interior and President of the National Council on Population of Mexico, spotlighted the relationship between human rights and food security. Mexico has embarked on a national programme aimed at ensuring the “healthy production of healthy food”, which aims to promote agro-ecology, focuses on small-scale and indigenous farmers and supports efforts to grow healthy produce. Noting that the initiative respects ancestral systems and employs age-old agricultural wisdom, she added that Mexico has replanted thousands of hectares of forest cover and strengthened access to social safety nets for women, indigenous persons and persons of Afro-Mexican descent. Turning to women’s sexual and reproductive health, she said the Government estimates that the number of unwanted births rose by 20 per cent during the pandemic — largely among young mothers — and outlined education initiatives being implemented by the Government in response.
DAVID BAHATI, State Minister for Planning, Ministry for Finance, Planning and Economic Development of Uganda, said his country continues to implement targeted interventions aimed at achieving the goals and objectives of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to increase food production, improve post-harvest handling, enhance agro-processing and increase market access and competitiveness of agro-industry products. Meanwhile, maternal mortality declined, the percentage of children who are stunted or underweight fell and life expectancy increased from 43 years in 1991 to 63 years in 2014. Noting that challenges remain despite that progress, with a high fertility rate and high rates of teenage pregnancy, he described related measures enshrined in Uganda’s third National Development Plan and its new 2020 National Population Policy, whose goal is to transform the population age structure, reduce child dependency and harnessing the demographic dividend.
KARL KENDRICK CHUA, Acting Secretary of the National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines, said his Government’s goal is to provide every Filipino with access to quality health care, nutrition services and family planning, through the implementation of the Universal Health Care Law and the Reproductive Health Law. Key policy reforms, including measures to bring down the price of rice, helped improve agricultural productivity and food security and enhanced farmers’ productivity and competitiveness. However, while it has fallen over the years, malnutrition in the country remains high. As of 2019, 5.8 per cent — or around 600,000 children under five — suffered from wasting, 19 per cent or 2.1 million were underweight and 28.8 per cent or 3.2 million were stunted. In response, the Government implemented the “First 1,000 Days Act”, which includes a national feeding programme in public day cares, kindergarten and elementary schools. In addition, it created the Inter-Agency Task Force on Zero Hunger to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to eradicating hunger and achieving food security.
JUAN CAMILO RESTREPO GÓMEZ, Vice‑Minister for Rural Development of Colombia, echoed concerns about the disruptions caused by COVID-19, which exacerbated persistent inequalities that prevent rural communities from fully enjoying the benefits of global development efforts. To address this gap, Colombia is optimizing agricultural practices to increase its competitiveness and effectiveness in global markets. He said preferential loans are being provided to farmers across the country as part of efforts to mitigate climate-related disruptions, adding that a significant amount of resources has been injected into agriculture to minimize the economic and social shocks attributed to the pandemic. Rural development requires market and legal guarantees that can serve to benefit people in those communities, he concluded.
XUEJUN YU, Vice‑Minister at the National Health Commission of China, stressed that Beijing consistently pursues long-term and balanced population growth and holistic human development strategies. Following seven decades of progress, China has reached a significant level of food security and has eradicated poverty 10 years ahead of the 2030 target. As the most populous developing country, China faces an accelerated pace of ageing and will actively implement a national ageing strategy to optimize family planning policies to strive for balanced long-term population development. Turning to the ongoing pandemic, he called for global solidarity and cooperation, especially in areas of population and development, food security and nutrition. “We will continue to deepen South-South cooperation,” he said, pledging to support other developing countries as they work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
RIZAL DAMANIK, Deputy Minister for Training, Research and Development at the National Population and Family Planning Board of Indonesia, described the interlinkages between food and nutrition security on the one hand, and reproductive health on the other, as very strong. Among other things, the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action prescribed measures to strengthen food, nutrition and agricultural policy, as well as fair trade relations. Stressing that proper nutrition is key to optimizing the health of girls, pregnant women, mothers and newborns, he called for interventions to be planned across the human lifecycle. He agreed with other speakers that COVID-19 has hampered progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal targets, including in Indonesia. As such, ensuring the availability of COVID-19 vaccines is a top priority of the Government. He went on to outline a range of national laws related to food and nutrition security, as well as population, reproductive health and family planning, noting Indonesia’s improved standing in the Global Hunger Index between 2012 and 2020.
KITTY VAN DER HEIJDEN, Vice‑Minister for Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, prior to handing over to one of her country’s youth delegates, voiced concern about the perpetuation of inequalities. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis jeopardize our promise to women, girls and young people all over the world that we will leave no one behind,” she stressed. While committing to improve food security and nutrition, members attending the present session must also acknowledge that gender inequality and women’s and girls’ unequal access to health, education and resources “are at the root of these challenges”. Women can no longer access the contraceptives they need, leading to a rise in unintended pregnancies, especially among young women.
LISA DE PAGTER, Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of the Netherlands, agreed that young people have been hit particularly hard by the current multiple global crises. “They lack the resources or independence to make decisions about their own lives, bodies and futures,” she said, adding that schools have closed, incomes have dried up and food insecurity looms for countless young people. Those conditions are made even more unstable by early pregnancy and restricted access to contraceptives and safe abortion. Describing young people as the “major drivers to get out of this pandemic better” and deal with the climate crisis, she said she is nonetheless likely to be the youngest person addressing the Commission today. “That shouldn’t be the case,” she stressed.
MARTIM RAMOS CAVALCANTI, Vice‑Minister and Deputy Executive-Secretary of the Ministry of Citizenship of Brazil, declared: “COVID-19 has highlighted existing weaknesses in food systems, exacerbated inequalities and vulnerabilities and compounded challenges.” In order to meet the needs of its population in the face of pandemic-related disruptions, the Government enhanced social protection networks, promoted food security, reduced extreme poverty, and decreased inequality to historically low levels. Brazil has developed policies to guarantee food security and minimize food vulnerability, seeking to guarantee access to sustainable water and food. He noted that $100 million has been directed to purchase food from family farms, benefiting some 85,000 family operations. “Brazil believes that the promotion of healthy food and the protection of the right to adequate food involve the establishment of sustainable food systems, with the participation of local communities,” he stressed.
CLAUDINE AOUN ROUKOZ, President of the National Commission for Lebanese Women of Lebanon underscored that implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals has slowed as a result of the pandemic and will weaken further if access to COVID-19 vaccines is not equitable. “We see a close link between the empowerment of women and achieving food security,” she said, adding that the equal participation of women is essential to sustainable development. Further, progress is not possible so long as women’s rights continue to be violated, she stated, adding that Lebanon is implementing legislation to provide greater protection to women and children from domestic violence. Lebanon remains committed to its obligation to work towards a more equitable and humane world, she concluded.
JUAN CARLOS SÁNCHEZ, General Director for Planning of the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit of Nicaragua said that, as people continue to reel from the effects of the pandemic, estimates show that 8.9 per cent of the world’s population is suffering from hunger. Voicing concern over the slow implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, he said that, if the international community fails to make concrete commitments to end hunger, relevant Goals will not be met. “It is important to bear in mind that food security requires equitable economic growth,” he pointed out, adding that greater political will is needed on the part of developed countries to ensure developing countries have access to the resources and know-how to effectively implement development policies. He warned the Commission that unilateral coercive measures imposed against Nicaragua are severely hampering its efforts to work towards the achievement of the Sustainable development Goals.
The Director General for Population of Algeria said the Commission must seize the opportunity to regroup following the pandemic and consider innovative approaches to improve food security around the world and speed up implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. “We have practically eradicated extreme poverty,” he said as he outlined Algeria’s recent social policies that have also reduced undernourishment. Still, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on efforts to improve economic and financial outlooks for households across the country, requiring the Government to provide monetary and food support to families and businesses. Also hampering development efforts is that the pandemic has severely hampered collection of indicators that inform effective development policy, he concluded.
DOMA TSHERING (Bhutan) said that, among other disproportionate impacts on women, COVID-19-related movement restrictions have made it more difficult for women to access essential health and social protection services, including sexual and reproductive health, crisis centres and legal aid. “These trends risk reversal of hard-earned gains, including progress made towards ending hunger by 2030,” she said, stressing that plans to help countries recover from the pandemic must be guided by those differentiated impacts. Calling upon the Commission to press for an ambitious, meaningful and action-oriented outcome rooted in principles of the International Conference, she said all individuals should be empowered to live their lives with equality, rights and dignity. “We have nine years left to meet our [Sustainable Development Goal] targets,” she stressed, outlining both strides made and challenges remaining in her own country.
GILAD ERDAN (Israel) warned that, in the coming years, the number of people suffering from food insecurity globally will only grow. “Now is the time for us to work together, share best practices and ensure that all people have access to the most basic of resources — food and water,” he said. As policymakers formulate plans to end food insecurity, they must adopt an approach that also brings the world closer to achieving the other Sustainable Development Goals. Emphasizing that technology will be key to doing so, he pointed out that, despite being located in the planet’s most water‑scarce region, Israel has a thriving agriculture industry and meets most of its food requirements through domestic production. It applied innovative and creative solutions to such challenges as sustainable water management, including the use of drip irrigation and the world’s first large-scale water recycling system, which is predominantly used for agriculture. In addition, Israel is promoting sustainable food security by pioneering research on plant proteins that can replace meat and chicken, as well as meat grown in lab conditions and proteins made through fermentation, he said.
ADELA RAZ (Afghanistan) said that, in 2020, when the pandemic first struck, it was hard to imagine how timely the Commission’s food security theme would be when members considered it in 2021. As mentioned repeatedly by the Secretary-General, COVID-19 sparked a “food crisis of epic proportions”, she said, noting that it is estimated that the pandemic will push another 83 million people into hunger this year. Underlining its severe impacts in Afghanistan, which has also long grappled with conflict, she said the Government is working to ensure food security, as well as access to clean water to all people. While human rights and humanitarian interventions are required to reach those most in need, she cautioned that “we will never defeat hunger” as long as the Taliban and other extremist groups continue to violate their neighbours’ most basic right to food.
JOSÉ LUÍS ROCHA (Cabo Verde) said the Commission’s 2021 theme touches on several historical sensitivities for his country. From the fifteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, frequent cycles of drought and periods of extreme hunger “left only two ways out for the majority of the population — death and migration”. Only after independence, in 1975, were successive Governments able to place food and nutrition security at the centre of Cabo Verde’s development policies. As a small island developing State and an extension of the African Sahel region, Cabo Verde's nine inhabited islands are plagued by a lack of regular rainfall, drought, desertification and soil degradation, limiting agricultural production to just 10 to 15 per cent of the population's food needs. To promote social and economic development in that context, the Government has enacted strategies driven by market opportunities, including in food production. It has also implemented social support plans and aims to guarantee quality nutrition for all through the National Strategic Plan for Food and Nutritional Security, he said.
IVAN KONSTANTINOPOLSKIY (Russian Federation) said the current situation around the world once again demonstrates the relevance of the 1994 Cairo Conference Programme of Action. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries were facing challenges including falling birth rates, ageing populations and the migration of young people from rural to urban areas. Against that backdrop, he warned that national priorities in terms of demographics and nutrition “should not be side-lined for the benefits of pursuing climate goals”. Outlining the Russian Federation’s significant agricultural sector growth in recent years, he said the country has become a net exporter of food and is now developing its organic production.
MITCHELL PETER FIFELD (Australia) said the Commission’s current theme intersects in myriad ways across the spectrum of human development. Individuals, families, communities and nations are better able to thrive and realize their potential by achieving their own and their families’ nutritional needs. Meanwhile, such needs are impacted by their ability to make informed decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health — including the timing and spacing of pregnancies. Noting that women and girls continue to face unequal access to adequate nutritious food and food-related decision-making, he stressed “that must change”. It is crucial to continue to underscore the links among food security, nutrition, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender equality, and support language and actions that reflect a commitment to the realization of the International Conference Programme of Action, he stressed, encouraging the Commission to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights remain firmly at the centre of its work.
LACHEZARA STOEVA (Bulgaria) agreed that the Commission’s 2021 theme is extremely relevant as the pandemic disrupts food and health systems around the globe, and disproportionately impacts women and girls. Calling for efforts to tackle the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination they face, she said nutrition is closely related to maternal and newborn health, and outlined Bulgaria’s national recommendations in those arenas. She also called for enhanced global cooperation in such crucial fields as agricultural development, trade and addressing climate change.
Also participating in the general discussion were ministers and other high‑level representatives from El Salvador, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Nepal, Morocco, Chile, Thailand, Pakistan and Belarus.