After the UNFSS, How Should the United States Support Global Food Systems Transformation in Low-Income Countries?

The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) took place in late September after 18 months of intensive preparatory work. UN Secretary-General António Guterres tasked UNFSS leaders with finding a way forward from a host of food-related challenges that directly threaten the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030: rising hunger, increasing shocks from climate change, conflicts and pandemics, the explosion of diet-related disease, the unaffordability of healthy foods, and food systems’ unsustainable consumption of natural resources. The UNFSS offered a cornucopia of evidence, innovative initiatives, and partnerships, but stronger U.S. leadership is needed to help catalyze transformation of food systems in low-income countries.

What Did the UNFSS Achieve?

A conceptual shift to food systems. Through its focus on evidence-based analysis and inclusive dialogues, the UNFSS helped to foster an important conceptual shift away from the conventional, narrower focus on agricultural production toward a broader food system lens. The food systems perspective encompasses agricultural production, but also expands to include actors, activities, and organizations involved in processing, transporting, marketing, and consuming food. The shift to food systems also recognizes that the challenges are more complicated than simply increasing food production to end hunger—food and agriculture also have a significant impact on livelihoods, human health, and the environment. Food systems frameworks attempt to represent these complex dynamics and potential levers for action across a range of providers of commodities and services, those who consume them, and the policy and regulatory framework that governs them.

A seat at the table for science. The food systems concept was defined and examined through evidence-based analyses produced by the Scientific Group of the UNFSS, a diverse global group of independent researchers and scientists tasked with ensuring the quality of science underpinning the work of the main summit components (i.e., the five Action Tracks and country-organized and independent dialogues) and in the summit outcomes. The high-profile role of the Scientific Group was unusual for a global summit, and the group’s significance served as an explicit recognition of the central role that science and innovation will need to play in transforming food systems. It also sought to turn the page on years of unproductive arguments about genetic engineering that had come to dominate agriculture and trade discussions.

A focus on inclusiveness, stakeholder engagement, and fostering political will. Billed as a “people’s summit” and aided by the shift to largely virtual meetings during the pandemic, the UNFSS involved many individuals and grassroots organizations who would not have been able to participate in a traditional summit, especially women, youth, and Indigenous community leaders. Food systems are geographically and culturally specific; their transformation will require locally owned and led solutions. With support from the UNFSS, the confidence of local organizations and leaders in organizing discussions and speaking out on national and international stages grew. By the time of the summit, tens of thousands of people had participated in UNFSS preparatory meetings, including multi-stakeholder dialogues convened by governments in 148 countries, and 900 independent dialogues.

A transition from discussion to action. At the summit in September, nearly 300 commitments from civil society, farmers, youth, Indigenous communities, and governments were made. These included commitments from more than 150 countries to transform their food systems.

The African Union (AU) announced an African common position with priorities focused on improving nutrition, supporting local food supply chains and food trade within Africa, increasing finance for agriculture, ensuring smallholder and women’s access to productive resources, and expanding social safety net programs and climate early warning data systems. National-level food system transformation planning and implementation will build on existing continental mechanisms including the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s (NEPAD) Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), which has been charged with tracking commitments through the CAADP Biennial Review process. 

The national dialogues identified strengths and challenges in national food systems, many of them common to multiple countries and regions. Making progress on these challenges will require collaboration with multiple stakeholders and across sectors. Individuals, governments, organizations, and institutions who participated in the UNFSS Action Tracks and Scientific Group proposed initiatives, coalitions, and alliances intended to accelerate action in support of food system transformation priorities, upon request by countries and regions. An initial set of coalitions was announced at the summit. These groups will help countries and regions access networks with specific expertise, help coordinate investment, and provide support for knowledge exchange.

U.S. Commitments at the UNFSS

Early U.S. engagement with the UNFSS, led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), focused on U.S. domestic agriculture sector priorities, and emphasized disagreements with European farm policy. USDA continued to lead interagency efforts under President Biden, but the roles of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were significantly expanded, signaling greater attention to global as well as domestic opportunities.   

U.S. leaders at the UNFSS underscored the strong U.S. commitment to harnessing science and innovation to transform food systems. The goal is to meet global food and nutrition requirements with environmentally sustainable food systems that are more efficient, nutritious, and resilient to climate and other shocks.

At the UN General Assembly, President Biden announced a $10 billion commitment by the United States to “end hunger and invest in food systems at home and abroad” over five years. $5 billion will be spent to strengthen global food security through Feed the Future, with the remainder on U.S. domestic programs. The continued support of Feed the Future by the Biden administration was welcomed by the international community, although the funding does not represent a significant increase over previous years. The initiative has averaged $1 billion per year in funding since its launch by President Obama in 2010.

In addition, the United States joined several of the global initiatives announced at the UNFSS, including the Food is Never Waste coalition focused on research solutions and actions to reduce food loss and waste, and the School Meals Coalition aimed at ensuring that every child has access to nutritious meals in school by 2030. The United States also announced the formation of a new global coalition, Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation, focused on increasing agricultural productivity growth that also optimizes social, economic, and environmental sustainability. At the UNFSS, the United States also previewed the new Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) initiative, jointly developed with the United Arab Emirates, to increase public and private investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation. AIM for Climate was officially launched at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26).

Next Steps for Global Food Systems Transformation: Recommendations for the U.S. Government

The UNFSS produced a rich but almost overwhelming array of research analyses, innovative ideas, and diverse partnerships around early-stage initiatives. U.S. leadership will be critical to convert this wealth of resources and energy from the UNFSS into meaningful progress on food systems transformation in low-income countries. The question is: How can the United States best lead and be most impactful in its investments and partnerships?

Support country-led food system transformation plans. Following the UNFSS, it is clear that food systems transformation will have to be locally adapted, owned, and led to be effective and sustainable. The United States can draw on important previous experience in Africa to guide its support for food systems transformation. Prior to Feed the Future, USAID supported successful country-led efforts to develop evidence-based national agriculture sector plans through CAADP. Subsequently, Feed the Future investment priorities responded to the national plans developed through CAADP and helped to significantly expand private sector contributions to agricultural development. Feed the Future also supported the development of a respected peer review system to track investment commitments and implementation results overseen by the AU and NEPAD: the CAADP Biennial Review.  

In announcing the African common position for the UNFSS, Rwandan president Paul Kagame linked food systems transformation to CAADP, noting the opportunity to revise the existing CAADP support structures and the Biennial Review to reflect the broader food system mandate. The United States should lead by making funding available through Feed the Future to support country-led inclusive dialogues and analyses leading to revised national food system transformation plans and committing to support the national priorities identified in the transformation plans. In Africa, these efforts can be overseen by the AU and NEPAD, with critical support from the African Development Bank. Other regions may be able to draw upon existing structures such as the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to help establish comparable evidence-based and inclusive planning and oversight processes that build on the rich set of national dialogues begun during the UNFSS.

Support robust accountability processes. One of the key questions being asked following the UNFSS is how progress on commitments made at the summit will be tracked and by whom. Summit leaders promised a follow-up event in two years’ time. Past U.S. investments in the CAADP Biennial Review helped to establish a credible African peer review process supported by evidence and analyses by African experts. The United States should commit resources to support the transition of the CAADP Biennial Review to a Food System Transformation Biennial Review and similar regionally coordinated processes in Asia and Latin America.

Invest in local capacity and leadership. One of the impacts of the pandemic has been to force a shift in leadership and implementation responsibilities to local offices and staff. The pandemic provides an important and logical “reset” moment to shift U.S. assistance and investment priorities for food systems from external to local organizations. Although increasing funding provided directly to local organizations was a priority for previous USAID administrators, progress over the last decade has been marginal, with the proportion of USAID dollars going to local partners increasing only from 4 to 6 percent. In a recent speech, USAID administrator Samantha Power noted that as recently as 2017, 60 percent of USAID assistance was awarded to only 25 partners, in part due to the increased management costs of dealing with many smaller partners with varying levels of financial management skills and experience. She committed to increasing the proportion of funding going to local organizations to 25 percent over four years, with an initial focus on Central America. Following the UNFSS and the imperative for locally owned and led transformation efforts, the United States should prioritize capacity strengthening for national and community-based organizations working on food system transformation and set ambitious targets for providing U.S. funding directly to them.

Scale impact. It will be difficult to make progress on the UNFSS agenda without much more attention to scaling impact. Facilitating scaling will require a fundamental change in the way investments are made in food systems. Investments are still project driven, which means they tend to become siloed. Greater incentives and resources are needed to encourage collaboration across and within public and private sector projects to fund countries’ own priorities.

The United States can play an outsize role in shifting from the project mentality, which rewards a successfully completed project with another small project, to institutionalize the focus on scaling and achieving larger outcomes. Projects should instead be reimagined as ways to catalyze, de-risk, or otherwise advance systemic change by governments and businesses to advance food systems transformation. This will require major changes in strategy, metrics, and incentives to move the scaling agenda from the periphery into the mainstream of organizational operations. To support food system transformation plans, the United States should commit to transitioning from a focus on projects to a focus on achieving impact at scale, working in close collaboration with governments, other funders, the private sector, and civil society. Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa should be selected for a pilot phase, drawing on support from AU-NEPAD and the Biennial Review process.

Following the 2007–08 food price crisis, U.S. leadership helped to spark a remarkable convergence of bilateral, multilateral, and private sector efforts to address global food insecurity. Today, U.S. and global leadership are needed again to address a set of even more daunting challenges that threaten not only food security, but human health, livelihoods, and the very sustainability of our natural environment.

Julie Howard is a non-resident senior adviser with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is also an independent consultant on international development issues with a focus on food, agriculture, and Africa.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Julie Howard
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program