All hat and no cattle? Accountability following the UN Food Systems Summit

ALL HAT AND NO CATTLE? ACCOUNTABILITY FOLLOWING THE UN FOOD SYSTEMS SUMMIT

by Namukolo Covic, Achim Dobermann, Jessica Fanzo, Spencer Henson, Mario Herrero, Prabhu Pingali, and Steve Staal | September 7, 2021

The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is an important moment to garner political and financial attention to address the most pressing issues facing food systems, including food security, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. It also comes at a critical time, amid competing national and global priorities, including massive inequalities, rapid climate change, and the struggle to manage and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had catastrophic impacts, especially in the poorest parts of the world, exacerbating global hunger and malnutrition.

Previous food summits have proven to be pivotal. In 1943, the UN Conference on Food and Agriculture called by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the goal of “freedom from want of food, suitable and adequate for the health and strength of all people.” The 1996 World Food Summit, where the definition of food security was formulated, helped establish the framing for the Millennium Development Goals.

But none of these earlier summits focused so broadly on the global food system: How food policy plays out for individual countries’ and territories’ food systems and actors, or the complexity of trade-offs associated with the decisions made.

If the September 2021 summit is to accomplish its ambitious goals—including generating significant action and measurable progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—we must look ahead to the day after the proceedings. When the proverbial rubber must meet the road, it will be important for the UNFSS to build in robust accountability mechanisms to show who delivers and who does not. We outline how in a new article in Global Food Security.

As we write, no UNFSS accountability mechanism has been announced. Further commitments for investments or other actions by governments and the private sector are to be voluntary and non-binding. But without money on the table and concrete commitments to joint actions, it is difficult to see how the UNFSS will achieve the necessary traction to achieve its goals.

How can we ensure that key actors follow through on their summit commitments and mobilize sufficient resources? To be effective, such an accountability mechanism should have several important characteristics.

First, while many recent reports on global food systems offer a series of recommended actions, they do not identify which actions are needed from specific stakeholders. Nor do they indicate how these recommendations can be practically translated into action in the context of established interests and constrained budgets. The UNFSS must define the specific steps that should be adopted by specific stakeholders and how their actions can effectively align with the established interests and priorities of national and local governments, the private sector, and civil society.

Second, actions must be backed by real investments linked to a robust accountability mechanism. Several models are possible, but regardless of the mechanism adopted, it must establish specific targets or benchmarks with measurable indicators for which there is data available to track and assess performance.

Third, significant public investments—coming from both traditional and less traditional sources—in reliable and representative national and sub-national data systems are needed to track progress towards the summit targets. Many countries today lack systems to track attainment of the SDGs. While the collection and analysis of such data are costly, these things are essential. Remote sensing and mobile phone-based data could help make tracking timelier and more cost-effective.

Fourth, a recognized scientific body should be established that brings together and validates available evidence and builds consensus around how the global food system is performing and sustainable and achievable solutions.

Fifth, any UNFSS accountability mechanism should be tied and tethered to the extensive existing accountability mechanisms that relate to the SDGs, Climate COP, and the CBD biodiversity targets, among others. Aligning commitments across these agreements underscores their interconnectedness and illuminates tradeoffs that should be avoided. For Africa, where a common position on the UNFSS has been developed, it will be important to link accountability to existing frameworks like the mutual accountability mechanisms of the CAADP Biennial Review process, as a low hanging fruit.

Sixth, there should be a serious and open discussion of the private sector’s role within the UNFSS and overall, in food systems governance, in terms of interests and influence and responsibilities for actions and investments.

While some constituencies see the involvement of trans- and multinational food businesses as problematic, informed by a history of “bad practices,” there have been significant changes in some parts of the private sector towards environmental sustainability. Given their dominance over global and national food systems, these large corporations must be part of the solution. Further, many small- and medium-sized businesses play a key role in the supply of food in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and especially to the poor.

There is also a critical role for civil society organizations, including consumer groups, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the UNFSS process. In many cases, these organizations bring the interests and perspectives of stakeholders that are under-represented at global summits. They also have a role to play in holding powerful interests to account, and in implementing and monitoring agreed actions post-Summit.

We all want the UNFSS to be more than the proverbial “all hat and no cattle.” To achieve that, there must be a robust accountability mechanism tied to guaranteed investments that holds actors to their commitments. The UNFSS may be impressive in its planning, but without ensuring accountability on the basic issues of what, who, and by when, it risks falling short in its execution.


Namukolo Covic is a Senior Research Coordinator with A4NH, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Achim Dobermann is Chief Scientist for the International Fertilizer Association; Jessica Fanzo is the Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Berman Institute of Bioethics, and the Department of International Health of the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health; Spencer Henson is a Full Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, Canada; Mario Herrero is a Professor of Sustainable Food Systems and Global Change at Cornell University; Prabhu Pingali is the Founding Director of the Tata Cornell Institute; Steve Staal is an agricultural economist currently working with the International Livestock Research Institute as a Regional Representative for East and Southeast Asia.

This piece, which was also posted on the International Food Policy Research Institute's blog series on UNFSS, is based on an article in Global Food Security

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