In 2012, nations around the world agreed on seventeen goals for global societal advancement by 2030: The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs call for systemic solutions to pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges that require coordinated global action.

Unfortunately, our current industrial food system is a primary driver of many of the underlying problems that the SDGs aim to solve. To achieve the SDGs over the next nine years—or at any time—we must transform food production and consumption, reducing reliance on animals.

The Food System We Need

Today's challenge is to create a resilient global food system that can equitably feed and support 10 billion people while strengthening human, animal, and environmental resilience in the face of climate change. For seventy years, industrial agriculture has pursued a vision of food production that is fundamentally extractive and profit-based. This vision focuses on short-term financial gains and ignores the costs that production imposes on communities, food webs, and life on earth. An alternative food system built on the principles of agroecology, replacing corporate industrial agriculture and intensive livestock production with support for peasant farmers, could deliver human, animal, and environmental advancement.

Examining the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

On September 23, 2021, the UN will hold a first-of-its-kind global Food Systems Summit (FSS) dedicated to "setting the stage for global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030." This event will mark the beginning of a new era for global food systems change—one in which food is, at long last, recognized as one of the most powerful contributors to shaping our collective future. However, the event's planning process has called into question whether the summit can deliver inclusive, progressive solutions.

When the summit was announced, over 500 civil society organizations united in opposition to the World Economic Forum (WEF) as an organizing partner and the appointment of Dr. Agnes Kalibata as the UN's special envoy due to their history of advancing the interests of agribusiness. Despite opposition, the summit planning process continued unchanged and ignored critiques of the power of agribusiness. Although the event has been dubbed "the people's summit," participants report that the controlling influence of corporate interests and livestock producers is evident from the titles of the summit's Action Tracks to the selection of participants.

For civil society groups, involvement with the summit is fraught with tradeoffs. Those remaining involved believe that participation—even in a flawed process with inequitable representation and a high potential for undesirable outcomes—is necessary to hold the line on critical issues such as the need for reducing global livestock production and consumption. While recognizing that their continued participation supports and legitimizes a summit that has excluded key voices and articulated global issues from a perspective shaped by the interests of agribusiness, these participants feel they must stay involved to prevent worse outcomes, correct misinformation, and elevate critical voices.

Many others have withdrawn from the process to mobilize around a counter-narrative centering the experiences of global peasant farmers. They agree that food systems change is critical for human progress but reject the summit's framing of the search for innovative solutions. Echoed by international scientific consensus, these peasant groups assert that the needed solutions have already been identified in the form of agroecology and food sovereignty. According to these grassroots voices, the necessary next step is not a multistakeholder summit placing communities and corporations on equal footing, but a global commitment to supporting a model of agriculture wholly different from industrial agribusiness—one that prioritizes life over profit and recognizes the right and the wisdom of peasant farmers to direct food systems transformation. These global community groups organized a counter-event July 25-28, in parallel with the opening UN FSS pre-summit.

We stand at a critical juncture. The upcoming UN FSS could be a critical rallying point for achieving sustainable development through food systems transformation—provided its solutions do not center multinational profit agendas and sidestep hard-won inclusive governance structures like the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and its High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). Regrettably, this is precisely what has happened. If the summit continues to position corporate industrial agriculture as tomorrow's solution and ignore existing multilateral consensus on the need for a global transition to agroecology and food sovereignty, this first global UN food systems summit will fail to deliver progress toward the SDGs.

Read more about The High Cost of Consuming Animals, where Stray Dog Institute examines the many costs of producing and consuming animals within the broader context of industrial agriculture and the SDGs. This article describes the overlapping environmental, social, and public health risks of livestock production, highlighting who pays the price for a strategy of agricultural progress built on corporate profit and animal exploitation.