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Interview with Counsellor Eiji Tanimura, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

United Nations Food System Summit Challenges of Achieving the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations (UN) to ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity into the future. The SDGs set specific goals for 2030 in 17 areas, including the eradication of poverty and hunger.

To achieve those goals, the UN now particularly emphasizes the ‘transformation of the food system’. In September of this year, the UN Food System Summit (FSS) will be held in New York to discuss how this can be achieved. The UN has positioned this Summit as a ‘People’s Summit’, and is calling for people all over the world to participate and share their opinions.

  • United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021 logo and Sustainable Development Goals logo

Why are we focusing on ‘food systems’ instead of ‘food’? What significance does the ‘People’s Summit’ have? We spoke with Eiji Tanimura, Counsellor at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), who was in charge of the Japanese delegation.

  • Eiji Tanimura is Counsellor at MAFF. He is the Minister’s Secretariat in charge of the international response to environmental issues in the food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors (interviewed on June 24, 2021). Born in Miyazaki Prefecture, Mr. Tanimura joined MAFF in 1991, and after serving as Counsellor at the Embassy of Japan in Australia, Director of the Biomass Policy Division, and Director of the Administration Division in the Food Industry Affairs Bureau, he assumed his current position in May 2019.

The First International Conference on the Theme of Food Systems

I heard that this is the first time the FSS is being held. Many people have never heard of it. What kind of conference is it? Is it different from other food-related conferences that have been previously held?

“First of all, there is the question of what precisely the term ‘food system’ encompasses. What the UN is aiming for is considering the entire process of food production as an entire system, beginning with the procurement of materials and energy, through to production, distribution, processing, consumption and disposal, and to include all the economic and social activities encompassing all of that, as well as the natural environment. Although dialogues on food issues have already been held, this is the first high-level international conference taking a sustainable approach to the food system itself. That is the reason it is attracting so much attention.”

“Food system issues cannot be solved unless all stakeholders supporting them in countries around the globe come together to deliberate them, as opposed to just a ‘single country’ or ‘production sector’. However, past discussions have often dealt with isolated regions or processes. At this event, the fact that stakeholders from around the world all come together links their actions and creates a platform for discussion where we can say, ‘We must change ourselves to change others,’ or ‘If we change our approach, others will also change theirs.’”

The Five FSS Action Tracks
  1. Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all (Establish stable food supplies and food security)
  2. Shift to sustainable consumption patterns (Promote food education, healthy diets, the reduction of food loss, and local production for local consumption)
  3. Boost nature-positive production (including digitization)
  4. Advance equitable livelihoods (Provide employment opportunities and a stable livelihood for women and young people in agricultural, mountain and fishing villages and rural communities)
  5. Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress (Strengthen food supply chains in consideration of pandemics)

What is the significance of this landmark conference being held this year?

“Among the SDGs endorsed by the UN, ‘ZERO HUNGER’ and ‘LIFE BELOW WATER’ in particular are very closely related to the food system, and the UN is aware of the issue that without making the food system itself sustainable we cannot achieve the SDGs. The target year for the SDGs is 2030, and with less than a decade remaining, deepening the dialogue at this time is significant.”

“In addition, with the COVID-19 pandemic, even though food can be produced it cannot be delivered to those in need around the world. Now that the vulnerability of the global food system has been exposed, it is time changes make it sustainable. Something called ‘Planetary Boundary’ demonstrates that food systems, too, are reaching the point beyond which they will no longer be able to recover when the land and water needed for production are degraded any further. If we are to act, it must be now.”

A ‘People’s Summit’ and a ‘Commitment Summit’

It is also extraordinary because of its broad participatory call to everyone around the world.

“In terms of food systems, absolutely every human is connected with them. This event is a good opportunity for everyone to get involved. When each of us makes small behavioral changes, they accumulate and can change the entire system. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to take action so that our next generations can enjoy a stable food system.”

“The UN has called this Summit a ‘People’s Summit’ in the sense that people from all walks of life will be contemplating what they need to do. It is also a ‘Commitment Summit’ because people are making commitments about how they will work together.”

As a matter of fact, the public may freely participate in the discussions and activities via the official (English language) Summit website. Are there any other participatory platforms?

“MAFF has thus far set up more than 50 opportunities for dialogue. The emphasis has been placed on direct dialogue and interaction whenever possible. We hope people become aware that they are involved in food system sustainability, and that this consciousness will lead to as many people as possible moving into action on their own, in whatever form it may take. We, the government, will firmly convey in international settings just how seriously many companies, consumers, students, and other stakeholders in Japan are considering the food system.”

What kinds of discussions took place in those settings?

“In a recent example, based on their own local situations high school students shared what they were trying to do. They took these issues much more seriously than we thought, for example, if they lived in a prosperous dairy farming area, they would talk about how to generate resource circulation with dairy farming at its core, or if they lived near the ocean, what they could do to promote the sustainable use of marine resources. Given that the target year for the SDGs is 2030 and the target for achieving carbon neutrality is 2050, it is extremely important that the generations that will form the social core at precisely those times are taking these issues seriously.”

Japan’s Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI

How will the Japanese government engage in the Summit?

“In May 2021, we prepared the Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI (which includes targets for reducing environmental impact by 2050). The primary objective is to create a system in which agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and the food industry are compatible with the global environment. This Strategy was not created because the FSS is being held, but since it was drawn up at an extremely opportune time, we will definitely share its aims and contents.”

What is the Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI?
(Source: Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI, IMAFF)

“Up until now, many people may have thought that Europe had made great progress in environmental initiatives and that Japan was not able to similarly do that. At this Summit, Japan would like to demonstrate, through the Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI, that the Asia-Monsoon region, which has comparable natural conditions and agricultural patterns, has a way to achieve common goals. ‘Leave no one behind’ is a central focus of the SDGs, and I believe that promoting initiatives tailored to regional conditions will be an important point to raise at the Summit.”

The Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI covers an extremely wide range of items. In relation to the Summit, what part of the Strategy should we pay attention to?

“The Strategy indicates some Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and the reduction of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and the expansion of organic farming are along the lines of Summit discussions. And then, there is the issue of consumption. As for Japan’s style of consumption, our diet is said to have a small impact on nature. When discussing the environment and dietary habits, although people occasionally focus on individual food characteristics and say that since beef has a large impact on the environment we should reduce its consumption, as opposed to focusing on individual foods, we believe that it is important to eat a well-balanced diet. In the Summit, we would like to make it a point to review the entire consumption, including dietary habits, rather than discussing the benefits or shortcomings of individual items.”

Many may wonder how large an impact each individual can have on the global food system. Is this a place where we can expect to change something?

“Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmental activist from Sweden, drew attention when she participated in the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25). Since that time, more than a hundred countries around the world, including Japan, all at once committed to tackling carbon-neutral targets. When discussing the environment, deciding on rules is difficult, but once a certain atmosphere is created, there is a tendency to move quickly in that direction.”

“This year, following the FSS, the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) will be held in China in October, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) will be held in the United Kingdom in November. Since discussions on creating a framework for the environment will continue through this year, setting the direction of the international community at the FSS will have a great impact on the dialogues that follow. The Japanese government will take all the opinions received from various people in Japan to the Summit and tie them into the discussions there.”

Noteworthy International Conferences
  • UN Food System Summit Pre-summit, Rome, Italy (July 2021)
  • UN Food System Summit, New York, USA (September 2021)
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15), Kunming, China (October 2021)
  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) Glasgow, UK (November 2021)

Expectations for Corporate Innovation

What roles are corporations expected to take?

“The Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems, MeaDRI emphasizes the importance of innovation. To achieve our 2050 goal, attempting to act or change solely using our current technologies and capabilities will limit to how far we can go. Without the support of companies and research institutes that are equipped with technology, we would not be able to delineate the kind of plan that we currently have in mind. In order to not just draw castles in the air, it is very important to innovate in collaboration with companies that have various experiences in the field.”

“Upon this occasion, approximately 60 companies and local governments have made commitments from diverse positions by declaring their approaches toward their goals. I look forward to how companies subsequently apply their technologies and know-how to resolve issues. For example, in the field of agricultural machinery, I believe that there is a great potential for manufacturers to make contributions in terms of providing machinery and production systems suited to small-scale, family-run paddy farming systems in Southeast Asia. As I previously mentioned how things are done in the Asia-Monsoon region, we can move toward a common goal by providing Japan’s technology in ways corresponding with the situations in each country. In addition, if we want to make sustainable efforts, I think it is important not only to introduce machines, but also to contribute to human resource development.”

If people who become interested because of this article want to get involved in creating a sustainable food system, what should they do?

“One thing we hope is that people will get in contact with us, even if it is by email. We would like to expand the platform for sharing opinions and are considering what approaches we can take. Following the Summit, we will share feedback on what was discussed and the reactions Japan’s vision received. Thereafter, we would like to set up regular opportunities for discussions to continue the conversation.”

“MAFF may seem to deal only with the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, but our mission is to secure a stable food supply for Japanese people. Agricultural production, trade, and industries such as food-related manufacturers exist for that purpose. I hope this will help people realize that we are the government agency in charge of the food system.”

Through this commitment, Kubota will contribute to ‘promoting agriculture in harmony with the environment’ and ‘food system resilience’, which are among the FSS themes.

From Kubota Press (Japan)
Kubota Press (Japan) is Kubota’s owned media that covers the fields of food, water, and the environment from the perspectives of people, technology, and communities to convey where Kubota is today and give a realistic picture of where we work.