Written by: Christine Gould

Venturing into the UN Food Systems Summit Pre-Summit in Rome last week as a member of the Advisory Committee, I wasn’t expecting that the music phenomenon Beyoncé would come up during a conversation in the halls of the FAO. But, in talking with some of the leaders there about the critical role that our next generations play in creating deep and lasting change for food systems around the world, Beyoncé’s inviolable force for inspiring people, evolving constantly, and creating change on important issues presented its relevance.

How can we build a similarly powerful movement in food and agriculture? How can we inspire an entire generation to step up and take action when it comes to food?

The innovative design of the UN Food Systems Summit – spearheaded by H.E. Ms. Amina Mohammed and Special Envoy Dr. Agnes Kalibata – is ushering in a new era of broad and diverse societal engagement for food systems transformation. A powerful movement “of the people” has taken shape, with momentum building over the weeks leading up to the official Summit this September.

Just as Beyoncé has created a groundswell force that has forever changed music and culture, it is clear that this Summit is reshaping all that is possible when it comes to food systems. I’ll share a bit more about some of the connections between the two topics at the end. In the meantime, here are a few of my top takeaways from last week’s Pre-Summit event in Rome:

1. Grassroots engagement is key

Over the past year, Independent Food Systems Dialogues have galvanized people and organisations all over the world to come together and discuss the complex and often polarizing topics surrounding food. To date, 800+ independent dialogues have taken place – and more are happening every single day. Thought For Food and I have been involved in and/or led at least 15 of these Dialogues on topics ranging from unleashing innovation, regenerative agriculture, and enabling youth leadership in food systems.

You may wonder: with so many urgent challenges, do we need more “talking?” The convening power of these types of multi-stakeholder dialogues cannot be underestimated. They rally both food systems experts and the general public to be interested and involved in the Summit process. They help to break down barriers and silos. They till the soil for connections among all food systems actors to form, and for new types of multi-stakeholder partnerships and coalitions to take off.

This is a graphic we created for a Food Systems Dialogue that we organized with FoodDrink Europe on the topic of “Engaging the Next-Generation Entrepreneur”
2. Designing for inclusion leads to improved outcomes

This UN Summit has also intentionally included previously-underutilized food systems’ change agents, like youth and small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Yes, there is still more to be done – but the noticeable efforts made to meaningfully activate groups like youth and SMEs should serve as a blueprint for what is needed and possible in other global forums going forward.

Too often, youth have been excluded from decision-making or are brought in as tokens to bring in “inspiration for the future” or to check a box. This Summit is disrupting this outdated model by positioning youth not just as the leaders of tomorrow – but also as the leaders of today. Each of the five Action Tracks has a youth Co-Chair who possesses both dedicated experience and passion in the topic area. I had the chance to meet many of these Co-Chairs on the ground in Rome and was continually inspired by their natural embracement of critical change-maker attitudes like openness, collaboration, community, and shared purpose.

During the "City and Local Food Systems" panel, I spoke about the unprecedented innovation power of today's young people.

As well, instead of looking only at powerful multinational conglomerates to solve food systems challenges, the Pre-Summit celebrated the role that local SMEs play at the frontlines of change. Their voices were strong and noticeable, and their bootstrapping, entrepreneurial methods were celebrated and championed at the highest levels through the Best Small Business: Good Food for All Competition.

3. Collective Action will “Change the Game”

“Game-changing” is a word that has been used a lot in relation to the Summit. To date, more than 1200 game-changing ideas and proposals have been submitted by governments, farmers, youth, gender equity groups, indigenous groups, scientists, and civil society organizations to the Summit process – with more pouring in each day. Excitingly, these aren’t just referring to science and technology innovations. New approaches to collaboration and collective action are championed as game-changing innovations in their own right. This is really important because food systems are diverse and highly contextual. Not one single solution or breakthrough can solve every current or future challenge for everyone. By cooperating and sharing, we can do things that are greater than individual actions, and we can minimize unintended consequences.

That’s why we at Thought For Food, along with our partners at IDEO, EAT, The Rockefeller Foundation, Forum for the Future, and SecondMuse, have built the first-of-its-kind Food Systems Game Changers Lab. This highly experimental 12-week program is about mobilizing even more people and organizations in all parts of the world – most of whom were not previously affiliated with the Summit – to join us in turning their individual ideas and solutions into real game changers.

Currently, the Food Systems Game Changers Lab is supporting 24 cohorts, who are actively tackling key food systems topics through systemic lenses and developing collective “Action Agendas.” These Action Agendas will be showcased to, and taken forward by, scaling partners around the Summit in September.

So now, as promised – bringing it back to Beyoncé. Here are some further thoughts on what we can learn for food systems from this icon in music:

  • Just like Beyoncé has the ‘BeyHive’ – e.g. her dedicated fanbase – the UN Food Systems Summit is building a powerful movement of champions and pioneers who are driving food systems transformation. The Summit and its surrounding activities offer anyone, anywhere, the opportunity to get engaged in overhauling the broken parts of our food systems. At the end of the day, as consumers and inhabitants of the planet, we are all actually “fans” of better food systems. We all need to make use of the global platform and the opportunity that the Summit provides to get involved and promote new levels of inclusivity and collaboration, and with more energy and zest than ever before.
  • Beyoncé is constantly experimenting and evolving – and we need to do this too. As food systems innovators and change agents ,we need to continuously develop and update our approaches to keep up with the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world in which we live today.
  • Our work to make food systems healthier, more resilient, and more sustainable will never be over – it is really hard work, and sometimes it may seem easier to just give up. The lights are now shining for us on the global stage, and perhaps its time to embrace a little bit of a rockstar-ethos and remind ourselves that its okay to step up to this chance, be audacious, and create waves to make incredible things possible. ⭐️

Want a front-row seat to see the up-and-coming rockstars of food and ag?

Join the TFF Summit this October 2nd

While I can't guarantee that Beyoncé will show up (although, if she is reading this - the invitation is open!!), I can assure you that this is a global experience you won't want to miss.