Our current food system is failing millions around the world. 735 million people face hunger every day while more than three billion cannot afford a healthy diet. Moreover, food systems remain the number one transgressor of our planetary boundaries. Ongoing conflicts, extreme weather patterns and soaring food prices haven’t made it easier. Increased investments estimated between US$300bn to 350bn are needed annually over the next decade to ensure that our global food system is fit for purpose.
Progress made so far
Two years ago, more than 110 countries drafted a national food systems pathway where they committed to country specific ambitions to make food systems more healthy, sustainable and equitable. In a few days from now, from 24 to 26 July, governments and stakeholders will gather at the UN Food Systems Summit+2 Stocktaking Moment co-hosted by the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub (UNFS Hub) to assess where countries have made progress. All eyes will be on national governments, but what progress is expected of the private sector? Will multinationals have to consult each pathway in the countries where they operate? That is practically impossible for global food and agriculture businesses as several of them operate in more than 100 countries. ‘Big food and agriculture’ dominate food systems, and many are undertaking laudable initiative, but who is holding the sector to account and measuring progress? Therefore, we call on the UNFS Hub to embed corporate accountability into the stocktaking process to ensure the private sector ramps up its efforts.
Impact of food systems
Encouragingly, we see leading practices emerging from the private sector on many fronts including reducing food loss and waste, improving farmer resilience, ethical sourcing and soil health. However, it’s not at the scale and speed required and it is not clear if food businesses are having a net positive impact on food systems through these new initiatives. The sector is currently responsible for 90% of global deforestation, 70% of biodiversity loss, a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of our global freshwater supplies. Further, poor diets - heavily influenced by the food system - remain one of the major drivers of global mortality and morbidity. The challenges are too great to be faced by policy makers alone. Transforming our food system requires universal action, from farmers to consumers, businesses to governments, and investors to civil society. The stakes are high, but so are the gains. As one of the biggest industries in the world, food and agriculture should be held accountable to positively contribute to human and planetary health. Companies have the power and influence to either accelerate or prevent the shift to a more sustainable food system. They need to switch from short-term agendas focused on maximizing profit, to long-term value creation.
Embedding corporate accountability into the stocktaking process will allow for a biennale assessment of the private sector, understanding where progress is and is not being made, forming an invaluable guide to prioritize future actions. Corporate accountability has become a buzz word - it means different things to different people, ranging from simple transparency to a means of excluding companies from attending global summits. To ensure corporate accountability is effective and productive, there must be a transparent and consultative process in which the UN Sustainable Development Goals are made actionable through science-based targets, international standards and clear metrics. This should result in publicly available, comparable corporate data that can be used by governments, civil society and investors to make business (in)action consequential. An effective corporate accountability mechanism requires that the roles and responsibilities of businesses are clearly articulated in the context of global food systems.
Call to action
Providing this clarity is not the role of a UN body or secretariat alone, but we do call upon the UNFS Hub to facilitate a process with governments and stakeholders to bring such clarity and accountability. That process should start at the opening of the Stocktake on Monday 24 July and come into effect at the next Stocktake in 2025.
Following the boycott of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 by hundreds of organisations claiming that large corporations had too much influence over the summit, the UNFS Hub hasn’t been able to put an effective framework in place to include the private sector in the stocktaking process. We call on the UNFS Hub to establish and facilitate a private sector task force that will develop recommendations and guidance on how to effectively embed corporate accountability into the stocktaking process by 2025. Lessons can be drawn from other global processes. These include Target 15 of the Global Biodiversity Framework that sets out the expectation for business on biodiversity, and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit that included clear principles of engagement with all stakeholders who shape food systems, to ensure that the summit delivered credible, sustainable, and well-supported outcomes.
A mechanism for corporate accountability in food systems will provide governments with a much-needed tool and concrete data to effectively engage with the private sector in their country, as well as for all stakeholders from civil society to investors to hold large multinational companies to account during stocktaking moments. With only seven harvests left until 2030, we need to come together as a global community and engage in difficult conversations around priorities and trade-offs. Inviting only the best performing companies to the table will not lead us anywhere significant. It is through honest discussions around roles and responsibilities, agreed frameworks – coupled with multi-stakeholder and multi-industry actions - we will move forward and accelerate food systems transformation that prioritize health, equity, resilience, and sustainability.