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The time for action is now: Thailand's commitments to the UN Food Systems Summit

05 October 2021

The first UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) was held virtually on the 23rd of September 2021 during the general assembly and had world leaders from more than 150 countries in attendance.
The UNFSS served as a platform for ambitious commitment to food systems transformation while also being an opportunity to use food systems as a vehicle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and get back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
The summit saw 101 countries developing new detailed national pathways for food systems transformation and a further 50 countries making commitments to alleviate hunger and tackle nature and climate impacts caused by food systems.
Thailand’s contributions to the UNFSS started with the country’s involvement at the Pre-Summit of the UNFSS which was held in July 2021. At the Pre-Summit Dr. Chalermchai Sri-on, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, stated how Thailand wants to become the “Kitchen of the World.’ To achieve this, the ‘Three-S’ model (food Safety, food Security, and Sustainability of natural resources and agro-ecology) was adopted. Moreover, the Bio-economic Green (BCG) economic model was also adopted by the Thai Government. In his address, Dr. Chalermchai Sri-on summarised Thailand’s food systems transformation solution into four key points, 
  1. Self-reliance in food production
  2. Equitable balance among sustainability dimensions
  3. Biodiversity Protection and Sustainable use of Natural Resources
  4. Good governance.

General Prayut Chan-o-Cha, Prime Minister of Thailand, was Thailand’s representative to address the general assembly at the UNFSS. He started off his address highlighting the impacts the pandemic has had and the importance food systems transformation is in the road to recovery
“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly exposed social inequalities and vulnerabilities of food systems in each country. Therefore, I urge all of us to work together to transform our food systems towards greater sustainability and balance in all dimensions. Most importantly, we need to strengthen food security and ensure equitable access to safe and healthy food for all to achieve the SDGs,” said General Prayut Chan-o-Cha
Before moving on to Thailand’s commitments, General Prayut Chan-o-Cha commended the UN’s 5 Action Tracks framework for food systems transformation, which he says aligns with Thailand’s vision of Security, Prosperity, and Sustainability, which will be used to help restore the country from impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic while also raising its competitiveness.
Moving on to Thailand’s commitments to food systems transformation, General Prayut reiterated the adoption of the ‘Three-S’ and BCG models mentioned by Dr. Chalermchai Sri-on at the Pre-Summit.
“[Thailand’s] agri-food policies emphasise the “Three-S”: food Safety, food Security, and Sustainability of natural resources and agro-ecology. In addition, Thailand is also advancing the Bio-Circular-Green Economy Model or BCG Model to pursue sustainable, balanced, and inclusive economic and social growth.  All of these efforts are based on the 20-Year National Strategy guided by the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy and the Sustainable Development Goals,” said General Prayut Chan-o-Cha.
Emphasis was also placed on soil and water resources. Thailand has joined the UN in designating the 5th of December as world soil day, and will be presenting King Bhumibol World Soil Day Award for “countries, institutions or individuals for their outstanding achievements in this area.
Wrapping up, importance was placed on working “together with our partners and coalitions at both national and global levels to strengthen the resilience of our food systems.”
While the UNFSS was a momentous occasion with world leaders making important commitments for our future, it was not without fault.
One of the major criticisms of the UNFSS is how the summit fails acknowledge corporate control of the food systems. This was the case with General Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s address and the commitments Thailand made for food systems transformation.

Thailand's food system is now becoming more centralized and monopolized than ever. This affects food security, food justice (rights to food) and the socio-environment. Large corporates and agribusinesses control the food systems and to an extent the policies which govern them. This system is responsible for the large scale shift from traditional agriculture to industrial and monoculture agriculture we have seen in Thailand over the past 50 years. The conversion has led to biodiversity loss, deforestation at a large scale, the collapse of the local food system, as well as a host of other socio-economic issues.

While these commitments made by Thailand at the UNFSS are a strong step forward, how they are implemented needs to be a focus point. The commitments to food system transformation need to include the removal of corporate control. The ‘Three-S’ model needs to lead to real sustainability and be inclusive by making smallholder farmers and local actors the key change-makers. The commitments cannot become something that large corporates and agribusinesses can use to ‘green wash’ claiming they are pushing for change and sustainability, while in reality they remain in control and root cause of the issues stays the same. While it is good that increasing the rights of farmers is a main factor in ‘good governance,’ one of the key points to Thailand’s food system transformation goals, smallholder farmers will only truly have rights when they are free from large agribusiness control.  

The commitment to work with international organisations to improve the food systems is needed, however this cannot come at the expense of working with local stakeholders. It is vital that the government works closely together with local stakeholders, including smallholders, civil society, and youths to develop solutions that works for everyone and can deliver success. All this will be needed if we are to solve the interconnected challenges of food insecurity, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

Food safety and security are two of the ‘Three-S.’ Both Dr. Chalermchai Sri-on and General Prayut Chan-o-Cha provided examples of initiatives in place such as ‘the Agriculture School Program,’ which is a success case for large scale reduction of malnutrition and improvement of food security for children in rural areas. However, none of these initiatives mentioned were able to do provide food security or ensure nutritious food during the pandemic. The pandemic has brought the problem of food insecurity and malnutrition into the forefront again, highlighting a deeper underlying issue that needs to be addressed. The current initiatives in place – some of which were introduced back in the 1980s – alone are not effective and more large scale initiatives are needed.    

More problematically, although ‘food safety’ is one of the ‘Three-S’ and the term ‘healthy food’ and access to it was bought up multiple times by both Dr. Chalermchai Sri-on and General Prayut Chan-o-Cha, a large problem with the current industrial food system seems to be neglected. Agrochemicals, which contaminate our food was not once mentioned in either address.

The current food system we have in place in Thailand is heavily reliant on agrochemicals as a tool for crop protection. The majority of food being produced in the country is contaminated with chemicals, and so are our soil and water resources. As a result everyone from young school children to the elderly in both urban and rural areas is consuming chemicals contaminated food. Speaking to school teachers and smallholder farmers in rural villagers, they believe that if we were to test the blood of all the students in the area, every single one would come back with chemicals in their blood. The reduction of agrochemicals has to the key point going forwards and initiatives encouraging organic agriculture and a shift away from agrochemicals need to be introduced if food safety is to be achieved.

There are projects in place such as the FLR349* project by WWF Thailand, which has support from government agencies like the Royal Forestry Department, but actions by the wider government relating the reduction of agrochemicals has been limited and no large scale initiatives are in place to tackle this issue.
While phrases like food security and food safety sound great, they have led to no real action. To truly achieve the commitments to “strengthen food security and ensure equitable access to safe and healthy food for all to achieve the SDGs“ as well as the aim to create food self-reliance, more action is needed. New large scale solutions need to be implemented with a risk management framework in place.  

Agroecology, which is also part of the ‘Three-S’ provides opportunity to mitigate this issue Utilised properly agroecology can provide access to safe food and restore the local food system, whilst restoring degraded landscapes. The FLR349 project is a strong example of this. Being part of the Three-S, agroecology should rightly be a major part of Thailand’s food system transformation commitments, therefore more of these initiatives need to be supported and scaled up soon.  

Another problem with the UNFSS raised was by Joao Campari, Global Food Lead at WWF International. To Joao Campari, nature and climate were not mentioned enough in the commitments made by world leaders, and this could affect our ability to achieve the SDGs goals by 2030. While there was mention of sustainable use of natural resources, Thailand’s commitments focused on the human aspects of food system transformation. While this is important, as Joao Campari said, to achieve the SDGs by 2030 Thailand and the other countries may need to place equal focus on climate and nature elements as well.

Joao Campari did however note that by being one of the countries supporting WWF’s work with “coalitions on agroecology, blue and aquatic foods, soil health and healthy and sustainable diets, which can help support thriving biodiversity and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” Thailand is moving in the right direction.
The UNFSS built strong foundations on which success could be built and Thailand has made strong commitments and are moving in the right direction. However, until real action is taken that is beneficial to both humans and the environment, the targets set in these commitments and the SDGs cannot be achieved.
* What is The FLR349?:
FLR349 is a fund that has been developed based on the King’s Philosophy of “Three Forests, Four Benefits” and the development of a value chain which could become a model for farmers living in watershed areas. The FLR349 Fund helps farmers turn their agricultural operation from forest-encroaching mono-agriculture with intensive use of chemicals into the “Three Forests, Four Benefits” agricultural system which helps to restore the environment by stopping the destruction of top soil. Farmers learn to grow perennial trees, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in a mixed system that is sustainable, and which replenishes the soil. Such plantations function like carbon sinks and water reservoirs which make possible the production of diverse and safe foods for consumption. It helps to empower farmers and their community, helps to reduce their living expenses, and helps to keep them healthy. As a result, they can break free from the endless cycle of debt that has trapped many farmers in our current food system. This system is consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
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Abhinand Aryapratheep