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117: The Seeds Are Sown for a Food Revolution with Agnes Kalibata

The Food Revolution begins with a Thought Revolution, and people are at the heart of systemic change.

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About this episode

Following the success of UN Food Systems Summit, or as it’s also known- “The People’s Summit” we get a chance to speak to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit, Agnes Kalibata.

Formerly Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) from 2008 to 2014, she drove programs that moved her country to food security helping to lift more than a million Rwandans out of poverty.

Now as Special Envoy, her efforts toward progress of the delivery of the SDGs, and to prioritise Food Systems in the global conversation around climate change are coming to a 2 year culmination. Besides this summit being the first time the UN has called a summit dedicated to food systems, it is engaging more than 100,000 people from 147 countries through 900 independent multi-stakeholder dialogues on food system transformation. UN Summits are often mostly prepared statements by member states. This move to put people and dialogue at the center was a radical return to destroying our siloed thinking when it comes to global issues.

The Food Revolution begins with a Thought Revolution, and people are at the heart of systemic change.

Christiana + Tom’s book ‘The Future We Choose’ is available now!

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Mentioned links from the episode:

Check out Friday For Future’s #UprootTheSystem

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Full Transcript

Tom: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone, it's Tom here. So last week we brought you a new kind of episode from Outrage and Optimism. It was called Setting the Table for a Food Revolution, in which we dug into all of the issues behind the food supply chain, the impacts that it's creating and the opportunities for transformation. And we timed that event to come out just a few days ago because we wanted it to align with the U.N. Food Systems Summit. This is the first event of its kind, and it was taking place this week during the U.N. General Assembly, where governments and all kinds of other stakeholders, including civil society and business, were coming together to try to find solutions to these systemic issues around the food supply chain and how we can make it more sustainable. So in that episode, we pointed out that the person right at the heart of this was called Dr Agnes Kalibata, the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. And what we did was we gave you that episode and then we waited until the Food Systems Summit was over, and then we talked to Agnes Kalibata. We talked to her today just a few hours ago, and actually it's slightly incorrect to say it was over. It's still going on. She still has a few more hours to go and she is the most remarkable leader. She's done an incredible job to bring this very complicated issue right to the top table in the U.N.. As I said, she's the Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit, but previously she was Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources from 2008 to 2014, where she drove all kinds of programs that moved her country to food security and help lift more than a million Rwandans out of poverty. She has really done this. She's really understood what is necessary to address the issue of hunger, to face the issue of climate change and bring the two together for the prosperity of people and for the betterment of nature. I found this conversation to be incredible. She is such a remarkable person. You can really see why she's been so effective in that role. She's so passionate and heartfelt. I really think you'll enjoy it. Here's the conversation. We'll be back next week. Here it is.

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Christiana: [00:02:13] Agnes, thank you so, so much for taking the time to join us on Outrage and Optimism. I was delighted when I saw you onscreen. I thought, Yay, she's alive. After all, everything that you have done for the Food Systems Summit and then you share with us that actually you're not even finished, that you still have to make room today for a few more heads of state, which, as I said, that's a good problem to have, that there are more heads of state who want to come and participate in this. So first of all, congratulations for something that is quite amazing, Agnes, and we'll get into the content of what was discussed in a minute. But first, I just want to do a huge call out to you and your team because not only have you done this summit completely virtually, which is very difficult to do, but also you have very much innovated into the concept of a summit. Traditionally at the U.N., a summit is when heads of state and only heads of state come together to discuss a particular topic. But you're actually breaking through that definition and saying, actually, food is so important to every single human being that this is not going to be just about heads of state. This is going to be about people, people around the world who also need to have their voices heard. So if I understand correctly, you organised a two-year process that engaged 100,000 people from 147 countries through 900 independent dialogues, all on food system transformation, that has never been done in the scope of a summit on any topic. Why did you decide on that format, which is frankly much more difficult to orchestrate? Why did you think that that was important?

Agnes: [00:04:14] So thank you, Christiana. Thank you for having me. This is really an amazing opportunity to be talking to you and your team, so I'm really glad that I'm able to do this even as we are still listening to member states' statements. But listen, when the Secretary-General reached out and asked me to do this and that he made clear there are two things that were at stake. He said, one: we are behind on SDGs, on all SDGs. And he said, Listen, we think there's an opportunity here to use food systems to come through on SDGs, something that people really never think about a lot. And then he said, I need to hear from people. Then it occurred to me that. You know, if there's anything he needed to hear from member states, he has already heard it, right.

Christiana: [00:05:06] Many times.

Agnes: [00:05:08] Exactly. So he has already heard it and he sits with them every day, meets them every day. So it was like, and then there's so much innovation in our system. There's so much knowledge, so much science, so much innovation, so much culture, you know, so much knowledge in terms of indigenous knowledge and community knowledge. I grew up in one of those communities where every time I walk into a farming perspective, because I'm now in the agricultural sector, sometimes I just feel sad at how much of what I grew up seeing has been lost. So it was very clear to me that I needed to do one thing. I needed to reach out to everybody and give everybody an opportunity to tell us what it is that they know about food systems, what it is that they want to see about food systems that we can take back to the Secretary-General. So that was number one, just knowing that there's so much out there that is not coming through. Number two, it's also recognising that there's so much at stake and involves each and every one of us. So it's not enough to talk to member states and they go and have good documents and put them on the shelf. No, it's really important that we talk to each of us and help everybody understand what is at stake. I live on a continent where climate change is just taking away everything that we've ever worked for. And that's the only reason I joined the summit. I was like, If I can help people understand that we all have something to do with this and that individually we can help correct this problem, then I would do it. So it's also knowing that empowering people to feel like they're part of the solution is extremely important because again, think about it when you wake up and feel like you need to switch off that light because you feel it's a responsibility to switch off that light more than than anything else. I want people to feel like that towards our environment. Don't drop something that shouldn't be. Don't do something that shouldn't be because you're hurting the future of our children. So that's why we really went out there and did such a massive campaign. And of course, the other is we just mobilise so much solutions. So yeah, that was really what was behind this.

Tom: [00:07:21] So Agnes, huge congratulations to where you've got to in this and this amazing participatory process that's so necessary that you ran. Do you think you could help us? Because listeners will have heard a lot about the Food Systems Summit, they'll have known it's been going on, but it's such a broad issue it can be difficult for people to get their arms around. What were the issues at stake and what came out of it? Would you mind just giving us, I know it's difficult to do this, but it's just a really crisp sort of like what came out of the last few days, and I guess, was it what you hoped for?

Agnes: [00:07:49] I mean, if I start with the first question, what was at stake, right? What was at stake, really, in addition to the fact that we are not coming through on a number, in fact, let me put it differently, the very year we signed SDGs is the very year hunger started increasing. Hunger had been going down.

Christiana: [00:08:08] Oh my gosh, is that right?

Agnes: [00:08:11] Yes, that's the very–

Christiana: [00:08:13] Wait, wait, wait. Agnes, can you? Can you say that one more time? The very year we adopted the SDGs, which was 2015, is the very year that hunger started going up.

Agnes: [00:08:27] It was not catalysed by the fact that we signed. It is because it coincided with climate change that had been going on for some time. Climate change. Because I was the Minister of Agriculture, I actually know when climate change started impacting farmers and farming systems, it was in 2012. But then that effect resulted in increasing hunger. By 2015, it was already resulting in increasing hunger. So yes, the very year we signed SDGs is the very year. The very year we signed that we will achieve zero hunger - by 2030 - is actually the very hunger numbers started increasing and now we are at 811 million people that are hungry.

Tom: [00:09:09] Wow.

Christiana: [00:09:10] Oh, gosh.

Paul: [00:09:12] It's the worst coincidence I've ever heard. But thank you for being so sort of stark and clear about it and to hear you talking about, you know, the impacts of climate change now, I think will be very chilling to our listeners what should happen next. What has come out of conference that, in a sense, sets the scene for future actions?

Agnes: [00:09:35] So it's interesting that you say that because one of my biggest frustrations going to the summit, because that's how we've been, we've been kind of taught to think was, oh, you know, I need to mobilise so much money going to the summit. I need the world to have so much money to change the world's problems. And then along the way, I thought that maybe mobilising turning the summit into a pledging movement was not going to be the most important thing. I thought that probably just helping every country understand that it needs to do business differently. Helping every community understand how differently we need to do things was most important. So we set out to ensure that countries have new strategies. Yes, you say another strategy, but this is an extremely important part of the process. We now have national pathways and national pathways mean that governments have been looking at how sectors can work together. You know, again, I worked at country level as Minister of Agriculture. So this is the time that governments are getting sectors together, from health to environment to trade to nutrition and and so many in finance. You know, you have to worry about how you find these things and then come up with the food systems approach. But in this whole food system thing, we've also showed governments that there's something we are calling the true cost of food. The true cost of food is when you spend so much money trying to deal with challenges of health in health related diseases that you could have avoided by investing in food the right way, trying to deal with the challenges of environment that you could have avoided if you dealt with the environment the right way. So those hidden costs that we don't talk about have also come out in this meeting very, very clearly. So this meeting put forward national pathways from governments. It put forward what we are calling multi-stakeholder coalitions where people are coming together on important challenges. So, for example, the Zero Hunger Coalition just mobilised 345 million, and it is just the beginning in the last two weeks alone, 345 million to deal with and from private sector to deal with the challenge of zero hunger. But there are so many other coalitions: the Coalition for School Feeding, which recognises that there are 320 million people that have not been receiving school meals, kids, and then in addition to that, we have a scientific group that has been working on mobilising the sense of the summit, and they have put out seven priority areas that if you use the right, those priority areas could be part of driving improvements in our food system. And then of course, there's this whole mobilisation of people, which I find for me the most appealing this one mobilisation of millions and millions of people in different communities, indigenous people, civil society, youth, you know, youth mobilised yesterday came with a declaration that has been signed by 100,000 youths, you know, so this level of mobilisation has never happened before.

Tom: [00:12:48] That's super interesting. I have a question, although I don't know colleagues, if you want, if you have something you want to come in on? I wondered if you mentioned there, and that's amazing to hear that whole range of different outcomes, just in terms of the national pathways, what would be included in a typical national pathway if there was a country that came forward with a food system?

Agnes: [00:13:04] Very good question. So for me, first of all, the vision of coming through from a food systems perspective, not coming through on hunger, not coming through on nutrition, but coming through on a food system. A food system is all the way from how we produce food, how we transport food and how we get food on the table. These things have two major impacts: the impact our health, the impact on environment in the sense that of course, we are impacting climate change, but they also impact biodiversity. So being able to come at it from a food systems perspective and take responsibility for all the things before you get food on the table is extremely important. So a pathway is a vision. Number two, it's a set of priorities. So once you put your vision together, what are the priorities that you are going to be driving for? So they have a set of priorities as well, and then they are welcome to look at a whole set of solutions that the summit has mobilised because we've had action trucks that we are mobilising solutions. We had over 2,500 game-changing solutions across five areas that have been clustered into solution clusters. These are available. This is available in the institutions behind them available, and the context of these institutions behind them are available so that if a country chooses to do something hypothetically on sustainable livestock, they can go to a sustainable livestock cluster. They know the institutions that are behind that and they know the telephone numbers of those people that they can reach. So that is really the tangible thing. But the next, of course, they have to work on implementation. What is going, how will they turn this into plans that are investible, you know, investment programs? And then how will they monitor implementation? We have already secured at the highest level in the UN system that will be coming back every two years to review progress on these pathways, so governments are going to be under pressure to to really demonstrate to their own constituencies what implementation will look like knowing full well that in three years they have to come back and report to the UN the progress they are making.

Tom: [00:15:13] Great, thank you.

Christiana: [00:15:14] So there are two things that I think are so interesting that you've mentioned. Well, many things, but I'm just going to focus on two. One is the the fact that you have been able to harvest all of these solutions, cluster them and organise them, such that it is easy for anyone who wants to work on a specific area or a specific factor to be able to have immediate and easy access to. Where is that information? Who has done it before? Where is the repository of knowledge and experience? But the other thing, Agnes, that I would love to hear you talk about is much more at the strategic, or let me say rather, at the systemic level. What I think is fascinating is the thought of using food to really expand out or break out of the silo thinking into let's use food to be the, I would say, the hammer of the concept of siloed thinking and planning. Did the Food Summit begin to invite leaders and practitioners into that much more complex, but much more effective way of focusing on issues?

Agnes: [00:16:35] You know, one of the things I hear a lot more, and one of the fears that comes back every so often, is when people say: is this systemic enough? Is it going to be transformative enough? Is it? You know, we went back and forth, we came up with action trucks and then we came up with areas of convergence and then we came up with coalitions and then we went back to areas of convergence. And you know, the issue was people are saying, is this going to be a solution that cuts across that addresses all these challenges we are trying to look at? Or is it going to get us into more silos? Because one thing that yeah, one thing that you see people most concerned about and really, I feel proud that that this has come out very strongly is the whole idea of egos and logos, you know, so in our at the global level, it goes on, logos have become the way we do business. Everybody cares about their institution and they don't care about the next person or the next institution, but also at country level.

Christiana: [00:17:43] So well, put Agnes so well, put egos and logos. I love that.

Agnes: [00:17:50] So I mean, if we don't break through that, there were ministries, all these ministries that are responsible for the food sector, always fighting each other, I mean, I can't tell you how many wars I would have with the Minister of Trade, the Ministry of Trade or how many wars you have with the Minister of Environment or how you're trying to tell people, I always really, and this is my belief, I completely believe that every farmer can pay school fees for their children. The idea of universal school fees is a failure of our systems. I completely believe that every farmer can be able to pay for their children. But  when they have nothing to pay, then we step in and pay for their health care. Why don't we just step back and equip people to be able to take control of their lives? Why don't we just step back and give them an opportunity to take charge of their lives? That opportunity is called better productivity, that opportunity. There's no farmer who has access to their land, I've seen this with my own eyes, a title to their land that does not want to look after their land very well. The reason we have all this degradation that's happening now in our environment. Most farmers don't own the land they sit on. Farmers know that this is the biggest asset they have. But when they don't have control over it, they use it, it's like, you know, I'm out of here. They don't think about it much. So part of ensuring that we protect our environment, it comes from empowering communities to help them understand that this land they use, because that's all the asset they have is productive and can be productive if managed well. So there you fix one problem. You fixed an environmental problem, number one. Number two, equip them to make it productive so that they can pay school fees for their children, so that they can pay for their children. Don't put them in a position where, you know, my kids can't go to school because you didn't put in place universal school education. So for me, these are all failures that we are entrenching in our system, but they're actually failures. We can't encourage a failed society. For me again, the fact that we are taking control out of communities and people's hands and this control is being centralised somewhere in government is to me a failure, to be honest with you. Why can't I have control of my life? I can't I pay for my children. Why can't I determine the future of my children based on what I earn for a living? Farmers are not earning a living income. The thing is, many people that work in food systems are not earning a living income, not even enough to put out a meal on the table.

Paul: [00:20:38] So, we need to actually think, now people will talk a lot about poverty. You speak passionately about poverty. We also have to think about wealth and the responsibilities of wealth within the context of that kind of poverty. But thank you for connecting to education, to trade, to nutrition, to finance, to health. Seeing things holistically is so valuable. A final question because I know we're running out of time, as you look towards COP26 coming up, as you look in towards the biodiversity COP, what would you like to see coming from the Food Systems Summit into those meetings, into those negotiations?

Agnes: [00:21:14] So I've done my part in terms of ensuring that this, and I'm going to use the word you people, because you are part of the climate change issues, you've been working on climate forever. So you people need to appreciate the place of rural food systems. You need to appreciate that food systems can be part of the solution to what we are facing right now. They are part of the problem and there's no way we are going to achieve 1.5 degrees without fixing our food systems. So at least I need you to embrace this idea. I need COP26 to embrace this. I need COP15 to embrace this now. So for me, it's really in terms of what we can take. We are taking already. We've brought a whole lot of society with a certain level of consciousness around the fact that we are degrading our environment. We are degrading our health and we need to do something about it. I think what COP26 needs to do and COP15 needs to do, they need to appreciate and really engage the role of food in our environment. I don't think it is appreciated enough. I don't think it's engaged enough. I think there are solutions. There are so many solutions. I was talking to the Green Climate Fund people and I was asking them how much of your resources are going towards supporting food systems so that they can be less of the problem? It's less than, even if after they double, it'll be less than 20 percent. And I'm like, No, you can't double to 20 percent when we are more than, we are becoming 30 percent of the problem. Why don't you just address the problem? The problem is we are 30 percent of the problem and we need to be greener. We need to be healthier. Food systems need to be greener all the way and healthier. And you should be putting your money as well in that direction. So anyway, I need them to embrace full system, number one. Number two, COP15 has no choice at all. They don't need to be talking about nothing else but food systems. We are deteriorating our biodiversity so fast. 80 percent biodiversity loss comes from food systems. Who should you be talking to? Who should you be in bed with? Food systems. Nobody else. That's the way I look at it. They should be friends of food systems, and I get so worried because I grew up in a village. I know the value of every plant. For us, every plant was medicine. For us, every plant was something else. I know the value of every plant, but also as a scientist, we depend so much on the genes of these plants and these animals, so many things and we are losing all that. What is going to happen to the future of our children who could have used these genes for even things we don't know yet? So for me, it's unacceptable. It's not what we can do for them. It's them, they need to embrace this sector because they need this sector to do the right thing.

Christiana: [00:24:07] Wow. Wow. Agnes, what a pleasure to have you be so eloquent about it. It's not just a food revolution. It's a thought revolution, right? It's how we think of this and how we get to empower everyone. And I use that word actually cautiously because I don't really like how it has been misused. But I think you have been so, so eloquent about using food systems in the right way to allow everyone to take hold of their life and return dignity and prosperity, shared prosperity to everyone. I think you have just put out such important revolutionary, cognitively revolutionary thoughts here for us. Thank you so, so much for that. It has really been a true pleasure to listen to you and to be inspired by you, Agnes. And Agnes, we have a tradition here on the podcast that as we close, which sadly we must, we ask everyone who has been our distinguished guest, whether you are more on the outrage side about how long it has taken us versus how optimistic you are that we're actually on the cusp of reimagining and understanding what this is all about. So we know that this is a spectrum and we think everyone has at least a little bit of both. But where do you put yourself or where would you put the summit?


Agnes: [00:25:47] The summit, that's a focus in the summit, is on the optimistic side. Right. And that was the idea, put the summit on the optimistic side. And I've been very cautious to ensure that I don't guilt people into doing things. I hope to build consciousness, so that people do things they are very much aware of. But I'm on the outrage side. I personally am on the outrage side because these are things that are solvable. We are living in a world where these problems can be solved. And I just don't see enough leadership, enough will and enough time we don't. We are losing too much time every day to do the right thing. So for me, on the outrage side, the summit is on the optimistic side.

Christiana: [00:26:31] Ok, I like that. I like that balance. Dr Agnes Kalibata, thank you so much for joining us today. I think our listeners will be truly treated to listen to your thoughts.

Agnes: [00:26:45] Thank you for having me and really great to talk to you. I mean, I admire what you did with climate change and just keep going. We are behind you.

Tom: [00:26:53] We're behind you.

Christiana: [00:26:54] Yes, you're totally in the lead here.

Tom: [00:26:58] Thank you so much. Thank you. Bye

Agnes: [00:26:59] Bye.

Clay: [00:27:08] Hey, everybody. Welcome to the end of the show. Thank you so much to Dr Agnes Kalibata and her team for making this episode possible. And thank you to everyone listening for listening. So this week was very busy. We had three episodes. The UNGA happened, Climate Week happened, the Food Systems Summit happened, and the Global Climate Strike happened. So before you sign off for the week, one more shout out to every Fridays for Future activist who went out today or met online to strike for system change. Their hashtag is #UprootTheSystem. Go look at all the strikes that happened in over 80 countries. It will truly move you. And then once you're done with that, go talk about it, go talk about it with friends and talk about it with family. Ask them, you know, what are you doing to uproot the system? Get the conversation going and let us know how it goes. Ok, so that is your homework for the week- ugh, homework, no, it's your mission. Ok, so that's your mission for the weekend. Next week, another episode of Outrage and Optimism on Thursday. We'll see you then.


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