Vlad Karavaev/shutterstock
Vlad Karavaev/shutterstock

The U.N. Food Systems Summit, the first ever to focus specifically on global food systems, took place alongside the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) last week. The gathering brought global attention to the need for a transformational reset in the way food is grown, produced and accessed, which would reboot systems that are central to an equitable COVID recovery, and are a matter of life and death in many parts of the world.

The summit sparked significant investments from governments, and from leading philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—part of a wave of funding commitments related to climate, COVID and more, timed to the UNGA. At the same time, it spurred further debate over power dynamics that critics say are favoring private sector interests over communities on the ground.

The annual U.N. General Assembly is typically the world’s biggest stage for global givers working to meet SDG goals, and drew commitments on several fronts, particularly on climate and the environment. A coalition of nine grantmakers collectively vowed to give $5 billion toward protecting 30% of Earth’s lands and seas, under the banner “30×30.” Jeff Bezos was among the donors, earmarking $1 billion from the Bezos Earth Fund as part of his $10 billion overall pledge to fight climate change.

Meanwhile, the inaugural Food Systems Summit shined a spotlight on global nutrition, and made a case for getting the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals back on track before the deadline passes in 2030. Besides the obvious fit with SDG 2—zero hunger—summit leaders traced the alignment between nutrition and all 17 goals, which are intended to lift and equalize the quality of life on the planet.

Efforts were falling short on nutrition indicators before the pandemic. Now, with less than nine years to go, the clock is ticking on a fragile and volatile system. A U.N. hunger report on the state of food security, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021,” exposed a sea of weaknesses and inequities made worse by COVID-19. An estimated 2.37 billion people lacked access to adequate food in 2020, a year-to-year increase of 320 million people.

Awareness and investments

Besides building awareness, the summit attracted billions in commitments from governments, including $10 billion over five years from the U.S., half of which was directed globally. Governmental investments came at a critical juncture: As hunger levels rise, they’ve largely been met by falling aid levels.

It also garnered a major philanthropic commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged $922 million over five years to boost the nutritional needs of the world’s most vulnerable women and children within the 1,000-day “window of opportunity” between conception and age 2.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the foundation, acknowledged the dire impact current aid levels have on children despite the organization’s work to bridge the gap. “While malnutrition accounts for nearly half of all child deaths, it still receives less than 1% of foreign aid—a trend that must change,” he said in the announcement.

Pushing back on power

Convened by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the fully virtual summit was the result of over 18 months of collaborative planning, drawing more than 20,000 stakeholders from around the world, including researchers, the private sector, food producers, civil society, Indigenous peoples and youth.

Despite efforts at inclusivity, reception was mixed, as the summit was met with significant pushback. More than 600 academics and advocacy groups renounced the meeting, and hundreds boycotted, objecting to what they see as power imbalances that privilege deeply entrenched corporate interests, big money and tech—and largely ignore local leadership and priorities.

The pushback is part of a larger, complex debate over the future direction of global agriculture. The Green Revolution of the 20th century—which was backed in part by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations—won its pioneer, Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize for increasing food access during a starvation crisis via a series of technologies that vastly expanded agricultural production. But the industrial agriculture approach has since been criticized for loss of biological and cultural diversity in food systems and the growing extinction of small-holder farming.

Roughly, the disagreement today centers on whether we should fight hunger and malnutrition with a Green Revolution approach, or through smaller-scale, locally driven solutions that place greater focus on biodiversity and equity. While many corporations have made hunger a focus of their philanthropy following the outbreak of COVID, critics say the high input-output approach championed by agribusiness ignores local knowledge and needs on the ground.

Gates and nutrition

The Gates Foundation’s $922 million investment was the largest commitment to nutrition it’s made to date, but not its first. In 2015, Melinda French Gates announced a six-year, $776 million commitment from the foundation at a European Development Days conference, doubling its previous spending.

Global in nature, the investments prioritize countries where its resources can be “catalytic.” More specifically, a foundation spokesperson said Gates expects to have “deep engagement in Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and moderate engagement in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso-ECOWAS, DRC, Indonesia and Pakistan.” To expand its reach beyond those geographies, the foundation works through global and regional partnerships, governments, funders and others to scale successful practices.

The commitment Gates announced at the summit adopted four strategies aimed at supporting mother and child. Two tactics align research with ways of identifying new and high-impact next-gen pregnancy and neonatal nutritional products, and balanced energy and protein (BEP) supplementation for early child development. The foundation will also invest in fortifying common foods with vitamins and minerals, and in developing evidence-based systems and practices to increase equitable consumption.

Chris Elias, president of the Global Delivery Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation’s latest commitment aims to “address the unique role that health, food and social protection systems can play in delivering both the food and the care that people need to live healthy and productive lives.”

Elias explained that two of its four nutrition strategies work within food systems. “Our nutritious food systems portfolio aims to increase equitable consumption of safe, affordable, nutritious diets year-round through evidence-driven food systems programs and policies.” Additionally, its efforts to boost public health include a deepening “engagement in large-scale food fortification, which increases equitable access to essential vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health and development.”

Criticism over approach

The latest commitment is in line with a number of the Gates Foundation’s goals, especially its focus on maternal and child health. But the foundation’s food security work has faced criticisms similar to those leveled at the summit. Gates is a big supporter of science- and tech-driven approaches to increasing crop yields to fight hunger, but detractors say the foundation is too focused on methods like modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), for example, has criticized Gates and other funders for a top-down focus, and advocates instead for agroecology, which emphasizes local control and the combination of science with Indigenous knowledge. AFSA recently penned an open letter calling on funders to stop supporting industrial agriculture programs and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which seeks biotech solutions to food insecurity. Faith leaders also wrote a letter to the Gates Foundation this year requesting that it stop funding green revolution technologies through groups like AGRA and others.

Funders fall on different sides of the debate, and there’s no clear “either-or” divide. AGRA has earned the support of other large foundations, such as the IKEA, Raikes, Mastercard and Rockefeller foundations, while attracting partnerships with the kinds of private sector players that are drawing fire. The Packard Foundation, Schmidt Family Foundation and Tudor Trust have funded the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, and the McKnight and Kellogg foundations have supported various agroecology efforts.

Asked about criticism that the foundation favors top-down approaches, a Gates spokesperson said that its nutrition-focused efforts and partnerships exist within wider networks, and include a range of interventions to support smaller stakeholders: “We have, for more than a decade, worked with a large network of partners to empower smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with environmentally sustainable options for increasing their household incomes and providing consumers with a wider assortment of affordable, nutritious foods.” That includes supporting local efforts to adapt to production challenges caused by climate change.

Beyond partnerships with governments, farmer organizations, research institutions and civil society, Gates also supports private sector partnerships, “especially those involving local agriculture businesses, that can provide smallholder farmers and livestock keepers with a wider range of affordable products and services.”

Finding common ground

Although there are deep divisions in the field, as with many systemic problems laid bare by COVID, those working for better food systems will need to find common ground to build back in sustainable and equitable ways.

In the announcement of their latest commitment, Melinda French Gates said she hopes the foundation’s investment will be seen as an invitation to others, and believes philanthropy can be part of the solution.

“This funding will help more people around the world get the nutrition they need to live a healthy life, and we hope it serves as an invitation for more donors, foundations, governments and private-sector leaders to build on today’s investment with more bold commitments.”