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Food’s a human right, not just ‘a commodity to be traded’: Guterres 

Women vendors sell fresh vegetables at a market in Limuru, Kenya.
FAO/Luis Tato
Women vendors sell fresh vegetables at a market in Limuru, Kenya.

Food’s a human right, not just ‘a commodity to be traded’: Guterres 

UN Affairs

Every day, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry. Three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. Two billion are overweight or obese and yet 462 million, are underweight. Nearly a third of all food that is produced, is lost or wasted.  

These are just some of the problems and contradictions laid bare by the UN Secretary-General on Thursday at the opening of the landmark UN Food Systems Summit, that is bringing together farmers and fishers, youth, Indigenous Peoples, Heads of State, governments and many more, in an effort to transform the sector and get the world back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 

For António Guterres, “change in food systems is not only possible, it is necessary”; for the people, for the planet and for prosperity.  

The UN chief warned, though, that COVID-19 has made the challenge much greater. 

The pandemic has deepened inequalities, decimated economies, plunged millions into extreme poverty and raised the spectre of famine in a growing number of countries.  

At the same time, Mr. Guterres said, the world is “waging a war against nature and reaping the bitter harvest”, with ruined crops, dwindling incomes and failing food systems. 

Food systems also generate one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, he added. And they’re responsible for up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss.  


Over the last 18 months, through national dialogues, governments gathered businesses, communities and civil society to chart pathways for the future of food systems across 148 countries. Over 100,000 people came together to discuss and debate solutions.  

From those discussions, came many proposals. Mr. Guterres chose to highlight three key areas of action.  

Support health and well-being 

First, there’s a need for food systems that support the health and well-being of all people. 

Recalling that nutritious and diverse diets are often too costly or inaccessible, Mr. Guterres said he is pleased to see many Member States rallying around universal access to nutritious meals in schools. 

Protect the planet 

Second, he argued that the world needs food systems that protect the planet.  

“It is possible to feed a growing global population while also safeguarding our environment. And it takes countries coming to COP26 in Glasgow with bold, targeted plans to keep the promise of the Paris Agreement,” he said. “The war on our planet must end, and food systems can help us build that peace.” 

Support prosperity 

Farmers are particularly vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods, and locust attacks
Farmers are particularly vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods, and locust attacks, by © FAO//Fredrik Lerneryd

Third, and finally, food systems need to support prosperity.  

“Not just the prosperity of businesses and shareholders. But the prosperity of farmers and food workers, and indeed, the billions of people worldwide who depend on this industry for their livelihoods,” argued the UN chief.  

Highlighting the selfless workers who have toiled in the fields and transported food during the deadly pandemic, he said “these women and men have been the unsung heroes of the last 18 months.”  

Despite that, “too often, these workers are underpaid, even exploited.”  

COVID-19 recovery 

These systems represent 10 per cent of the global economy and, because of that, Mr. Guterres believes they “can be a powerful driver for an inclusive and equitable recovery from COVID-19.” 

To make that a reality, though, he said governments need to shift their approach on agricultural subsidies, and employment support for workers.  

They also need to re-think how they see and value food, “not simply as a commodity to be traded, but as a right that every person shares.” 

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The Secretary-General assured that the UN would continue towards this end, together with the international community. The organization is convening a follow-up summit, in two years, to take stock of the progress.  

In the meantime, the UN chief said more businesses need to join in the work and the voice of civil society needs to continue pressing for change.  

“And throughout, we need the engagement of the people at the centre of our food systems. Family farmers, herders, workers, Indigenous Peoples, women, young people. Let’s learn from each other, and be inspired by one another, as we work together to achieve the SDGs,” he concluded. 

In his Chair Summary and Statement of Action, the Secretary-General also pointed to five action areas emerging from the Summit: provide nourishing food for all, boost nature-based solutions, advance equitable livelihoods, decent work and empowered communities, build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses, and, finally, accelerating the means of implementation.

Speaking at the opening of the event, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Food System's Summit, Agnes M. Kalibata, said "food systems have incredible power to end hunger, build healthier lives, and sustain our beautiful planet." 

'Priceless piece'

The President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, said it was crucial to change the way we produce and consume food "by shifting to methods that are resilient to shocks, more environmentally friendly, and enhance individual health and well-being.

"Every nook of this planet has its own microclimate, its own unique growing conditions", the first Maldivian to hold the top job in the Assembly added. "Through a combination of natural selection and trial-and-error, farming communities all over the planet have, over the course of centuries, developed varieties uniquely suited to their locale. The diverse food of the planet, and the seeds they come from, are a priceless piece of our humanity."

Experts show concern 

Highlighting the intense level of debate over the issue of food production, on the eve of the Summit, three independent UN human rights experts said they were deeply concerned that the event would not be a “people’s summit” as promised. 

They voiced concerns that it could leave behind the most marginalized and vulnerable. 

According to the Human Rights Council-appointed experts, who were involved in the Summit preparation, the event “claims to be inclusive, but it left many participants and over 500 organizations representing millions of people, feeling ignored and disappointed.” 

In a joint statement, they say “the Summit may unfortunately present human rights to governments as an optional policy instead of a set of legal obligations.” 

The experts fear that there is a risk the Summit would serve the corporate sector “more than the people, who are essential to ensuring our food systems flourish, such as workers, small producers, women, and Indigenous Peoples.”  

The statement is signed by Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.