Time to fix broken food systems - Sierra Leone president

President of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio speaks during the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 18, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Segar

President of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio speaks during the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 18, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Countries must accelerate delivery of sustainable and healthy food systems, writes Julius Maada Bio

Julius Maada Bio is president of Sierra Leone.

Food is what sustains us - or at least it should be. But our food systems are currently failing us at both an individual and planetary level.

Rather than nourishing us with healthy, affordable food, a third of the global population cannot afford a healthy diet, whilst one in ten are obese.

Meanwhile, food production is now a primary source of environmental destruction, causing 90% of deforestation, 60% of biodiversity loss and 30% of greenhouse gases, whilst using 70% of our freshwater supply.

That is why, when food appeared centre stage for the first time at the recent annual international climate conference, COP28, it felt as though the world was finally waking up to the centrality of food systems - not just to climate breakdown, but also to many of the other global crises we currently face.

This was a critical moment - although many will be surprised that it didn’t come sooner.

In recent years, global conflict and insecurity, in tandem with the impacts of climate change, have sent shockwaves through our food systems. In my country, Sierra Leone, food prices have surged by an eye-watering 50% as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

Coupled with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, this has underlined the need for us to grow nutritious food more sustainably - in a way that protects nature, reduces emissions, generates fair incomes and insulates the population from increasingly volatile international markets.

The fact that over 150 governments took the historic step at COP28 of committing to integrate food systems and agriculture into their national climate plans by signing the UAE’s Declaration on ‘Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action’ suggests we are not alone in realising that, just as urgently as in the energy or transport sectors, food systems must play their part in meeting climate and biodiversity goals.

But following this critical first step, momentum must not now be lost.

That is why Sierra Leone, alongside the governments of Brazil, Norway, Cambodia and Rwanda, have launched the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation (ACF) - a new strategic coalition of ambitious countries determined to act urgently, together. 

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A woman works on her farm after harvesting her maize, in Kitui county, Kenya, March 17, 2021
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The ACF makes acting on food systems a political priority, with members committing to deliver universal access to affordable, nutritious and sustainable diets, aiming to accelerate major progress this decade.

By reorienting policies, practices and investment priorities, our governments will deliver better food systems outcomes for people, nature and climate.

This will not be easy.

Food sits at the intersection of policies on agriculture, health, climate, rural development and livelihoods, nature, fresh water, finance and social security - not to mention culture - all with their own (sometimes competing) agendas. These priorities can only be successfully navigated through a ‘whole of government’ approach, bringing relevant Ministries together to actively consider trade-offs - one of the central requirements of ACF membership. 

Sierra Leone’s progressive agricultural transformation programme ‘Feed Salone’ is an attempt to do just this, enhancing food self-sufficiency, building resilience throughout the food system and boosting inclusive economic growth - all whilst ensuring that agricultural land does not encroach on valuable forest ecosystems.

This will be done by sustainably increasing yields on existing farmland through a combination of regenerative agriculture techniques, mechanised and concentrated irrigation, and intensive production in dedicated agro-industrial zones.

Over the coming months, we will join other ACF member countries in updating our plans for transforming our national food systems (so called ‘FSTPs’), inclusive of a set of ten ACF priority intervention areas which range from improving livelihoods to protecting and restoring nature to reducing the emissions linked to our food systems. We will also update our national targets in line with these plans and will report results annually to track progress.

The ACF will ensure that we can maintain the momentum on food systems transformation that has grown steadily since COP26 in 2021. 

By working together to share learnings, foster collaboration and accelerate innovation, we will make the transition to sustainable food systems faster and less difficult for everyone.

Our hope is that, over the coming months, others will join us, building upon the commitments made under the UAE’s Food Declaration and going a step further to truly transform how food is grown, manufactured, transported and consumed in line with what we now know the science demands.

The challenges are many, but the prize is great: a food system which produces healthy, affordable and nutritious food sustainably; supports decent jobs and secure livelihoods; is nature and climate positive; and is resilient to future shocks.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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