Distinguished Academicians, Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the outset, I wish to thank Professor Joachim von Braun for the kind invitation to offer some remarks at this Workshop organized by the Scientific Group for the UN Food Systems Summit in cooperation with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
In September 2018, at the opening of the Technical Workshop on “Food Safety and Healthy Diets”, organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, I underlined that, according to official estimates, the number of people worldwide suffering from chronic hunger was slightly lower than the figure registered in 2010-2012, showing a decrease of 17% compared to that registered 1990-1992, even though the world population had almost doubled in that 20-year period. «These data – I mentioned – tell us that something has changed for the better. Nevertheless, it is not enough».
In 2020, after only one and a half years, we unfortunately had to recognize that the number of people affected by hunger was once again increasing. Furthermore, this phenomenon is and will continue to be strongly exacerbated by the pandemic which has both direct and indirect impacts on production, distribution and access to food, the availability of which has been compromised both in the short and long term, especially for the most vulnerable.
The spectre of famine is crossing our world once more.
The causes are many. You know them better than I. They come about in part from an uneven distribution of the earth’s goods, from a lack of investment in the agricultural sector, from food losses and waste, as well as from the proliferation of conflicts in different areas of the planet. Making matters worse, there is the factor of climate change, which especially affects small rural producers who live in countries more likely to be exposed to natural disasters and whose economy is based on the agricultural sector.
The fight against hunger appears to have stalled and the pandemic has made even clearer the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems. The current circumstances clearly show that the goods of health, environment, climate, and security, which affect or are affected by food systems, are not just individual or national goods, but public goods. They require an integral and collective approach, both at a substantive and geographical level. Internationally, this approach takes the name of “multilateralism” through constructive and interdisciplinary dialogue.
For these reasons, the convening of the UN Food Systems Summit is timely.
We need urgently to understand how to transform food systems, so that they may become catalysts of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, increasing resilience in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, strengthening local economies, improving nutrition, educating producers on the re-use and recycling of resources so that food waste may be reduced, supplying healthy diets accessible to all, and being environmentally sustainable and respectful of local cultures.
In this process of food systems transformation, I would like to underline very briefly some issues, which, from the perspective of the Holy See, should inspire our efforts:
First. The respect for human dignity: concrete measures to end hunger and malnutrition, which are the main goals of food systems, must always respect human dignity and the recognition of the right of every person to be free from poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Food insecurity is linked not with the demographic aspect of “quantity” of people, but with “quality” features such as unfair access and distribution of safe food, improper information or lack of care to those in vulnerable situations. This entails the duty of the entire human family to act in order to provide practical and effective assistance to those most in need.
Second. The centrality of food systems: it is important for the international community to understand the central role of the agricultural sector within the economic and political decision-making process taken by policy-makers in order to achieve a stable, safe and shared wellbeing based on accessible food security and food safety for all. The agricultural sector is known as the “primary” economic sector, but, for many decades, it has been considered the last wheel on the economic wagon. It is now time to recover the importance of this sector and rediscover the primacy of agricultural development, from which depend the fulfillment of many basic human needs.
Third. Food systems as a potential tool of “conflict resolution”. We can mention many conflicts that revolve around food systems such as those over resources – just think of conflicts on water and land – or between the main players of the food systems as industrial and private sector, civil society, local population, indigenous people, research institutions, or in the interaction between science, economics and ethics. Changing this trend means sparing no effort to promote dialogue and a “change of mindset”, or perspective, of the basis of the food systems transformational effort, which has the potential to prevent conflicts and to overcome inequalities, even between men and women. We have many examples of achieving these aims, and we should work to share and disseminate good practices and learning, drawing lessons that might be applicable in other places.
Fourth. Since farmers play a key role in making food systems sustainable, small farmers and agricultural families should be considered as privileged actors in our food systems transformation process; they should not be considered as invisible in this process. Small farmers’ traditional knowledge, even in a better understanding of what is known as “agroecology”, cannot be neglected or disregarded. Real priorities and needs are better understood through their direct involvement. Favoring small farmers’ access to the services needed for the production, marketing and use of agricultural resources is now compulsory. The communities concerned should also be able to manage directly the necessary measures and assume their own level of responsibility and consequent action. The answer, therefore, is in enhancing small farmers’ capacity-building as well as promoting a strategy based on small investments and family farming through tools such as microcredit. Small-scale agriculture could thus be encouraged as a guarantee for a healthy diet, going beyond just considering the role of large companies or extensive production.
Fifth. Education. When we take into account the educational perspective as a founding aspect of the food systems transformation process, we must consider the underlying values at the basis of this perspective. This requires, of course, some deep reflection. In this brief time, I would like to mention only the need to connect the food systems education process to the needed transition leading us from the currently prevailing culture of waste to the culture of care. This transition requires an interdisciplinary dialogue. Science and innovative technology are needed to feed people and to improve food systems, but they are not, by themselves, sufficient to achieve important goals such as the ones contained in SDG2. Life is bigger than science. The study of the laws of nature and wide-ranging scientific investigations can widely benefit from an in-depth and interdisciplinary dialogue with other sciences, with the goal of building an ethical framework wherein each person takes on the personal responsibility, with our different skills, to respond to the mandate of “caring and cultivating the creation”.
On the basis of these five assets, the Holy See is planning to give its contribution to the journey towards the UN Food Systems Summit. It will do so through the exchange of experiences with high-level experts on different issues, such as, among others, the role of rural women in the food systems transformation, the role of decent work, finance and innovation in helping to ensure just and sustainable food systems; and the way to respond to current conflicts in food systems.
Food systems can indeed be an important player in implementing a new development paradigm based on the integral ecology approach promoted by Pope Francis.
The UN Summit represents a unique opportunity to build a just and resilient world in which no one is left behind and to leave a better world for future generations. It has significant momentum to intensify international action towards strengthening food systems and combating food insecurity and malnutrition, in a strongly global context exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic and climate change. It can represent an important vehicle for dialogue and progress in the development of more sustainable food systems and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. It should not be considered a point of arrival, but part of a long-term process which requires follow-up and a review system in charge of guiding new actions and results, that will allow the exchange of experiences, lessons and knowledge. From this perspective, the Scientific Group for the UN Food Systems Summit already plays a central role and hopefully will continue to do so in the future.
This is not an easy task. Pope Francis has repeatedly supported the importance of an approach centered on sustainable food systems that would offer healthy diets accessible to all, noting the fact that in the 21st century «hunger is not only a tragedy for humanity, but also shame».
 Cf. Genesis 2, 15.
 Pope Francis, Video-Message for the World Food Day, 16 October 2020.