Animal Agriculture Alliance weighs in on the significance of the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and why feed producers should pay attention
The United Nations will host its 2021 Food Systems Summit on September 23. The event, which is part of the organization’s “Decade of Action” to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, brings together key players in science, business, policy, health care and academia to develop a sustainable and equitable global food system. Naturally, this discourse includes the role animal agriculture and, in turn, feed production will play in achieving these goals.
In July, the U.N. held a Pre-Summit to highlighting the many ways stakeholders can deliver on the 17 SDGs through food production.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president – strategic engagement, Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA), joined the Chat to provide an overview of the U.N. Food Systems Summit, what it may mean for animal agriculture, and why feed producers should stay in the know about this global sustainability effort.
Transcription of Feed Strategy Chat with Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president – strategic engagement, Animal Agriculture Alliance
Jackie Roembke, editor, Feed Strategy: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Feed Strategy Chat. I’m your host, Jackie Roembke, editor of Feed Strategy magazine.
This edition of Feed Strategy Chat is brought to you by WATT Global Media and FeedStrategy.com. FeedStrategy.com is your source for the latest news and leading-edge analysis of the global animal feed industry.
Today we’re joined on Zoom by Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of strategic engagement at the Animal Agriculture Alliance. She’s here to discuss the upcoming U.N. Food Systems Summit and offers her take on the long-term impacts it may have on the global animal feed industry.
Hi, Hannah, how are you?
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president – strategic engagement, Animal Agriculture Alliance: Hi, Jackie. I’m great. Glad to be here for this important conversation.
Roembke: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, again for taking the time. So let’s get right into it. For those who don’t know, please tell us a little bit about the U.N. Food Systems Summit.
Thompson-Weeman: So the U.N. Secretary General, I believe in 2019, announced the convening of a U.N. Food Systems Summit as part of a decade of action toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. So the U.N. Food Systems Summit was supposed to be initially last year. Of course, with the pandemic, everything has been delayed. So the summit itself has now been pushed and will be held next month on September 23, in conjunction with the U.N. General Assembly going on in New York City. So the Food Systems Summit was announced by the U.N. as a way to drive action again, towards those 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed upon by U.N. member states back in, I believe, 2015. So the summit is recognizing the importance of agriculture globally in terms of sustainability and food systems and achieving the goals set out by the U.N. for a sustainable planet. And the Food Systems Summit has been the U.N.’s way of getting the food community involved in that conversation.
It has been quite a moving target, a lot of different moving pieces, to attempt to follow. The Alliance started engaging in the Food Systems Summit towards the end of last year. And several of our members and others in the agriculture and animal ag community have been very involved as well, trying to find any way to make sure the perspective of animal agriculture — especially U.S. animal agriculture — is being represented because, as we all know, when there are conversations about sustainability, sometimes there are exaggerated or inaccurate claims made about the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
So it’s really important to be there and set that record straight and correct the narrative on our sustainability journey.
Roembke: Great. And they held a Pre-Summit back in July. What do you believe are the main takeaways from that event?
Thompson-Weeman: At the Pre-Summit in July, we believe was kind of the bread and butter of discussions at the event coming up in September, which is only a one-day event. We don’t have an agenda or anything yet, but we do believe it’ll be a little more ceremonial in nature versus the Pre-Summit in July, which was quite robust: about three days of content, several parallel sessions, affiliated sessions happening there, around all of the work of the Food Systems Summit.
Now, up to this point, up to the Pre-Summit, the work of the Food Systems Summit had been organized into five Action Tracks. Those Action Tracks cover everything — from nature, positive food production, to healthy and accessible diets, to sustainable diets, resilience in the food supply chain, equitable livelihoods. There are five subject areas that these Action Tracks were organized around.
So those five Action Tracks were communicated about quite a bit at the Pre-Summit. And, of course, the one that we’ve had the most concern around is Action Track 2, which has been focused around healthy, sustainable diets. Of course, healthy and sustainable are all terms we can get around, but the definition is in the eye of the beholder. So there have been some voices involved in those Action Track 2 discussions, such as some leaders from organizations that are very opposed to animal protein, or from groups like the EAT Forum, who was involved with the EAT-Lancet report a few years ago that called for a drastic reduction, if not elimination of, animal protein consumption in the name of a planetary health diet. So that was one of the major conversations we were following going in to the Pre-Summit in July.
A few main outcomes and takeaways from what we observed from that event: First is a major focus on the true cost of food. That has been a concept that’s been discussed within these Food Systems Summit conversations quite a bit. And it came out loud and clear in the Pre-Summit and was really emphasized by several summit leaders, which is that the cost of food does not account for negative externalities of food production, like from their perspective, environmental impact animal welfare, labor, human rights issues. So they believe that food should cost up to three times more in order to account for those costs, or we need to start addressing them in some other way. So that true cost of food and narrative was really a major discussion point.
There were also some negative references to modern animal agriculture — or modern agriculture in general. References to industrialized production, discussions of things like the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy as a model for the world to adopt some negative references to things like farm size that we would be concerned about. And then there was at least one session that had quite a few references to at least industrialized countries or countries like the U.S., North America needing to significantly reduce our animal protein consumption. Though they did recognize it from their perspective at least that some parts of the world might need to boost their animal protein consumption.
A few silver linings of the Pre-Summit: One was a lot of recognition of the value of farmers, USFRA (U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action) CEO Erin Fitzgerald, she had the opportunity to speak on a few different sessions. There were several sessions talking about the importance of farmers being at the table being part of a solution and not part of a sustainability problem, which is a role that we’re really glad to see the Food Systems Summit recognizing.
A lot of the member states that spoke during the Pre-Summit really emphasize the importance of innovation, science, technology and research. Our Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Jewel Bronaugh played a really important role in the summit, speaking several times, and really honing in on the importance of innovation and those concepts that are really important to U.S. agriculture.
One of the main takeaways of the Pre-Summit was the formation of Coalitions of Action. And that sounds like it will be one of the main, longstanding pillars of the summit going into the future, the formation of these Coalitions of Action that are led by member states. So a handful of Coalitions of Action have already come together around a few key topics, and we anticipate there might be changes in that list coming up with the main summit in September. But those Coalitions of Action are going to be something that has legs after the summit in September.
Roembke: And you mentioned the long-term impacts. How could the Food Systems Summit impact the global animal feed industry? Or what do you feed producers need to know?
Thompson-Weeman: There were a lot of concerns early on in the process about what the outcomes of the Food Systems Summit would be. Would it be, you know, some kind of binding pledge that member states would need to adhere to? Would it be a very prescriptive statement about diets and what they should look like and what food guidelines should look like for each country?
But as it evolved, it seems like some messages that countries like the U.S. have been carrying through have been heard, which is that sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every country, every region of the world, every sector of the industry needs to find its own path and what works within its local context. So it does seem like there is appreciation for that concept, and that the outcomes will not be overly prescriptive. It is a little bit still unclear what the actual outcomes will be. Again, we do know a list of four or five bullet points that the organizers have stated as outcomes.
One is those Coalitions of Action. So again, that’s Member States stepping up and leading Coalitions focused on these issues, but we don’t know what those will look like, will be any kind of governance structure, what will they be expected to do or report on that is unclear, but there will be formation of a Coalitions of Action coming out of this.
Second is some kind of compendium documenting all of the inputs into the Food Systems Summit. So there are a few ways that the public or any interested entities could weigh in, doing things like hosting independent dialogues, which the U.S. animal ag community did host an event in April to share our perspective. Countries hosted member state dialogues to get their perspective heard. There was the opportunity to submit solutions.
So game-changing ideas, solutions for potential things the food system could do to enhance sustainability and they got over 2,000 submissions. So there will be some kind of Compendium, whether it’s a document or an interactive website, something that summarizes all of the content. But again, it sounds like it will just be a summary and not necessarily “here are the actions that have to be taken” as a result of all of that.
There also has been some discussion of long-term governance. So, you know, again, what happens after the Summit, and it does sound like there is not interest in creating a whole new U.N. structure, or new entity to carry forth the work of the Food Systems Summit. It sounds like there will be some kind of grounding of the future Food Systems Summit work within the room based agencies of the U.N., including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). So we don’t think there’ll be a whole new wheel invented, there’ll be some kind of longer term structure to continue looking at these topics within structures that already exist, which is probably a positive thing as those structures are already in place versus creating something completely new from the ground up, which was also a major discussion point during the Pre-Summit.
So with all that being said, it is still unfortunately a month out a little unclear what the tangible takeaways will be. But what the Alliance and a lot of others in the animal ag community globally have been doing is trying to make sure there is a place for sustainable livestock production and a recognition of the role of sustainable livestock in healthy sustainable diets as well as ensuring livelihoods around the world.
So if we can get some kind of recognition within the Compendium within those outcomes, there is already a solution cluster within those game changers around sustainable livestock. We want to make sure that somewhere capturing these outcomes is the value of sustainable livestock globally so we can point to that as a precedent in the future.
Roembke: Very good. And what can the feed industry do to get involved or at least stay informed?
Thompson-Weeman: Anyone can register for the full summit on September 23, so if you’re interested in tuning in, you can certainly register for that. We’re hoping it’s on New York time instead of Rome time like the Pre-Summit. So it might be a little easier to tune in for folks here in North America. But we do anticipate it being a shorter event, potentially more ceremonial. So definitely something that can be tuned into.
But of course the Alliance and others will be watching as well and happy to share recaps with the community. There’s also a lot of conversation going on online within the media about the Food Systems Summit. So we encourage using the next month, especially the time around the Food Systems Summit when journalists might be writing about it.
When people are paying attention, maybe searching for the hashtag, use this time to amp up discussions of your company, your organization, your industry’s sustainability work, now is the time to be talking about sustainable animal protein. And certainly feed is an essential component of animal protein sustainability journey. So now is the time to be talking about that using the official Summit hashtags, pitching to media and making sure if they’re covering sustainability in the next month, they have the perspective and they have the story of the animal feed industry to refer to again as well as staying tuned in, staying informed for the outcomes of the Summit and what reactions might be necessary following the event in September.
Roembke: Excellent. Thank you so much for all that insight and information. If you would like more on the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s sustainability resources, and social content for communicating about the Food Systems Summit, please visit animalgalliance.org/issues/sustainability or animalagalliance.org/resource/food-systems-summit-social-media/