By Alexander Müller, Managing Director, TMG Research gGmbH

In late July, the first global stocktake of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit will take place. It will come hot on the heels of another important global moment – the 2023 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – as well as the latest dire warnings contained in the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). All are reaffirming concerns that at the half-way mark towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this ambitious global blueprint to create a more just, equal, and sustainable world is increasingly out of reach.

Berlin-based TMG Research have recently published a comprehensive three-part report series unpacking the link between these negative trends and the impacts of four interconnected global crises aptly referred to as the ‘4Cs’ – Climate change, Conflict, COVID-19, and Costs. One of the core messages of the FORESEE (4C) report series themed, ‘The Transformation of Agri-Food Systems in Times of Multiple Crises,’ is the undeniable fact that market prices of food fail to accurately reflect its true cost and benefits. In fact, the costs associated with our food extend far beyond monetary value, encompassing significant effects on the environment, human well-being, and society. The colossal negative externalities and hidden costs of our food systems are wreaking havoc on natural, social, and human capital, to the tune of an estimated 6-10 trillion USD annually.

This revelation underscores the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how we perceive and value natural capital while acknowledging the wide-ranging impacts that agri-food systems have on various aspects of our lives. With this understanding, the three Rio Conventions, which address climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss, hold a central position in driving the necessary actions to address the 4Cs and transform agri-food systems.

Why the Rio Conventions?

The Rio Conventions are at the center of requisite actions to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss, and pollution. Agri-food systems are the common denominator across these complex and primarily human-driven crises. As awareness grows about just how off track the world is to achieve the 2030 Agenda, it is also increasingly clear that the three Conventions can no longer afford to be spectators in the agri-food systems debate.

This recognition of the need for more active engagement by the environmental community led to the launch of Food Days at all three Rio Conventions negotiating sessions in 2022. Having actively participated at all three Food Days, my organization is convinced that there is not only a clear need to carve out a different and stronger role for the Rio Conventions in ongoing debates about agri-food systems transformation, but that such an enhanced role is indispensable to achieving their respective mandates.

Being the legitimate custodians of the environmental pillar of the 2030 Agenda, the Rio Conventions have a joint responsibility to shed light on the destruction caused by our broken systems. As part of efforts already underway to strengthen synergies across diverse multilateral environmental governance processes, the Rio Conventions have an opportunity to amplify their voice by developing an inclusive monitoring platform to track progress across multiple sustainability targets. By assuming the mantle of independent advisors on food systems transformation, the Rio Conventions can steer us toward a healthier planet as the essential foundation for achieving food security for all.

Our open letter to the heads of the Rio Conventions makes the case for such a strengthened role, while also offering a dynamic roadmap to spearhead the journey toward a sustainable, zero-hunger future.

What are we calling for exactly?

Beyond tracking the true environmental and social costs of our food systems, a joint monitoring platform can also shed light on who should pay for such (as yet unaccounted for) externalities. The FORESEE report series underscores that pursuing the polluter-pays principle could unleash the financial resources needed to reverse environmental damage and achieve greater social equity, in particular through guaranteeing the right to sufficient, healthy, and sustainably produced food for all.

We specifically propose that – within their respective internationally agreed mandates – the Rio Conventions:

  • Jointly monitor and assess the progress made in agri-food systems transformation regarding climate, land, and biodiversity;
  • Present, in an annual report, the status of negative and positive externalities of agri-food systems and their impact on climate, land, and biodiversity; and
  • Make proposals on how agri-food systems transformation pathways can and need to contribute to achieving the internationally agreed targets of the Conventions.

Blazing a trail toward a more sustainable future

TMG Research and our consortium of partners firmly believe that true agri-food systems transformation demands the unwavering commitment of the Rio Conventions. By positioning them as vanguards of change, unmasking the hidden costs, revolutionizing financial mechanisms, and empowering environmental governance, we can blaze a trail toward a more sustainable future. We implore all stakeholders in the transition to sustainability to continue to engage in spirited discourse and forge collaborations that unleash the boundless potential of the Rio Conventions. Together, we will not only leave no one behind but also protect the essential ecosystem services that ensure a thriving planet for generations to come.

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This article has been adapted from our open letter to the heads of multilateral environmental and food system governance bodies titled, ‘Food Systems Transformation Requires Strong RIO Conventions!