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Exploring the interplay of food and forests: Insights from the UN Food Systems Summit

Blog | Mon, 11 Sep, 2023 · 11 min read

Photo credit: FAO Guatemala

In July, 2023, the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment (UNFSS+2) emerged as a pivotal assembly held in Rome at FAO headquarters.

With over 20 heads of state, 125 ministers, various stakeholders and 3,000 virtual participants, this biennial event, mandated by the UN Secretary-General, served as a global stocktaking aimed at reviewing the progress made in implementing the outcomes of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. At its core, UNFSS+2 was intricately woven into the broader fabric of the 2030 Agenda, championing sustainable management, conservation of precious resources, and notably, the need to recognize the pivotal role of agriculture as a solution in halting deforestation.

A key outcome of the summit was the renewed commitment of UN member nations. Eleven countries made UNFSS+2 Ministerial Statements to close the summit, all of which highlighted the importance of sustainable food systems, and over half acknowledged the significance of nature-friendly production. Uruguay's statement, for example, specifically addressed forest conservation and emissions reductions. More than 126 countries adopted or updated their UNFSS national pathways for food systems transformation, and 101 countries submitted voluntary country progress reports detailing progress made since 2021. The UNFSS+2 led to the launch of the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for accelerated Food Systems Transformation (FST), underlining six main actions needed to realize the potential of food systems. These include:

  1. embedding food systems strategies in national policies;
  2. establishing food systems governance that engages all sectors and stakeholders;
  3. investing in research, data, innovation, and technology capacities;
  4. enhancing inclusive, participatory design and implementation at the local level;
  5. bolstering business engagement and accountability for sustainability;
  6. and ensuring access to short- and long-term finance, supported by the launch of the Joint SDG Fund’s Food Systems Window, which aims to channel $350 million to country-level actions over the next five years.

This Call to Action also acknowledges the vital role of natural resources in the well-being of current and future generations, particularly rural communities, food producers, women farmers, and Indigenous peoples. It also recognizes the shocks that have intensified pressures on the environment and natural resources.

Global progress on food systems transformation since 2021 was captured by the Secretary-General's first biennial progress report. Country needs for support were identified via a global survey, alongside good practices for food systems transformation compiled into a database by the UNFSS Coordination Hub. The 28 Food Systems Coalitions also form part of a strong ecosystem of support to governments and to all food-related actors.

These include the Forests and Food Systems Coalition, which directly fosters positive connections between forests and food systems. The coalition is co-led by FAO, Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) and UNDP. UN-REDD, Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR) and Good Growth Partnership are key programme partners. The coalition launched a global needs assessment and engagement survey before the UNFSS+2 to discern global gaps and needs, aiming to empower both public and private stakeholders to advance forest-positive agricultural value chains and foster collective actions.

"Unlocking the full potential of agrifood systems can only happen if we focus on accelerators to help minimize trade-offs and maximize synergies," said FAO Director-General, Qu Dongyu. Themes such as the circular and bioeconomy, understanding the true cost of food, including health, natural resource degradation and climate change costs, fortifying legal infrastructure, and nurturing resilient agrifood systems by developing sustainable value chains and trade took center stage at the summit.

Amid the debates on challenges and solutions, the intricate nexus between agriculture and forests stood out in discussions around agroecology and climate change adaptation. Indeed, many nations highlighted initiatives based on agroecology and agroforestry, both of which embed the essence of sustainable agriculture and are considered highly effective for agricultural adaptation to climate change and enhancing resilience. In addition, a comprehensive approach to trade and markets, integrating agriculture, nutrition, and health, was also highlighted to maximize contributions to food security while minimizing potential negative effects, such as deforestation.

With agrifood systems contributing to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of biodiversity loss and deforestation and consuming up to 70 percent of freshwater, the interlinkages between food systems and forests, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity are impossible to ignore. Within the hidden costs of these agrifood systems, estimated at $12 to $17 trillion per year, around 20 percent are environmental costs linked to deforestation and land use. Forests bear the brunt of this pressure, which, in turn, negatively impacts agriculture by hindering the paramount ecosystem services offered by forests, such as water cycle regulation, soil fertility and pollination. However, this trade-off and its inherent potential for positive change still need to be mainstreamed into strategies for food systems transformation. The REDD+ national process, including UN-REDD technical assistance and initiatives, has the potential to foster collaboration between diverse stakeholders and serve as a positive platform for promoting innovation and enhancing integration in tropical forested countries.

As the summit came to a close, UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina J. Mohammed, captured the collective sentiments that the UNFSS+2 was not just a stocktaking moment, but also an opportunity to highlight the profound connections between our plate and the planet, stressing with a sense of urgency the long path ahead and the need to accelerate action. "We are failing in our quest to end poverty and hunger; in our fight against climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss; and, in our pursuit of gender equality, shared prosperity and peace for all,” she said. Indeed, more than a reflection on the past, UNFSS+2 was a call to action for the future.

The world's agrifood systems and forests are intricately linked, and their futures are similarly intertwined. Action in both sectors is required to reduce emissions, increase biodiversity, enhance resiliency, and foster employment. The Rome summit served as an acute reminder that to truly feed our future, we must protect our forests, transforming our agrifood systems and transitioning towards sustainable agriculture and forestry practices that benefit both people and the environment.

Within the framework of REDD+, FAO and the UN-REDD Programme stand ready and committed to continue working with countries as they unlock these critical steps that offer key solutions to halting deforestation while contributing to food security and the fight against climate change.