Stefanos Fotiou: Achieving Sustainable Food Systems: A Quest for Multilateral Cooperation
This interview is part of a series conducted in the lead-up to the 4th Global Conference of the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems programme to be held from 24-27 April in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Stefanos Fotiou is an accomplished expert on sustainable development currently serving as Director, Office of Sustainable Development Goals in FAO; under this capacity he is also serving as Director of the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub. Prior to joining FAO, Stefanos served 16 years in the UN Secretariat, including 6 years as Director in the Environment and Development Division of the UNESCAP as well as 10 years in the UNEP. Before joining the UN, he had worked for the private sector and academia on issues of regional sustainable development. Throughout his career, Stefanos has taken leading roles in serving international UN fora and platforms, has conceptualised and led the development of regional and national strategies on sustainable development and his work has been published and referenced. He holds a PhD in Natural Resource Economics, a Master of Science in Forestry and Natural Environment and a Master of Science in Information Systems.
OPN: Is our international system still able to provide solutions?
Stefanos Fotiou: This is a fair question. When we look at the multitude of crises the world is facing, I am not surprised by the need to reflect on our international system. Although there are challenges, I am convinced that multilateralism is the only way we can address systemic problems effectively. Unfortunately, we are all falling short on our commitments towards SDG2, and all forms of malnutrition are rising. In fact, most of the SDGs are off track. They are either stagnated or making very slow progress, and many of them are even regressing. At the same time, no country can promote sustainable food systems alone. Although improvements are needed regarding effectiveness and coordination, the UN system remains the most valuable space for global cooperation, providing equal opportunities for all countries to voice their concerns. Moreover, global advocacy within international organisations remains a powerful way to motivate governments to act for a more sustainable future and pressure global corporate interests to act and walk the talk of sustainability. So, overall, we must protect multilateralism to address the challenges of our times.
OPN: The future of international cooperation on food systems: what are the key obstacles? What needs to change so that countries can fulfil the critical food-related SDGs?
Stefanos Fotiou: I am “realistically optimistic” about international cooperation on food systems. Not only because it is the most impactful area that can be a powerful synergistic SDG accelerator, but also because we see steps towards food systems transformation from many countries. I will admit most of them are baby steps, but there is a movement. The path toward transformation is clear. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; we all know what must be done. First, food must be perceived beyond a commodity to be seen as a public good. Many other “systems” must work if we want resilient food systems. The example of healthy ecosystems is one of the most symbolic ones. To cite a few challenges, the climate crisis, pollution, and biodiversity loss pose significant risks for the future of food, especially when considering the growing population. By 2050, we not only need to feed around 10 billion mouths, but we also must ensure that we nourish them. I am enthusiastic about the work we do at the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub as we connect the dots to ensure that we can track our progress and inspire more and more countries to act.
OPN: What more is needed at multilateral level?
Stefanos Fotiou: We need to break institutional and mental silos when it comes to sustainable development. The insertion of food systems at the core of climate and biodiversity discussions illustrates essential changes, including in mindsets. Our role is to continue demonstrating how interlinked these multilateral agendas are while offering countries concrete policy recommendations. Change cannot happen without strong leadership from the highest levels of governments. Thus, I invite more countries to champion the cause of transformation of food systems across all Rio Conventions. Policy coherence is vital, if we want to promote planetary health.
OPN: The trend of rising food prices is taking place as food sector companies are cashing in record, unprecedented profits. What measures can correct these critical issues, which are causing increased poverty and rising hunger and malnutrition? Should Food Systems National Pathways be revisited to include this new challenge and define roadmaps to overcome it?
Stefanos Fotiou: The Right to Food is a human right. As in other sectors, it is not the first time we see corporations earning unprecedented profits while the most vulnerable struggle to survive and inequality rises. This is why international regulation and accountability must be part of the change menu. We need to revisit the Rio Principles that ask the polluters to pay. Strong civil society with empowered citizens is fundamental to helping improve social and environmental rights. Food systems transformation goes beyond technical issues. We encourage countries to design and implement National Pathways responsive to rights and power dynamics within societies. Reaching those further behind must be a priority for every country. With the right partnerships and accountability frameworks, the private sector activity can become the largest accelerator for the SDGs.
OPN: What role can the One Planet Network play in achieving this goal? Do you think that the 4th Global Conference of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme is in line with the objective set by the global strategy? What can and should we expect from this conference?
Stefanos Fotiou: You are touching an issue that it is very deep in my heart. I started my career in the UN System 17 years ago, working in the Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch of UNEP. I was part of the team that worked with countries on what used to be the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP on SCP), and today the One Planet Network. I am happy that after a cycle of work in other posts, I now have the pleasure to be a partner of the One Planet Network. We are also truly enthusiastic about the upcoming conference in Viet Nam. Our goal is to move from challenges to solutions. In this conference, we need to shift focus from the “why” in order to bring forward the “how” food systems transformation can happen at the national level. With partners, the Hub is proud to lead a session hosting National Food Systems Convenors. We value genuine exchange, and we are convinced that this session will help all of us engaged in this agenda to learn from countries how best to co-create solutions. While we want to exercise “deep listening”, we are also strengthening science-policy interfaces to support evidence-based decision-making. The recent establishment of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of the Hub exemplifies this effort. The 4th Conference on Food Systems is a promising space to engage global actors raising the ambition and preparedness for the first-ever UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment on 24-26 July in Rome. We are eager to share the recommendations from this conference in our event in July, where countries will be invited to present their progress on food systems solutions voluntarily.
OPN: In your opinion, what needs to be done to address the gender gap issue related to sustainable consumption and production patterns, especially with relation to the objective of setting up sustainable food systems?
Stefanos Fotiou: Addressing rising and historical inequalities is fundamental for long-term solutions. It is unacceptable that in 2023, with all the available knowledge, we still must fight for equal rights for girls and women. Disparities in land tenure rights are one important example of leaving women behind in rural areas. More countries must have gender-disaggregated data when measuring SDGs’ progress. This remains a noticeable gap. Unequal social norms have allowed women to carry disproportionate labor and care burdens. The COVID-19 pandemic tragically spotlighted this. In food systems, it is no different. Solutions that do not work for women are fake solutions. Research has progressively proven that women are drivers of positive change. One essential way forward is diversifying decision making. We need empowered societies to make a change and when we have the full spectrum of society in strategic positions, then it is easier to implement systems thinking. At the Hub, we are working with coalitions, helping countries ensure that their national pathways offer gender-transformative policies related to the transformation of food systems. All stakeholders should be part of this conversation.