In this interview, Iris pinpoints the important role of clear communications in food systems transformation and how this translates into having the right information to help make better decisions. She shares her optimism in our younger generation to insist on action now on climate change.

Iris Krebber

Head of Agriculture, Food Security and Land at the UK Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Office (FCDO). Board member of the GDPRD for the UK.

Iris Krebber is the Head of Agriculture, Food Security and Land at the UK Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Office (FCDO). She is also the Board member of the GDPRD for the UK. The views expressed in this interview are Iris’s own opinions and represent her professional experience.

The UN Food Systems Summit highlighted the fact that fundamental changes will need to be made in food systems over the next years and that donors have a critical role to play in this scenario.

What do you see are the most important messages and priorities that have emerged from the Food Systems Summit and in the process leading up to it?

The highest impact from the Summit is a clearer understanding, not of experts, but to the average person, of the risks and impact of agriculture and food systems on climate.

As we all know, this is a politicised, emotional, and ideological subject and I am not sure the Summit got there yet. Unless everybody understands the opportunities and how things can change and transform under the pressure of time, talk about food systems may remain academic. The average person on the street needs to understand what this is about and what can be done, and then engage with political decision makers to get it done. Not in 50 years’ time, but from now.

What are three things that can be most catalytic in bringing about the food systems transformation that is being called for? Where do you think we need to focus on to leverage change?

A lot of research on food systems is already happening. We need to make what is already known in academic circles simplified and digestible, to help decision makers have an impact and help voters and the electorate lobby decision-makers for what they think is the right thing to do.

The Summit made a good start, but there is still is a risk that academics are talking to academics and other stakeholder groups are also talking in silos. This is especially important with a theme as complex and complicated as food systems – to make this palatable and something to engage with for those who can make a difference.

Where should donors focus their efforts and how might this be different from what has been supported in the past? Why would this moment in time be different?

Rather than more research, we need to bring existing good research into action, through governments and/or the private sector. Very few political decision makers have a clear idea of what key food and agriculture priorities are. Food systems may accurately depict what is happening, but it also becomes difficult to establish owners for specific actions and accountability. This is where research interaction can make things understandable and help change incentives towards action.

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This video is a recording of the interview, conducted by the Secretariat of the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development in October 2021 after the UN Food Systems Summit.

On the issue of the Summit that has generated a lot of discussions around the need for systemic change – that we need a food systems perspective rather than just thinking about food security and nutrition – what do you think this means and what are the implications for donor funding and programming?

When you look at the food systems approach and what’s being funded, this is still mostly about productivity enhancing measures; there is relatively less focus on the rest of the supply chain. If you imagine something mind-boggling like one third of globally produced food being lost or wasted, you start thinking why not address that problem instead of squeezing more productivity out of the soil. Once this low-hanging fruit is picked, the pressure to produce yet more also eases.

Incentivizing policies can look beyond the productivity angle and come to grips with what “climate-smart” really means in agriculture. Better understanding of the research and good practices will help create policies that incentivize the shift.

With the UK hosting the [UNCCC] COP 26, would you like to reflect on the link between food systems and the wider climate agenda?

Those working on climate, environment and saving the planet usually depict agriculture and food systems as major culprits. Yes, food systems contribute to a massive amount of emissions, but we need to look at what is realistic and how we shift towards agriculture being part of the solution.

“The average person on the street needs to understand what this is about and what can be done, and then engage with political decision makers to get it done. Not in 50 years’ time, but from now.

When we run a sector as more climate smart, we need to first identify the risks. How can I know whether an investment in food systems makes the situation better if I only have an opaque or no understanding of the climate risk to a commodity or geography, or which parameters I need to review? The reporting would not have much substance without an established process to reach consensus on what “good” looks like. An investment could be a positive adaptation or one with positive intentions but not doing any good since we didn’t understand the climate risks in a given investment context correctly.

We’ve also started looking at agricultural subsidies. There is a real movement in the world now to make them more beneficial for the planet, people and prosperity, ie achieve the triple win, but there is more to be done.

Food systems are all over what we want to achieve. Agriculture is one of the most controversially negotiated subjects in the COP process, so our work is cut out for ourselves.

Are there some changes that give you optimism that this transformation of food systems being called for is possible?

What gives me hope that things will change is a very young generation, still in school or university or about to start their career. They see their future being severely compromised unless we make inroads on food systems quickly. We depend on them, shouting it from the rooftops and pressurizing us to do better and their generation into decision-making roles, to act now while there’s still time.

Do you have specific thoughts for the role of a network like the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development, related to the need for improved coordination of donor support?

The role of the Donor Platform could really make inroads on good coordination, and that’s more important than ever before. There will be a coordination and follow-up body by the Rome-based Agencies following the Summit but nothing concrete has yet come outside of the usual G7, G20, and other Nations’ clubs on what the expectations are beyond “business as usual”. There is a strong role for donor coordination and monitoring on the back of the Summit, to ensure it doesn’t join other UN summits that demonstrate good will and policy debate but have no follow-up and accountability.

That’s the key role of the Donor Platform in the coming years, to complement what the Rome-based Agencies will do and keep a donor perspective in a forum for debate and a policy donor perspective on how to bring their combined weight into the follow-up.

Thank you, Iris, for your time and for sharing your reflections, experience and vision.

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