My First Dialogue on the Path to the 2021 Food Systems Summit

By Erika Eliana Mosquera

I had heard about the Food Systems Summit, the major event the United Nations is promoting for this year. I knew they were promoting multi-stakeholder dialogues in different countries and regions of the world in preparation for the Summit, and I had even helped prepare materials to promote such dialogues in Honduras, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. But taking part in a live Dialogue was something else. There is nothing like first hand experience. 

Last Thursday, June 3, 2021, I had the opportunity to be involved taking notes for one of the discussion groups participating in the dialogue Sustainable Food Systems: A regional view, convened by the Government of Costa Rica as pro tempore Chair of the Central American Integration System (SICA), which was attended by representatives of the food systems from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. International organizations, such as the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT, ECLAC, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the SUN Movement, and the World Food Programme (WFP), helped designing the dialogue, facilitating discussion groups, and drafting the report for the Summit, as a support group for the Chair led by the Food and Nutritional Security Resilience Information System Program of the SICA region (PROGRESAN-SICA). 

Since August 2020, we have provided support organizing food system dialogues, including the “Dialogue on Food Systems and COVID-19 in Colombia”, an independent dialogue with Bayer Crop Science for Latin America, and several national and sub-national dialogues in Honduras and Ethiopia, partly based on the food systems analysis experience gathered under the Sustainable Food System National Profiles for Low- and Middle-income Countries project. Such project held discussion workshops with different public and private stakeholders from the Honduran food system, who took part both in secondary data collection and result validation and feedback, as well as the preparation of key messages regarding the System.

The Training

To be able to participate taking notes, I needed to receive a 2-hour training offered by the Summit organizers. I had never read anything about this training before, so I was not sure what to expect, but I was very encouraged by what I found here. I would have liked to harness even more the experience and background of the facilitators, who broadly and openly shared their knowledge, including David Nabarro, special envoy on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization. He joined us throughout the training and shared his strategies to get the most out of the dialogues.

I have no doubt that they aim to promote an open dialogue and listen to the different voices involved in food systems. Is this a major challenge? Definitely yes. Will they be able to meet it to the extent required? Probably not. But according to my experience in this training and the subsequent dialogue, I do believe that progress can be made towards different scenarios.

Of course, the multi-stakeholder platforms and the dialogues themselves are not something new, nor are the challenges facing our food systems – which were already in crisis before the pandemic – but there is something that did seem novel to me (at least in this context), which I heard over and over again, both during the training and during the Dialogue: the importance being given to people's emotions in the context of such discussions. Indeed, the recommendation was to pay more attention to the emotions and perceptions that might come into play during the debate (including discrepancies and conflicts), rather than to an extensive list resulting from brainstorming.

The Dialogue

During the Dialogue, ten discussion groups were formed, and I was in group number 1. There were only two topics for discussion: Grant access to healthy and nutritious food for all and Resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses, so that five groups discussed one topic and the rest discussed the second topic. It was wonderful to find myself in the same group with:

  • A representative of civil society: the Costa Rican Gastronomic Foundation (FUCOGA), which takes part in the SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) Movement.
  • A representative of the Central University, Costa Rica, who is also part of the Ministry of Health, who had experience working with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.
  • A representative from the scientific community: ILSI (International Life Science Institute) Mesoamerica
  • A representative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)

These were some of the actions suggested by the discussion groups to be prioritized in the following years:

  • Recognizing the solutions that lie in the native culture of communities (indigenous, Afro-descendant). Systematize, for example, ancestral production practices, which encompass conservation techniques and benefits in the long term. Using endemic plants by rescuing traditional cuisine is another path to be explored.
  • Strengthening, improving, and continuing to work on interregional trade. Harmonization of protocols, standards, and anything that ensures that the flow of food is not interrupted in times of emergency.
  • Encouraging family farming with sustainable practices and orientation towards the market. Over 60% of the food consumed originates from family farming. Healthy soils are a priority, as well as the advancement in the incorporation of sustainable practices, such as the transition towards organic production and the use of neglected and underutilized species (NUS), but focusing on the market.
  • Creating an emergency fund to restore more rapidly the functioning of the food system in times of crisis.
  • Investing in the education of consumers on food topics, so they can make informed decisions.
  • Promoting changes emerging from the management of emotions. This involves the psychological component to work across society on a collaborative effort to facilitate ownership, in such a way that solutions do not feel as something imposed.
  • Working on the development of skills for networking, such as empathy, trustworthiness, communication, resilience, and frustration tolerance. The non-renewal of our own vision, the use of rhetorical language not reflected in our actions, competence, and territoriality, or not being able to recognize mistakes and lessons learned are some examples of barriers hindering the establishment of a truly inter-dimensional and multi-sectoral dialogue.
  • Collaborating with already existing structures and initiatives, such as interregional groups or communities of practice. The Climate Change and Integrated Risk Management Technical Group from the Central American Agricultural Council has established a technical work and collaboration agenda among countries based on the Climate-smart Agriculture Strategy approved by the Council of Ministers. 
  • Investing in scientific research to support the promotion of new crops, techniques, and production strategies in the face of future environmental changes. The academic sector has a great potential to generate evidence from a multi-regional perspective and to facilitate the experience exchange.

My favorite phrases from this Dialogue:

“The dialogue emphasizes the interdependence of countries in the region, in terms of food and nutritional security. It also highlights the potential of the institutions that make up the Central American Integration System as an important asset to articulate strategies, policies, and common standards to take concerted and coherent actions for more efficient and sustainable food systems in the region. This ensures the access to safe and nutritious food for all the population all the time”  Álvaro José Herdocia, Information Systems, and Analysis Specialist, PROGRESAN-SICA.

“The dialogues allow for greater flexibility in the views of different sectors of society, and this should become a continuous process”. Discussion Group taking part in the Dialogue.

“No one is safe until we all are. Especially when we are talking about such interconnected neighbors as we see in this region”, Vinicio Cerezo, Secretary-General at SICA.

“We demand that our producers keep providing us nutritious, safe, available, and affordable food, but we have stopped thinking how are we going to find a sustainable way for them to do it, in economic terms”, Luis Renato Alvarado Rivera, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Costa Rica.

“We must decide: if we want to go fast, we must go alone; and if we want to go far, we must go together. We need to learn from one another. Please try to go far, and please make the journey together”, Gerda Verburg, Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement.

“The pandemic and also natural disasters in the region allow us to visualize very clearly the need for policies, agreements, and regional actions to recognize the interdependence existing in terms of food movement across countries”, Jennifer Wiegel, facilitator of Group number 10 in the Dialogue and regional leader for the Americas from the Food Environment and Consumer Behavior Research Area at the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT.