Combine harvesters crop soybeans on what was once rainforest in Brazil (Picture: Yasuyoshi Chiba)

Months on and my local superstore still goes for weeks without having frozen veg available. And now shortages of seasonal labour, drivers and gas have raised political questions and sparked media headlines about the possibility of ‘Christmas being cancelled’.

For our generation, Covid has brought an unprecedented sense of shared adversity, underscoring just how fragile our way of life really is. It has exposed weaknesses in our food system, hitting production and availability. A light has been shone on inequalities, whereby healthy and nutritious food remains out of reach for far too many people. And in growing parts of the world, Covid has again raised the spectre of famine.

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Against this backdrop, world leaders gathered last week for the United Nations Food Systems Summit. Billed as a ‘people’s summit’, it brought together a wide diversity of voices globally, including young people, women, food producers, indigenous peoples, civil society, researchers, private sector, finance and governments.

Its stated aim was to focus on transforming food systems to drive our recovery from Covid-19 and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

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Costing the Earth

It was compelling stuff. Zac Goldsmith, an environment minister, spoke on behalf of the UK, just one of more than 90 government statements delivered at the summit.

“Our food systems are heaping costs on future generations and on the planet,” Lord Goldsmith warned. The way we produce and consume food is “fundamentally unsustainable, increasing the risk of zoonoses [diseases that cross from animals to humans] and the threat of antimicrobial resistance and putting impossible pressure on freshwater, forests, biodiversity, climate and weather systems”.

He continued by referring to the independent review of the nation’s food strategy together with action on food waste and plans to switch farm subsidies to support good environmental stewardship.

Like other governmental leaders, Goldsmith called for global action to feed everyone whilst tackling the growing challenges of health, climate and biodiversity loss.

There was no shortage of fighting talk coming out of the summit.

The man behind the summit, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, framed the problem saying, “We are waging a war against nature – and reaping the bitter harvest. Ruined crops, dwindling incomes and failing food systems… The war on the planet must end, and food systems can help us build that peace.”

The gauntlet to world leaders was well and truly thrown down.

Changing the narrative

For me, what the summit achieved was a changing of the narrative; moving away from ‘business as usual with a few tweaks’ to one that speaks to the need for transformational approaches to food system reform.

It feels like we were entering a new era of thinking. Thirty years ago, the paradigm was very much that things had ‘never been better’ and that anyone raising issues like hunger, wildlife declines or animal cruelty was being annoyingly political. Radical even. All we could hope for were tweaks to the system to make it less bad. Fundamental change was but a pipedream.

If government interventions at the summit were anything to go by, official attitudes are changing. A procession of national leaders queued up to recite reasons for food system change. The emphasis was on things like aiming for the provision of school meals for every child, zero food waste and agricultural innovation. Profoundly good and much-needed changes.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that the changes governments were gravitating towards were low-hanging fruit rather than fundamental.

Blindspot

Much rarer were statements offering genuine game-changers, such as moving away from industrial animal agriculture and tackling diets over-reliant on livestock products. The reality is that without moving away from factory farming, most of those UN SDGs will remain seriously out of reach. So far, it remains largely a universal governmental blindspot.

Industrial agriculture is a major driver of wildlife declines, deforestation and soil degradation. It is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet.

Far from sparing land for nature, the reality of industrial farming is that farmland continues to expand, encroaching on the world’s last remaining wild lands.

Vast acreages of precious arable land must be devoted to growing feed for confined farmed animals. Globally, 40 per cent of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals. If fed directly to people, it could sustain four billion of us. Yet, as animal ‘feed’, much of the food value is lost.

In the UK, where 55 per cent of cropland is used for animal feed, a Harvard University study found that just a third of cropland currently growing animal feed could provide almost the entire UK population with their ‘five-a-day’ portions of fruits and vegetables. Such a move would be transformative for a country so heavily dependent on imports.

Meaning business

It was heartening to hear some governments grasping the nettle and talking about moving away from industrial farming – Sri Lanka and the EU are two examples; but there were too few.

Although the UN summit itself was not a decision-making body, more a global conference, the masterplan was clear: to bring the world’s attention to the central role of food in the battle for the planet. To move the global conversation on so that never again could there be an excuse for governments not making food a central component of talks on health, food security, biodiversity loss and climate.

With food systems being responsible for up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss – particularly due to the impact of cruel factory farming – and generating one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, all eyes now fall on Glasgow and the UK-hosted Cop26 climate talks.

There is no time to lose. What we do now will define the next thousand years.

Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming and a UN Champion of the Food Systems Summit

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