Interview | UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Bringing Sustainable Consumption to the Table

So much is going on in the lead up to the UN Food Systems Summit, that we took the time to ask Lasse Bruun, Global Civil Society Lead for Action Track (AT) 2 ‘Shift to sustainable consumption patterns’ and AT 2 liaison to AT 5 ‘Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress’ about its importance and his involvement in the process. We hope this provides an authentic insight into global food systems, and the intrinsic role of civil society in shaping solutions applicable across sectors and geographies. 

You’ve had a particularly unique career in environmental climate and food systems advocacy. Please share some background on how that lends you a holistic and intersectional perspective?

Well, I am of the belief that everything is interconnected when it comes to advocacy and changing things. And for many years, I’ve had the belief that the way many players in the third sector are going about their business might not lend itself quite well for collaboration. I have had the privilege and pleasure of shopping around a bit and working in many different sectors, like social justice, climate, energy, animal rights issues, and so forth. And I think I have gained quite a good insight into how these different sub-sectors of the third sector actually operate. And that is something I intend to put to good use. So, as it pertains to the food and climate nexus, particularly, I do have a quite good insight into how these things are connected, and I can provide some good thinking around how we now can maximize this year that has so much focus on food systems. As well, I can help ensure that we have an interdisciplinary approach that maximizes all that great brain power that’s out there.

How can we ensure we are producing safe nutritional food in an abundance, and that it is available and affordable to people? Key to this is the point about equitable food distribution, or doing so in a way that is fair to everybody, including the farmers.

Tell us about the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit and why this year, this moment in time, is such a critical occasion for this topic?

The UN Food Systems Summit is the first of its kind. That means this is the first time there is multilateral stakeholder engagement, which essentially means a lot of countries and all stakeholders within those countries – like business, civil society, farmers, decision makers – are getting together and addressing the issue: how can we ensure that we shift to food systems that are working with the planet as opposed to against the planet? How can we ensure we are producing safe nutritional food in an abundance, and that it is available and affordable to people? Key to this is the point about equitable food distribution, or doing so in a way that is fair to everybody, including the farmers. 

This first time, multilateral stakeholder engagement is not intended to replace any of the other larger international fora we see now, such as the FAO or the UNFCCC or the Convention of Biodiversity, for instance. Instead, it is supposed to become kind of like an umbrella function that takes all these different, very important fora and brings it together to focus on biodiversity, health, social development, equity, and so forth.

All of which together would be driving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) towards a much better world in 2030. 

Your own role, specifically, as a ‘Civil Society Lead’ is interesting, and may not be something our readers have context for. Would you help us better understand this role, and the lens through which you’ll be operating in this UN Food Systems Summit process?

Sure. Officially, I’m the Global Society lead for Action Track 2, which is focused on sustainable consumption. There are five action tracks and AT 2 is the one that is very much focusing on the health aspects, which is why the World Health Organization is the anchor institution for it. It is also focusing a lot on the intersectionality between the production and the consumption of food. So, how does this relate to the farmers, and how does it relate to the health of the soil? How does it relate to consumers, and what it does to their bodies? My role there is to make sure that there is proper inclusivity, and to find a way to ensure that Global Civil Society (which sounds big, and it is) is enabled to provide not just input, but actually have a seat at the top table to ensure that things are pushed in the right direction. That’s one thing.

The other thing is that I’m also the liaison with Action Track 5, which is focusing on producing food under increased shock and stress. So, those two things combined give us the opportunity, and gives me the opportunity, to address very much the aspects of how we produce food for a growing population in an increasingly climate change constrained world. We will be seeing more droughts, more floods, more extreme weather patterns. How do we ensure resilience so we can produce food that’s good for the planet and good for the people in a way that ensures the distribution of food is also sustainable and equitable?

My role there is to make sure that there is proper inclusivity, and to find a way to ensure that Global Civil Society (which sounds big, and it is) is enabled to provide not just input, but actually have a seat at the top table to ensure that things are pushed in the right direction. That’s one thing.

Who do you see as the most important stakeholders that should be taking part in these discussions?

Well, there are many, but I’ll single out the farmers. The farmers are the most important ones. And I want to make a big distinction here between two types of farmers because there are more than 1.3 billion farmers in the world. Many of them are based in low-income countries, and the majority of those are women. To be clear, we are not talking about them having to shift. If anything, they need infusion in terms of financial resources to help whatever production they’re having. 

Instead, the main shift has to happen with the larger production systems, which are the CAFOs, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations that are predominantly based in the Global North. They are predominantly G20 and, more specifically, the G7, or the seven countries where the biggest production is taking place.

The other big stakeholder group would be consumers. And that is not to put the responsibility on consumers, because they are often guided by what is put in front of them through commercials, and issues of affordability and availability of the right food. However, there are signals that can be sent through the market mechanisms. So, when consumers are refusing something, even if they can afford it, it also triggers its weight upwards through the food chain, literally.

One thing that seems so critical at this moment is getting agriculture and food systems shift into the global climate action conversation. “Energy” has long been the silver bullet. Since you have personally come from a focus on that in your own advocacy work, what are your insights on how we can change this – and help events like COP26 really see the potential in agriculture. 

I’m super optimistic. First and foremost, because there has been kind of a change in terms of how willing people are, consumers and voters, to address the food issue. And the reason for that is that the consumer shift from a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable energy based economy has been relatively easy, if you just regard the pricing issues. When you turn on the switch for your lights, whether it comes from solar panels or a coal plant, it doesn’t make any change to you. Whereas if you want to vote with your mouth, like how you eat, it literally changes how you eat three times a day. And for many, many years, it has been so difficult to get people around to that. But, in the last two to three years  particularly, there’s been a big change.

I do believe it’s also a generational change. Younger people, millennials and younger, are much more inclined to engage in things that are good, not just for the immediate future, like in terms of what’s good for their bodies, but also very much how it relates to the future, like in terms of climate change and other issues that are caused by food production. So that is one thing. There’s a momentum now, where those who can push the decision makers, either voters and the consumers, to make certain choices are much more inclined to do that on the food and climate nexus than has never been the case before. And then, some governments are seeing these changes, and I believe they see the way the wind is blowing.

Let’s talk about an independent UN Food Systems Summit dialogue that 50by40 and Action Track 2 are organising in May on how to effectuate the outcomes of the Summit. What is the importance of having this discussion and how is it going to inform the process going forward?

That dialogue is very important because it will help specifically on Action Track 2, which is the one I/we are leading for civil society. It will help to establish some criteria, some demands for many from the various stakeholders that are engaging in the Food System Summit. 

So, the day after the summit, what are the recommendations from those who are engaging? What do they want to see coming out of the summit? That’s the first question.

This dialogue is going to be asking the question: what do we, as civil society and other stakeholders, want to see, as a minimum, coming out of the Food Systems Summit across five different stakeholder groups? One is multilateral spaces. That would be things like UNFCCC, FAO and so forth. The other one is national governments. The third one is sub-national governments, or cities, states, and territories. Then, there is business and investors. And finally, there is consumers. So, the day after the Summit, what are the recommendations from those who are engaging? What do they want to see coming out of the summit? That’s the first question.

Based on that, we want to then make recommendations like: “Well, if we want to see X on the day after the summit, you need to do Y today to make that happen.” A specific example I can give now relates to what I talked about before about countries. There are not enough countries in there now. So, if one demand coming out of the dialogue could be: we need many more countries to actually be part of the Food Systems Summit. We cannot just have 50 to 60 countries, but we need at least 100 countries that are fully immersed and bought into the Food Systems Summit. Okay. If we want to do that, what needs to happen now?

And then another recommendation could be, well, we want to make sure we initiate a dialogue with existing countries that are engaging in the UN Food Systems Summit and say, “You need to be leaders for other nations.” We cannot do that. You need to go out to your sister and brother countries and say, “why are you not engaging in the Food Systems Summit?” And we could even divide that originally. Let’s say they’re 10 of the G20 countries. So in that group, why don’t they say all G20 countries should be there and the same goes for G7, for instance. So that could be something concrete. 

Do you have any closing thoughts on the UN Food Systems Summit, COP26 or the UN Food Systems dialogue?

Yes. I would just say to anybody reading this who may feel inspired to engage: everybody has a role to play. Everybody. Nobody is completely powerless. I mean, that’s a very privileged thing to say, but at least in some parts of the world, most people have some kind of power to make some choices. And you can do that in so many ways. And it’s so basic that you can ask your decision makers to do something specific on a policy level. You can ask your schools to host seminars. You can ask your employer to bring up debates about food production and so forth. Essentially, the way you eat and your buying habits can change so many things. If you have the privilege of actually being able to act on those things, to be very clear.

Because every little change in society, the smallest change, always has a ripple effect. So my encouragement is no matter who you are, you can always be part of creating change for something better.

Or, you can initiate conversations and do that at all levels. Even if you work in a small municipality somewhere and have an assistant’s job. Well, you can raise the issue of like, how do we, as a municipality deal with food? How do we deal with food for our schools, for our prisons, for retirement homes, for libraries, whatever there is within the public domain. And who makes those decisions and what can we do about it? Because every little change in society, the smallest they’ll change, always have a ripple effect. So my encouragement is no matter who you are, you can always be part of creating change for something better. And I hope 50by40 can be a source of inspiration, and we’re always here to help.

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