The beef sector cannot ignore the possible ripples when delegates arrive in New York later this month for the first UN Food Systems Summit.
That’s the message Robynne Anderson, director general of the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN), had while addressing the 2021 Canadian Beef Industry Conference in early September.
Why it matters: Livestock producers should expect long-reaching impacts from the first UN Food Systems Summit later this month.
Although the summit Sept. 23 will include no accords, no signed agreement to convey obligations to individual nations, Anderson stressed that the topics and discussions covered as part of the summit will certainly have an indirect effect on national policies as well as the overall tone of global discussion.
“What happens in these spaces is very important and it will foreshadow conversations that you will need to have in other aspects of your life and work,” she said.
The summit, to be held during the UN General Assembly, will be looking for paths and intersections within food systems to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — 17 goalposts included in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the UN in 2015. Those goals encompass 169 targets, and include broad categories such as ending poverty and hunger, restoring land and sea life, action against climate change, encouraging economic development and clean energy, supporting sustainable cities and decreasing inequality.
The summit distinguishes itself as the first such event with a focus on food systems, not just food security, a topic that tackles not just undernourishment, but malnourishment (such as factors of obesity) and opens the doors to more focus on environment as well as putting different values on different types of foods, Anderson said.
“We continue to see a signal that the UN is taking this very seriously,” Anderson said.
There is also every indication that the summit will have a strong environmental angle, something of significant interest to the livestock sector.
It is not the UN Food and Agriculture Agency, for example, heading the multi-agency committee behind the summit, but rather the head of the UN’s Environment Assembly, Anderson noted.
Likewise, the summit’s special envoy to the UN, Agnes Kalibata heads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (as well as being Rwanda’s former minister of agriculture and animal resources), which has a focus on “rapid, sustainable agricultural growth, improving the productivity and livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa,” according to her biography on the summit’s website.
Opportunities and challenges
Five “action tracks” will help direct the summit’s agenda: nutrition and hunger, sustainable consumption patterns, “nature-positive” production practices, equitable livelihoods and system resilience.
The summit will not be without chances for the livestock sector, and the beef sector in particular, to gain ground, Anderson argued, although she acknowledged that meat, in general, is currently on the defensive on the global stage when it comes to commonly held environmental ideas.
One Health, an approach looking for the intersection between animal, human and environmental health, is one topic on the agenda, as well as topics such as sustainable livestock — a topic Anderson expects the beef sector will be able to make a case in, by arguing the ecological role of the grasslands that cattle support — and questions of food security and global poverty.
“Discussions about food loss and waste, improving food safety, all of these things are important to the beef sector directly and to all human beings,” Anderson said.
That said, she noted, several names — some taking leadership roles in the upcoming discussions — are notable advocates of either reducing meat production or moving away from animal agriculture entirely.
“Plant-based solutions are obviously an important part of all agriculture, and including Canadian agriculture,” she said.
It is, in fact, a major conversation of current agricultural development.
Manitoba, for example, has keyed in on plant-based protein as a major prong of its protein advantage strategy, a provincial campaign to position the province as a major protein supplier. Nationally, organizations such as Canada’s protein supercluster, Protein Industries Canada, decided early in its inception to focus solely on plant-based protein.
At the same time, many proponents of sustainable agriculture, such as those espousing regenerative agriculture, would express dismay if meat were removed from the picture. In those systems, livestock is often considered an accelerator, if not a critical piece, in both the economics and ecological benefit to the farm operation — such as gains in biodiversity and soil health through practices like rotational grazing.
Likewise, Anderson said, such a move away from meat would have serious consequences when it comes to appropriate land use, since not all grazing-appropriate land could be successfully transferred to annual crops.
“Productive resources have to be employed to the maximum effectiveness in the environment in which they exist,” she said.
Producers are not, however, totally relegated to the sidelines of the discussion.
“There’s still a lot that’s still being decided about how livestock will be positioned in the final summit,” Anderson said.
Anderson urged producers to engage in discussion leading up to the summit. She pointed, for example, to the Good Food For All campaign, which asks the public to share their food stories over social media with the hashtag, #GoodFood4All.
The summit itself will also be far from the end of the discussion.
Anderson noted that the opening of the UN General Assembly will also include a conversation between world leaders on food systems.
Outcomes coming out of the summit will also go back to the agencies of the UN, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and will impact work coming out of those organizations.
Likewise, agriculture is expected to be featured heavily during climate change talks later this year and Environmental Assembly meetings in early 2022.