The topic of responsible and sustainable animal agriculture has received a lot of attention in recent years, but these concepts are nothing new to the American farmer. For generations, farmers and ranchers across the country have raised animals not only in an ethical manner but also in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner. Because of this due diligence, farmers and ranchers have a great story to tell when it comes to sustainability conversations. 

The sustainability of our food system has been especially highlighted this year as the world prepares for the United Nations Food Systems Summit (FSS) this month. If you haven’t heard of or aren’t sure what the FSS is, the official website describes it as “a global initiative led by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to help inspire a decade of action to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.” These goals include Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Climate Action to name a few. 

The U.S. animal agriculture community has been actively following and engaged in this dialogue since last year, ensuring the voice of American farmers and ranchers who are leading sustainability initiatives were heard. The Alliance took the chance to contribute to the FSS in April by convening an independent dialogue event titled “U.S. Animal Agriculture as a Solution to Food Systems Challenges.” This dialogue brought together stakeholders from across the U.S. animal agriculture community to consider animal agriculture’s role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and its ability to deliver progress across all five action tracks of the FSS. Key themes of the conversations included:

• Sustainability must not be viewed as a single, exclusive destination, but rather as a diverse, continuous, and inclusive journey.

• The U.S. animal agriculture community (from farm to fork and beyond) is among the most sustainable in the world (based on life cycle assessments, increases in productivity, reductions in GHG, and other data-based measurements of sustainability).

• All stakeholders, across many areas of expertise, production systems, and sizes must find commonalities and work productively together.

• Optimizing animal agriculture’s environmental impact is an ambitious but attainable goal that can only be achieved with sustained, long-term active participation of all stakeholders with a goal of constant innovation and improvement.

• Food systems must become more sustainable while also ensuring continued sufficient nutrient-dense food supplies that are safe, accessible, affordable, and appropriate to diverse consumer needs.

The Alliance team and some of our partnering organizations were able to sit in on many of the FSS Pre-Summit sessions, held July 26-28, to learn more about the direction the main event is expected to take and to see how the U.S. animal agriculture community’s input was being incorporated – if at all. According to the official FSS website, the Pre-Summit aimed to “deliver the latest evidence-based and scientific approaches to food systems transformation from around the world, launch a set of new commitments through coalitions of action and mobilize new financing and partnerships” in preparation for the full event. Here are some takeaways:

• FSS organizers are really pushing the “true cost of food” concept, stating that if we account for negative externalities (environmental impacts, unhealthy diet), food costs us three times more than we currently pay for it.

• There was a good amount of support for innovation and adoption of new technology from member states.

• Positive content was shared around farmers being solutions, not problems, and needing to include them in this process. 

• Negativity about animal protein consumption continued, along with negativity toward modern and “industrial” agriculture.

• The European Union’s Farm to Fork Strategy was pushed several times as a model. 

• There was a major focus on hunger and food security from many, particularly member states, including noting how COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue 

There are concerns with some of the themes that were repeatedly touched on during the pre-summit, but there are several opportunities as well. We will continue to monitor the issue and look for ways for members to engage in the process. If the pre-summit has shown us anything, it’s that now is the time to ramp up engagement efforts from the animal agriculture and meat community to ensure our voices are being heard. As an easy step, you can join the conversation online and share your sustainability story using #FoodSystems and #UNFSS2021.