A policy tool to transform food systems for better nutrition. The CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and nutrition.

In October 2016, at its forty-third plenary, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) agreed on a strategy on nutrition aimed at stepping up the CFS’s contribution to the global fight against malnutrition in all its forms.

Almost five years later, at its 47th Plenary session in February 2021, CFS finally adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition (VGFSyN). These Voluntary Guidelines (hereinafter called VGs) have been developed as a follow up to the Second International Conference on Nutrition convened in 2014 and as a concrete contribution to the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition. The VGFSyN are an inter-governmental and multi-stakeholder negotiated policy tool for use by governments, specialized institutions and other relevant actors to develop effective policies to transform food systems for better nutrition.

The Guidelines aim at promoting policy coherence and reducing policy fragmentation between relevant sectors like health, agriculture, education, environment, gender, social protection, trade and employment – all of which have a great  influence on the functioning of food systems and their impact on nutrition. The VGs represent a useful tool to support the development of coordinated, multi-sectoral national policies, laws, programmes and investment plans to enable sustainable healthy diets through sustainable food systems.

The recommendations address cross-cutting factors that are relevant for improving diets and nutrition, and that determined the seven focus areas around which the guidelines are structured: 1) Transparent, democratic and accountable governance; 2) Sustainable food supply chains to achieve healthy diets in the context of economic, social and environmental sustainability, and climate change; 3) Equal and equitable access to healthy diets through sustainable food systems; 4) Food safety across sustainable food systems; 5) People-centered nutrition knowledge, education and information; 6) Gender equality and women’s empowerment across food systems; and 7) Resilient food systems in humanitarian contexts.

As the result of a long negotiation between Member states, attended also by other CFS participants  – civil society and private sector organizations, academia, research and financial institutions, and of course UN agencies in their role as advisors  – the final document contains a set of broad recommendations that need to be further elaborated into policies and investments according to national contexts. To do this, the Guidelines need to be used in conjunction with other existing UN evidence-based normative and technical guidance.

After the adoption of the VGs, the Civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), an autonomous participant of the CFS, has announced that its final decision on whether to support or not this endorsement would be done after due internal consultation process. As a result of this process, the CSM organized a public briefing in April 2021 to share its final conclusions: “the Voluntary Guidelines for Food Systems and Nutrition endorsed by Member States are not sufficient for the food system transformation urgently needed towards a fairer, more sustainable, resilient and healthier model”. The CSM will thus refer to its own vision for food systems, while also remaining committed to follow up the implementation of the VGs at all levels.

UN Nutrition members have been actively involved in the process to prepare these VGs since the very beginning, providing specific science and evidence-based, normative guidance produced by UN agencies to support the development of the recommendations. Now that the VGs have been approved, governments have the primarily responsibility for their uptake and implementation, supported by other stakeholders. UN Nutrition, as the coordination mechanism of UN agencies acting in nutrition, will facilitate inter-agency collaboration and continue to have a technical advisory role to support adaptation to the country context, by taking advantage of in-country UN Nutrition networks and making available to countries relevant evidence and standards to complement the recommendations. In this spirit, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is setting up an online dissemination platform of relevant UN supporting evidence to provide complementary normative guidance to implement the VGs. The platform includes evidence from a wide range of UN Nutrition member, including FAO, WHO, WFP and, UNICEF  

We encourage the use of these Guidelines in conjunction with specific science and evidence-based, normative guidance from the specialized agencies constituting UN Nutrition, and beyond.”

said the UN Nutrition Chair, Dr Naoko Yamamoto in her opening remarks at the webinar organized by the CFS Secretariat in the context of the Health Talks for the Food System Summit.

The CFS Voluntary Guidelines are also an important input to the global debate on improving food systems for healthy diets and better nutrition in advance of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit in September, COP-26, and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit 2021 in December.

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