THE LATEST: Uncommon Partnerships: The Road to the 2021 Food Systems Summit

by Ana Bilik, President, Tanager

In 2021 the global community will come together for the 2021 Food Systems Summit – an exciting and important event for all global food system actors. With the 2021 Food Systems Summit, the United Nations has created a movement to organize and galvanize action towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 2. Replete with action tracks and organized country dialogues, the 2021 Food Systems Summit will bring together the public and private sector around critical issues facing smallholder farming communities – the communities that Tanager works to serve.

An announcement of the Food Systems Summit was made at the 2020 Borlaug Dialogue, hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation, during a roundtable discussion with Agnes Kalibata, the UN Special Envoy to the Food systems Summit. I had the distinct honor of contributing to this panel, lending Tanager’s perspective working with smallholder farming communities to this pivotal moment in our global effort to make lasting and sustainable change to food systems.

In light of the global pandemic and growing challenges of climate change, this year’s Borlaug Dialogue focused on Building Resilience Today for Improved Global Food Systems Tomorrow. There are many overlapping themes from the Borlaug Dialogue and the upcoming Food Systems Summit – namely interconnection, diversification, equity, and urgency. At the center of the solutions are uncommon partnerships.


As António Guterres, UN Secretary General stated in 2019 “transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals.” This year’s World Food Prize Laureate, Dr. Rattan Lal, commented that conservation agriculture is critical for achieving Sustainable Development Goals including food and nutrition security, climate action, land degradation neutrality, and above all – world peace and harmony.

The topics of the various Borlaug Dialogue sessions reflect the interconnectedness of our food systems with the other critical issues of our times. During a session on carbon sequestration, sustainability in agriculture, and the rise of carbon markets, Liam Condon of Bayer AG pointed out that soil health, human health, and planetary health are inextricably linked. By connecting planetary health back to soil health means that everybody can do something to bring about positive change. The Rockefeller Foundation hosted a session on the intersection between agriculture and energy. The CGIAR linked food, land and water. Interconnectedness was everywhere.


Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on food systems in his conversation with laureate Rattan Lal, the Honorable Al Gore noted that large conventional food systems have broken down, but local, more diversified food systems have proven to be more resilient. During the roundtable session The Road to the 2021 Food Systems Summit that I participated in, renowned chef and activist José Andrés made a fervent plea about the importance of increasing crop diversity to feed mankind, pointing out that there are important lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic – if a previously unknown pest or plague infected one of our six big food crops, what would happen to our global food security?

Diversification is an important focus of Tanager’s work. During the Food Systems Summit Roundtable, I stressed that the whole farm approach is important for farmers to achieve a living income. This holistic approach is predicated on diversification – a farming household’s income can be optimized by increasing the profitability of its full crop rotation and productive assets, much beyond a focus on one specific crop. Increased income and increased food diversity impacts both nutrition outcomes and women’s economic empowerment as well.


Inequity in our food systems is another persistent problem, especially gender inequity. During Tanager’s interactive Workshop presenting the IGNITE Gender Diagnostic Tool, Tanager’s Country Representative Maureen Munjua and Director of Gender & Social Inclusion Sarah Sahlaney outlined the connection between gender equity and the diets of women and children. The Tanager team stressed that gender equity is critical for making significant progress towards nutritional equity. The IGNITE Gender Diagnostic Tool is an analytical framework that pinpoints opportunities for interventions that will achieve gender and nutrition outcomes. It was developed using the Gender Practitioners Collective’s Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality, and is implemented through the Impacting Gender & Nutrition through Innovative Technical Exchange in Agriculture (IGNITE) mechanism.

In a discussion about carbon markets, Rattan Lal made the point that farmers should be given a fair price for sequestering carbon, noting that the current market prices are too low to serve as a meaningful or equitable incentive for farmers.


As always, it is the young people around us, the next generation of leaders, who incite a call to action. So, too, the Borlaug Dialogue. Co-panelist Priscilla Trinh, a student at the University of Minnesota, and a representative from World Food Prize’s Global Youth Institute, held our collective feet to the fire, asking “how will we combat the spectrum of nihilism, polarizing anger and fear” that we face today.


We collectively have tried to simplify the complex issues we face to reduce them into manageable bits. But the reality is that we need holistic solutions. Elwyn Grainger-Jones of CGIAR ably summed up a common theme: To fix the problems we face, we need to put all the pieces back together, which results in complex partnerships.

Partnerships was also the theme of Tanager’s official side event at the Borlaug Dialogue, Building and Maintaining Multi-stakeholder Partnerships in Uttar Pradesh. This event, hosted by Tanager in close coordination with partners  Mars Wrigley and Symrise championed the importance of collaboration, communication, and shared vision, to co-create initiatives like the Shubh Mint project that have a positive impact on the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

It is my hope that uncommon partnerships continue to emerge through the action tracks, dialogues and Food Systems Summit commitments that will help us achieve the SDGs and meet the needs of whole families, whole farms, whole communities. #GrowthforGood