U.N. Summit Lays the Table for Environmental Reporting on Food Systems

November 10, 2021

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A woman stands with rice she is marketing at a rice milling facility near Nairobi, Kenya, in 2012. Last year, one of the largest swarms of locusts in recent history destroyed critical crops and pasture in Kenya and other East African countries. Photo: Chris Clayton. Click to enlarge.

Feature: U.N. Summit Lays the Table for Environmental Reporting on Food Systems

By Chris Clayton

For all of its perceived flaws, the first United Nations Food Systems Summit earlier this fall at least briefly focused the world on global hunger, malnutrition, poverty, equity, environmental justice, biodiversity, sustainability, inclusivity, empowerment and, yes, climate change.

From a reporting perspective, the problem with the Food Systems Summit was the all-encompassing scope of what the U.N. sought to accomplish in the 18-month buildup to the culminating single-day event.

At the end of it all, the 148 or so countries and hundreds of institutions that participated didn’t walk away with just one commitment to end global hunger, but 231 separate commitments. The event also translated into an array of coalitions, alliances and broad, overarching statements full of grand intentions and great expectations.

In an SEJ webinar on food and farming in a warming world, Martin Frick, the deputy special envoy to the summit, said the purpose of the summit was to not only look at achieving zero hunger as one of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, but to examine how food contributes to all 17 of the goals. This led to the development of five action tracks, which later morphed into five action areas to which the 231 commitments are tied.

“What is needed is to eradicate hunger, to bring precious food for people to build resilience, to build livelihoods and to go back within planetary boundaries and work on the food system that is respectful of biodiversity and helps us mitigating and adapting to climate change,” Frick said.


Spotlighting controversies

How do you report on all of that?

One way for journalists who covered the summit was to spotlight controversies surrounding the event, among them the divergent perspectives of the United States and the European Union.

Following the summit, Politico’s Catherine Boudreau wrote: “The U.S. position is that farmers can keep growing more food without environmental consequences through new technology, such as gene-edited crops that store more carbon in the soil, data analytics that help farmers use fewer chemicals and feed additives that reduce methane emissions from cattle. The EU is taking a more regulatory approach, aiming to slash pesticide and fertilizer use by 2030 and expand organic production to a quarter of farmland.”

Machines harvest soybeans on a farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Before the Food Systems Summit, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to create a “coalition for productivity growth” with several countries that rely heavily on exports, including Brazil. Photo: Chris Clayton. Click to enlarge.

My own pre-summit piece for DTN/The Progressive Farmer highlighted efforts by U.S. ag leaders in government and the private sector to pivot other countries away from positions on sustainability goals and how food is grown that could hurt U.S. export competitiveness globally.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, just days before the summit, was trying to create a “coalition for productivity growth” with Brazil and a few other countries that rely heavily on exports. Civil Eats reporter Greta Moran questioned whether the summit gave too much of a voice to corporations, asking, “Is it possible to work for the prosperity of both corporate shareholders and food workers — groups that have historically opposing interests and hold vastly different levels of power over the current food system?”

Her conclusion: “To the hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists who boycotted the summit, the answer is a definitive ‘no.’”

Sylvia Mallari, the global chairperson for a group representing smallholder farmers, told Moran the summit never addressed the structural origins of hunger. “It failed to ask: ‘Why do we have hunger?’” Mallari said.


Reporting on food and food systems

There are a lot of ways for journalists writing about food and food systems to weave in connections between environment, agriculture and health care. Looking at hidden costs is a good starting point.

“I’m always saying cheap food is actually pretty expensive, if you think about it,” Frick said in the SEJ webinar. “We need to factor in the hidden costs of a wrong food system — the people who turn ill, the health care system that is dealing with so many avoidable diseases, and the environmental damage, the climate damage.”

If you are reporting on climate change, you should be reporting on food. Food waste amounts to $1 trillion annually. And the greenhouse gas emissions it produces globally are large enough that if food waste were a country it would rank only behind China and the U.S. in total emissions.

Systemically, increasing temperatures and greater frequency of drought are already changing food production in states such as California and Arizona. Policy decisions driven by limited water supplies are going to shift where food is grown, how food is grown and how food is delivered.

For example, California water restrictions that will reshape food production in the state’s Central Valley mean food that is no longer grown there will have to come from somewhere else.

On the national front, the all-division, all-the-time U.S. Senate in July voted 92-8 to advance the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill that would create a carbon-sequestration certification program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Retailers and food processors are moving their sustainability goals down the supply chain and they want changes on the farm to lower greenhouse gas emissions.


In every state, there are story opportunities

to highlight what it would mean for farmers

and ranchers to increase "climate-smart" practices.


In every state, there are story opportunities to highlight what it would mean for farmers and ranchers to increase “climate-smart” practices to build soil resilience, improve water quality and lower agriculture’s environmental footprint. Do the practices go far enough to mitigate climate change or at least move the needle toward cleaner water and cleaner air?

From a food-system and dietary standpoint, you could explore how changes in farming practices and food production might increase the nutritional value of foods. If that were to happen, what would it mean for the costs of health care? And can food be made prescriptive?

There’s also an array of opportunities for reporting on malnutrition, even in North America. The United States and Canada still have hunger challenges, though we don’t have the catastrophic hunger people are facing in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Kenya.

Many of those countries are not only politically unstable, but they were hit throughout 2020 with one of the largest swarms of locusts in recent history, which destroyed critical crops and pasture for the region’s mostly smallholder farmers. Yet, another ripple effect is that bees and other diverse insects also fell victim to the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical pesticides used to attack the locusts.


COVID-19 raises the stakes

Closer to home, the American food system was walloped in 2020 when the pandemic hit.

I was shocked by empty shelves, the supply chain disruptions and long lines of people in cars waiting hours to receive a federal government food box with $50 in food. I wondered about the people who didn’t have a vehicle to wait in.

At the Nebraska Capitol during a state hearing on the impact of COVID-19 on meatpacking workers, Christian Munoz holds a portrait of his father, Rogelio Munoz Calderon, who died of COVID-19 in May 2020. Photo: Chris Clayton. Click to enlarge.

The food system buckled when workers on farms and in food-processing and meatpacking facilities were forced to continue working while much of the rest of the country was locked down.

Leah Douglas at the Food & Environment Reporting Network doggedly tracked COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system for 18 months and mapped the results. As of Sept. 2, at least 91,717 food-system workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 466 had died.

Among those statistics was Rogelio Munoz Calderon, a 52-year-old meatpacking worker in Nebraska who died in May 2020, two months after becoming a U.S. citizen and less than a week before his grandson was born.

The sacrifice that Munoz Calderon made to keep our food system going in a pandemic hit me hard the day I met his son at a state hearing on the impact of COVID-19 on meatpacking workers. Munoz Calderon was the same age as me and had worked in the same packing plant since 1993, the year I graduated from journalism school. He spent 27 years producing food so I wouldn’t have to worry about there being enough to eat as I pulled into a drive-thru on the way back from covering an event about the global food supply.


Zero hunger by 2030?

The food system is a fundamental and potentially fragile part of our lives that goes underreported most of the time, except when there is a new chicken sandwich craze or the shelves are empty.

The U.N.’s goal is to have zero hunger by 2030, but the pandemic has increased the number of malnourished people to more than 811 million. Two billion more are considered undernourished and another one billion or so have health-related problems because of their diet. If population trends continue, by 2050 global food systems will have to find a way to feed 10 billion people.

On Sept. 23, a lot of countries, corporations and individuals made significant commitments before the rest of the world to reduce hunger and improve sustainability and food production.

But the call to action also applies to journalists. As we examine energy policies needed to lower emissions, we also need to report on how the world will be fed in a changing climate and who is keeping their promises and obligations going forward.

Chris Clayton is policy editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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