In 2020, the entire world knew what it was like to be hungry. Millions of people went without enough, with the most desperate now facing famine. At the same time, isolation took on a new meaning. The lonely and most remote areas were deprived of human contact when they most needed it, while the many victims of Covid-19 were starved off air. For many of us, the human experience fell far short of satisfying even the most basic needs.
The new pandemic provides a taste of a future at the limits of existence, where people are bereft, governments are stymied and economies wither. However, it has fuelled an unprecedented global appetite for change to prevent this from becoming our long-term reality.
For all the obstacles and challenges that we will face in the weeks and months ahead, I start 2021 with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope that the growling stomachs and the yearning in our hearts become the collective roar of defiance, and determination. It should, indeed, be a revolution to make this year better than the last, and the future brighter than the past.
It starts with food, the most primal form of sustenance. Food determines the health and prospects of more than 1.35 billion Africans. More than half-a-billion are employed in the food industry, especially agriculture, which offers a promise of economic growth and development.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food. Production, consumption and disposal would finally receive the requisite global attention, as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit. With two years’ worth of progress now compressed into the next 12 months, 2021 takes on a renewed significance.
After a year of global paralysis caused by the shock of Covid-19, we must channel our anxieties, our fears, our hunger, and our energies into action. We should wake up to the fact that by transforming food systems to be healthier, more sustainable and inclusive, we can recover from the pandemic and limit the impact of future crises.
The change will require all of us to think and act differently, since every one of us has a role to play in functioning food systems. Now, more than ever, we must look to our national leaders to chart the path forward. This they will do by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to their difficulties and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the betterment of all.
Policymakers must listen to Africa’s 450 million smallholders, who are the custodians of the resources producing our food. They should align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments.
We have entered 2021 with wind in our sails. More than 50 countries have joined the African Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks. The five pillars are nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. Currently, more than two 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.
However, this is just the beginning. With utmost urgency, I call on all the UN member states to join this global movement for a better and a more fulfilling future, starting with the transformation of food systems. I urge African governments to provide a platform that opens a conversation and guides countries towards tangible, concrete change. I encourage everyone with fire in their bellies to get actively involved with this year’s Food Systems Summit and start the journey of transitioning to more inclusive and sustainable food systems.
This is a “People’s Summit” 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 committed to improving this in their own communities and constituencies.
Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. It would be unforgivable if the world were allowed to forget the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. The writing is on the wall that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetites.
Ms Agnes Kalibata is the UN Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit