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After the summit means pre-summit: It was the first time that the United Nations held a summit on food systems. Martina Fleckenstein (WWF), Michael Kühn (WHH) and Christel Weller-Molongua (GIZ), who took part in the preparatory Action Tracks for the pre-summit in Rome, reviewed the situation in this joint interview.
We can now look back to the first major UN summit to be held in a hybrid format. How did it go?
Martina Fleckenstein: I was in Rome and was positively surprised. In addition to personal conversations on the ground, this format actually made it possible to involve global actors who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate.
Christel Weller-Molongua: I was one of the 20,000 online delegates, and I can confirm this. Also, it was amazing to see so many country representatives taking an active part. You may remember that in the run-up to the event there had been criticism from civil society that they weren’t sufficiently involved, and although this was true for some groups, the overall organisation of the Pre-Summit showed repeatedly that there was a major endeavour to get civil society onto the stage to contribute their positions. It worked out well. So, with hindsight, I’m really pleased with the event. I even found it inspiring.
What was missing?
Weller-Molongua: Well, obviously, interaction is rather lacking at virtual meetings, as everyone tends to be more passive: no chats during breaks or discussions in the corridors …
Fleckenstein: … and this was much easier to do in Rome than at any other previous event. Delegate numbers were rather limited, as only up to 500 persons were allowed into the building. But this made everything more manageable and more personal. It was a format that might point the way for other summits in the future, with the caveat that no issues were discussed at the Pre-Summit, but it was largely a matter of presenting results. Ideas and solutions were shown and agreements obtained – as a joint effort of the member countries, civil society and private business.
Ms. Weller-Molongua, seeing that you found the summit so inspiring, were your expectations a bit low before you went?
Weller-Molongua: They certainly were. Not only did I have reservations about the hybrid format, but I certainly hadn’t expected so much in-depth discussion, covering such a wide range.
Fleckenstein: Also, it was the first time that there was a large proportion of women, and this had a very constructive impact.
Mr. Kühn, what were your feelings when you started working on the Action Track? Did you think it would just be another summit with a few pleasant words?
Michael Kühn: I did. We were quite critical and thought: Here’s yet another procedure which will mean laboriously putting together information that is already available, and in the end there’ll be no political will to implement it, because any change to the existing food systems would be impossible without a few unpleasant decisions. As an organisation, on the other hand, we felt that perhaps it would be worthwhile not just to criticise the procedure from outside, but to get involved and to take part in the discussion, as we’d then be able to determine what went well and what didn’t.
So what happened?
Kühn: Action Track 5, where we made our contribution, was about creating resilience. There were some very compelling messages, for instance from SIPRI Director Dan Smith, who said: ‘Unless we get a chance to look at “hunger and conflict”, I will leave straight away.’ That was a lot of verve, and it made a difference. It also matched our own background and experience as an NGO. After all, here we were, talking about complex circumstances while being confronted with situations in countries that are facing armed conflicts. This makes it impossible to adopt a rational approach to changing any existing food systems, and other options need to be found. Alternatively, the problems could be solved at a higher level, by putting an end to ongoing wars.
How would you sum up the Action Track?
Kühn: My impressions were rather more nuanced. It was pretty chaotic. We joined in January and realised that there was a large number of partners from the North, but only very few participants from the South, and not many from civil society. That changed a bit, but not really properly, even though the organisers made an effort to more actively involve Southern partners from civil society.
What made it so chaotic?
Kühn: The deadlines were very tight. The period of time when we could gather information from various countries and generate ideas was roughly from Monday to Friday. If we’d been a thinktank, we’d probably have had all these things up our sleeve, but we had to dig quite a long way into it, which took a lot of effort. The pace was set by others, and so, as an NGO, we had to run fast to keep up. Nevertheless, we did manage to get our points across. There were times when I felt that the Action Track organisers themselves didn’t know what to organise. The questions they sent to the Summit office suggested that they’d been left to fend for themselves from time to time.
Fleckenstein: There’s definitely room for improvement here, as the tight timelines were also quite difficult for us. Not all the preparations were perfect. But then, of course, this was the very first UN summit on food systems. If there’s a second Food Summit, then quite a few organisational issues will need to be reassessed. Still, the result was very good: We’ve now got the “ingredients” necessary to work towards a food transition plan. What we need to do now is actually bake the cake that will be eaten at the summit in September.
The greatest challenge will be to put the food issue on the agendas of other UN conventions as well, i.e. the ones on biodiversity and climate and, above all, the Land Convention.
Weller-Molongua: it was a bottom-up process, and this always means chaos at some stage. We know this from participatory rural development work. When I compare the preparation period for this Pre-Summit with those of other summits, then it was rather short and therefore quite sporty. There were also times when I felt I was losing my bearings, and I had problems finding my feet during the Action Track where I was supposed to represent Germany in matters of content. So I rang Welthungerhilfe – and we realised we were actually fellow sufferers (laughs). As time went on, I began to regain my confidence, because I understood that we were walking in the same direction. So we consolidated the solutions into several solution clusters, which led to some initial coalitions.
Was it a matter of merging lots of separate ideas into a single shared framework?
Weller-Molongua: It was actually far more complicated. Nutrition is not a simple issue that follows a clear paradigm. Food systems mean systematically bringing together value chains, production, consumer behaviour and nutrition as such.
Kühn: What matters now is the actual implementation. On the positive side, I think some of the things we discussed in the silos and in our bubble are now gradually reaching the mainstream. Also, where there are multiple crises, they’re finally being identified as such. But this isn’t enough by itself. There are several decisions that need to be taken at the summit: Who’s doing what and when? And then the steps need to be monitored. The economist Jeffrey Sachs summed it up very neatly: In his statement, he urged all of us to do our homework, as a food system always consists of multinational actors who basically do what they want. Moreover, it is profit-based, and not enough money reaches poor countries, while there is a major lack of responsibility, particularly among large countries, in dealing with natural resources. International law is almost never respected. Yet human rights definitely need to be put back on the agenda. Ultimately, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are a decision to implement human rights.
So what are the specific steps that are needed to make the New York summit a success?
Kühn: Obviously, there’s a need for political action on the part of governments, as proposed by Sachs. This will mean contributing money to fund the various national pathways. The sums that have been mentioned up to now are far too low. Also, there needs to be a powerful United Nations organisation. The administrative budget of the UN is a joke compared with the budget of the city of New York alone.
Weller-Molongua: I can definitely confirm that. Each country must now define its own pathway, though it’s perfectly all right for those pathways to look different. And they need at least twice as much money to move on to the next step, which is: implement, implement, implement. However, this isn’t just about the countries of the global South. There’s also been a national dialogue in Germany, though I haven’t followed much of it. It’s something that always involves reciprocal rights and obligations. We’ll have to take a critical look at some fundamental issues and also at our own food system, and we’ll need to change a few things, so that we can contribute to a more sustainable development.
Fleckenstein: For me, it’s more important what will happen after the summit. We can’t afford to have a successful summit in New York and then just return to total silence again. Now that a channel has been opened, it needs to be filled with content. All the stakeholders will have to keep up their very impressive involvement. We mustn’t stop at this point.
What’s the role of Germany in all this?
Fleckenstein: Germany is a key donor. And next year, the German government will be hosting a G7 summit. This is something the government should prepare for quite soon, and perhaps it could put a special focus on food systems …
Kühn: It's all very well having a G7 declaration. But if, for example, the G7 were to announce that they want to make 3 billion euros available for education, and the UN organisations were documenting at the same time that 30 to 40 billion euros are needed, then that would sum up the problem. A G7 declaration would be useless. Such commitments, however, need to be made not only by the German government, but also by the USA, Russia, China and all other major countries.
Fleckenstein: I can also see a role for the private sector in contributing to a food transition plan, including funds that it might provide – in the right direction, of course. Calibrating this will be an important task.
Weller-Molongua: I can see a need for all these things. However, I’m doubtful whether it’ll be possible to obtain any financial pledges before the New York summit. The biggest players were present in Rome. But I’m certainly not aware of any specific commitments on their parts.
What do you reckon Germany should contribute?
Fleckenstein: We could follow the example of the UK, where a food system strategy was presented quite recently, whereas in Germany we’re looking almost exclusively at agriculture, i.e. food production on farmland. The UK strategy, on the other hand, also involves nutrition and consumption. We learned from the Pre-Summit that we need a systematic approach, in other words: we need to look at the plate of the consumer. Food waste and nutritional recommendations are equally important, and indeed across different ministries. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) handles food security at the international level, and the Ministry of Agriculture looks at production at the national level. But where are the Ministries of the Environment, Health and Finance? There needs to be a shared vision. I’ve sifted through all the various party manifestos for the German federal elections, but haven’t found anything about a food act anywhere.
What are other critical issues?
Weller-Molongua: I’d say the governance structure is still an open issue. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Muhammed did state at the summit that there should be no new structures and that the UN agencies in Rome would be in charge. But their areas of responsibility are limited. When it comes to making connections with biodiversity, the climate and other SDGs of the 2030 Agenda, as Ms. Fleckenstein said, then the UN structures in New York also need to be involved; anything else would fall short of the mark.
Kühn: In that case, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) should to be given more support.
Fleckenstein: I’d have similar concerns if the follow-up process were to be handled entirely by the agencies in Rome, as this might reduce the innovative strength. What made the Pre-Summit so strong was precisely its diversity, with the participation of actors from civil society. We forged 2,000 ideas into 52 solutions clusters. It hasn’t yet been decided how the coalitions will be composed, but it’s important that civil society has its place among them.
Weller-Molongua: Are there any plans to set up teams that will lead the coalitions?
Fleckenstein: Yes, this is currently being discussed.
Kühn: And they won’t be led by member states?
Fleckenstein: The various countries are important and should be involved, but on an equal footing, together with civil society and all other actors.
Kühn: In our Action Track, it was said that unless we find member states to work with, a coalition will fail.
Fleckenstein: Yes, they’re needed, and implementation would be difficult without them. But the Pre-Summit also showed that change can only happen under a multi-stakeholder approach.
Did the Pre-Summit generate any momentum?
Fleckenstein: Many say the Pre-Summit was the actual Summit, as the one in New York won’t be as long – not three days, but only one and a half. Rome was far more a place of visions than New York will be.
Weller-Molongua and Kühn: We’ve got nothing to add to that.