Behind the scenes at the European Commission on Agriculture summit in Budapest (27-28 September 2023)

Earlier this year, ProVeg International joined the proceedings as national representatives from countries across Europe and Central Asia came together in Budapest, Hungary, to discuss food-systems transformation.

Convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the session was dedicated to exploring the challenges of sustainable use of land and water resources for food as well as looking at ways to further collaboration. As the ProVeg delegate, I was one of just nine observers from civil society to take a seat alongside 55 delegates from 36 countries and the European Union.

Stephanie Maw, Policy Manager for EU and UN Affairs at ProVeg International, was among a select number of NGO representatives to participate in the ECA summit in Budapest.

I arrived early in the morning at the venue and made my first pit stop at the registration desk to collect my badge. I then had just enough time to grab a coffee before the formal opening of the session. Entering the room, I was immediately struck by its stateliness: the wooden paneling was partly covered by rows of flags, one for each member country, while the delegates’ table, affixed with more flags, was flanked by two huge screens and several interpreter booths.

ProVeg took a seat at the table alongside European and Central Asian countries to discuss food systems change.

Despite the individual country designations, it quickly became clear that collaboration and collective effort were at the heart of the discussion. As one speaker aptly put it, water, land and soil – the key ingredients of our food systems – know no borders. Indeed, the intricate nature of how we produce, store, distribute and consume food means that governments everywhere must step up to the plate in order to help create a food system that is healthier and more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

The focus very quickly turned to how recent events, including the Ukraine war, as well as the impact of climate change and extreme weather have exposed the vulnerability of our food systems. Ensuring food security was clearly at the forefront of everyone’s minds in the room. The chairperson reminded all of the immense challenge ahead, highlighting that by 2050, this planet will need to feed 9.7 billion people – a daunting task given that more than 800 million are currently experiencing hunger on a daily basis, with little hope for change under business-as-usual scenarios.

Yet, while there was no doubt about the urgency of transforming our food systems, suggestions on the most effective ways to achieve this differed. While some advocated for agroecology and returning to indigenous, small-farmer practices, others defended the virtues of precision technology and innovation. One critical area of action, however, was seemingly missing in the discussion: policies targeting consumption. Shifting to more plant-based diets – especially in the Global North – and promoting alternative proteins need to be recognized as measures that help to protect the climate, human health, animal welfare, and natural resources, as well as ensuring food security.

While plant-based foods were not part of the summit discussions, they did at least feature in the catering. During the coffee and lunch breaks, a range of plant-based milks and fresh fruit and vegetables were provided to delegates. This was welcome fuel since discussions ran from the early morning until the end of the day.

Change starts on our plates: While plant-based foods featured little in the discussions, they were at least provided in the lunch and coffee breaks.

At times very technical, the session followed a strict procedure, in which countries were invited to make statements on and adopt over a dozen subtopics and recommendations to feature in a soon-to-be-published report by the FAO. In between the formal procedure, I found it very refreshing to engage and speak with country delegates and academics. I was keen to listen to their concerns and priorities for achieving food systems change and find common ground. And being one of only a handful of civil society representatives to attend this event created a certain intimacy.

After the closing of the summit, I sat in the venue lobby catching up on emails and other tasks, and paused to reflect on the last two days. Admittedly, this event had not been a moment of silver bullets and major breakthroughs. But it had shown that, despite some differences, countries are acutely aware of the unsustainable nature of our food systems. Coming up with solutions will require the participation of numerous actors, from politicians to farmers, businesses, researchers, consumers and civil society. I felt proud to have represented ProVeg and shown our firm commitment to building better food policies and holding governments to account. Because when it comes to transforming food systems, change begins with taking a seat at the discussion table!

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