The United Nations Food Systems Summit: What’s at Stake for the United States?

Last fall, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres announced he would convene a major UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in New York this September. He made clear that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could not be achieved without transforming the world’s food and agriculture systems to become more productive, environmentally sustainable, and able to deliver more nutritious, affordable food.

As a leading producer and exporter of agricultural commodities, the United States plays an outsize role in global food and feed production, markets, and the science and technology that powers them. The United States has also been the prime leader of efforts to expand investment for agricultural development in low-income countries. Most recently, following the 2007-08 global food crisis, President Obama launched Feed the Future and raised additional resources through the G8 and G20 to help reverse the decades-long disinvestment in agriculture.

The UNFSS comes at a watershed moment when the world’s food and agriculture system is facing a convergence of challenges. These challenges have major implications within the United States and globally. U.S. engagement and leadership to map a way forward are crucial.

A Convergence of Challenges

For the past 60 years, agricultural innovation has fed the world and served as an engine of inclusive economic growth. High-yielding staple crop varieties, fertilizers, and new agronomic approaches are the foundations for U.S. production agriculture, and their spread enabled dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and the reduction of rural poverty around the world. The work of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution” and winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, is widely credited with helping Asian countries avert famine.

Today, hunger is rising again, and there are increasing doubts about whether the productivity-centered model will be adequate to nourish 10 billion people in the world by 2050. The Covid-19 pandemic has imposed additional challenges. The number of people vulnerable to severe hunger around the world is expected to nearly double in 2021.

In the United States and globally, public policies focused on improving the productivity of major staple food and feed crops made these foods more abundant and less expensive. Research now suggests that the unintended impact has been a less-diverse food environment that is unable to provide an adequate variety of affordable, safe, and nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and—especially for lower-income groups—dairy, meats, and seafood.

Poor diets are now the leading contributor to the global burden of disease, fueled by rising rates of obesity and diet-related diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Consumer food preferences have shifted toward processed, ready-to-eat foods and sugar-sweetened beverages and—among higher-income groups—to excessive consumption of animal-source foods. Most concerning is that poor consumers have limited access to healthy foods. For the first time in 20 years, global poverty is expected to significantly increase—adding to the estimated 3 billion people worldwide who cannot afford the cheapest form of a healthy diet.

Climate change is dramatically affecting agricultural systems around the world—raising temperatures, reducing yields, shifting rainfall patterns, and increasing the frequency of droughts and flooding. In some regions, climate changes are also exacerbating tensions that are then fueling displacement and migration. Agriculture itself is a major factor in climate change, responsible for nearly a quarter of global annual GHG emissions during 2007-2016. Agricultural production contributes directly to climate change through emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide greenhouse gases and through conversion of land to agricultural use.

Agriculture’s consumption of natural resources is also unsustainable. The inefficient application of inorganic fertilizers—a key factor in agricultural productivity gains—has led to runoff of excess nitrate and phosphate and increasing red tides and dead zones in rivers and oceans. Over half of the 120 million tons of nitrogen fertilizers used for agriculture each year is thought to end up in waterways. Expanding land use for agriculture, deteriorating soil quality, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of waterways and air are already pushing agriculture’s consumption of natural resources past the limits of planetary sustainability. A growing body of research supports the emerging consensus—finding a better balance between sustaining the Earth’s natural resource base and food production is an urgent priority.

Why Is the UNFSS Important?

Past UN food summits have been critical in sparking innovative responses and collaborations to address major global food crises. The first World Food Conference was convened in 1974 after poor weather, low grain stocks, rising energy prices and export controls led to devastating food shortages in South Asia. The United States played a key role, with then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger leading governments to set a goal of eradicating hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition within a decade. The conference drew high-level attention and resources for increasing agricultural productivity in low-income countries, creating the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and expanding support for agricultural research through the new CGIAR network.

Global food summits have also marked key inflection points in our understanding of food security. In the 1970s, food security was seen mainly as an issue of food production and supply, leading to a focus on investments to increase agricultural productivity and policies to reduce price variability.

The 1996 World Food Summit in Rome adopted a revised concept of food security influenced by Amartya Sen’s seminal argument that famine results not only from a lack of food but because of inequalities in systems for food distribution and access. Greater emphasis was given to policy and program options to improve food access and availability, on emergency food aid, and to the emerging concepts of vulnerability, resilience, and risk management.

Following the 2007-08 global food price crisis, the 2009 World Food Summit called for increased funding for agricultural development in low-income countries and adopted the Rome Principles for Sustainable Global Food Security. These principles—investing against country-owned plans, improving strategic coordination, and adopting a twin-track approach to address urgent hunger while making longer-term investments in agriculture—influenced Feed the Future and other major investments.

The 2021 UNFSS suggests a new conceptual shift—from a focus on agriculture, and especially production agriculture—to the possibility of reshaping the global food system to become more productive, resilient, sustainable and healthy.


The 2021 UNFSS suggests a new conceptual shift—from a focus on agriculture, and especially production agriculture—to the possibility of reshaping the global food system to become more productive, resilient, sustainable and healthy.

UNFSS Organization

Preparations are underway for a pre-summit meeting in the summer, followed by the main summit in September 2021. The United States holds a seat on the 26-member UNFSS Advisory Committee. Instead of a traditional government-focused meeting with a negotiated agreement at the end, UNFSS is described as a “people’s summit” and a “solutions summit” that aims to engage a variety of public and private actors at all levels of the food system. The intent is to elevate the public discussion about the importance of transforming food systems to achieve all SDGs and identify game-changing solutions to address challenges in five inter-related Action Tracks:

1. Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all

2. Shift to sustainable consumption patterns

3. Boost nature-positive production

4. Advance equitable livelihoods

5. Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress

Several U.S. scientists serve on the Independent Scientific Group, which provides the science and evidence base to support the Action Tracks and Dialogues. Dialogues—convened by member governments, alongside major conferences, and by groups and individual stakeholders—will facilitate discussions of scientific evidence, experiences, and innovations, aimed at generating practical innovations and potential opportunities to work together.

How Should the United States Engage in UNFSS?

The evolution to a more sustainable, resilient, nutritious global food system cannot succeed without U.S. commitment, science, and investment. The UNFSS will be a critical opportunity for U.S. leadership. What are priorities for action by the Biden administration?

1. Expand the role of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). During the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Under Secretary of Agriculture led the UNFSS interagency team, focusing on disagreements with European farm policy. A broader approach that recognizes both domestic and global opportunities is needed.

The Biden administration should provide significant financial support for the UNFSS and fill its Advisory Committee seat with an experienced senior official who will coordinate the U.S. interagency team and serve as the main U.S. representative to the UNFSS at home and abroad. The new administration should move quickly to expand the role of the State Department, USAID, and other agencies in developing the U.S. response to ensure that actions and resources are well-coordinated and support both U.S. foreign policy and domestic goals. Engaging with the UNFSS will signal the new administration’s renewed commitment to partnering with the UN, multilateral agencies, and other countries on critical global challenges.

2. Develop consensus around priority investments to achieve a more resilient, environmentally sustainable U.S. food system. The UNFSS dialogues provide an opportunity to encourage diverse U.S. food system stakeholders to chart a path to improved productivity and environmental sustainability. The Biden administration should strongly encourage and participate in these discussions, which will be important for both UNFSS and the Paris Climate Agreement. Key groups are already moving in this direction. The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance—a new group of unusual partners co-chaired by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and National Farmers Union—has developed a list of 40 recommendations to improve U.S. agricultural and forestry climate policies.

3. Elevate attention to improving diets. As part of the shift from productivity-dominated agricultural policies, the United States will also need to prioritize investments that expand access to safe, nutritious, and affordable foods. This has been a challenge in U.S. programs and in foreign assistance. For example, improving nutrition is a core objective of Feed the Future and humanitarian assistance, but the programs have struggled with the integration of relief, agricultural development, and nutrition objectives.

Preparing for the UNFSS provides a key impetus for discussions focused on emerging innovations and policies needed to improve the supply and demand for healthy foods. Food TankAGree, the World Food Prize Foundation, and the Chicago Council for Global Affairs, among other groups, are facilitating dialogues that will be important inputs for the UNFSS—and the new administration. The discussions include diverse groups—including chefs, small farmers, youth, and government leaders—and showcase problems and promising approaches.

4. Support locally driven strategies for food system transformation. The impact of the pandemic on food systems and economies highlighted the critical role of local and regional organizations in fostering resilience. Future food systems will need to be better tailored to local and regional resources and demands. In the United States, groups such as Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems are working on evidence-based food system models that are better integrated with local and regional economies.

In Africa, country-owned national agricultural plans initially developed through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Programme provide an investment and accountability framework for governments, private sector, and donors—including the United States and Feed the Future. The UNFSS will provide an important opportunity to revisit these plans with a food systems lens. The U.S. Global Food Security Strategy will be revised in 2021. It should signal that the United States will support the development and implementation of stakeholder-driven national food system plans during the next phase of Feed the Future.

5. Commit to a new generation of investment in science and technology. U.S. science and technology enabled the Green Revolution and the largest expansion of agricultural production in human history. The United States should again lead by example and commit to doubling its investments in science and technology that will help lay the foundation for food system transformation around the world. Promising new developments are already on the way. They include increasing interest in crop systems diversity and expanding research beyond staple crops; crop varieties that are more water-efficient and resilient to heat, pests, and diseases; more sustainable approaches to managing soil health and fertility; and information, analysis, and communication technologies that offer the promise of fundamentally changing operations and leveling the playing field at every step of the food system.

The evolution to a more sustainable, resilient, nutritious global food system cannot succeed without U.S. commitment, science, and investment.

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