Beyond the Pandemic: Transforming Food Systems in Mongolia
18 June 2021
We should turn the COVID-19 crisis into the opportunity to transform the food systems in Mongolia making them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.
Op-ed jointly by UN Resident Coordinator Tapan Mishra and FAO Representative in Mongolia Vinod Ahuja
Food is more than just what we eat. It is the foundation of our culture, our economy, and our relationship with the natural world. The way in which we produce, process and consume food, which experts call ‘food systems’, touches every aspect of human life. When they function well, food systems deliver food security and nutrition so we can grow and be active and healthy. When our food systems fail, the resulting disorder threatens our education, health, and economy, as well as human rights, peace and security, affecting those who are already marginalized and most vulnerable.
What do we mean by “food systems”? The term encompasses every person and every process involved in growing, raising or making food, right through to consumption and what we do with our waste – from farmers and herders to processors to supermarket cashiers; from flour mills to refrigerated trucks and neighbourhood composting facilities. Hundreds of thousands of Mongolians earn their livings from the food systems. In 2020, agriculture alone accounted for 24 per cent of jobs and about 12 per cent of the gross value added produced in Mongolia.
The stress put on food systems by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the fragility of the systems and the interconnectedness of challenges and their impacts on people, the planet, and prosperity. For many – especially those who were already struggling before the pandemic – the food system disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to job losses, hunger and malnutrition. The FAO survey estimated that 72 per cent of households in Mongolia had to compromise on food during the COVID-19 crisis.
While COVID-19 may have catalysed food and nutrition insecurity for many more people, it is not the underlying cause of the challenges. Food systems were already inequitable in Mongolia even before COVID-19. 28.4 per cent of the population lived in poverty in 2018 and nearly one in four Mongolians experienced moderate or severe food insecurity. At the same time, the number of people who are obese or who suffer from food-related diseases has been increasing; 55 per cent of Mongolians are overweight, and 20 per cent are obese. At 32 per cent, Mongolia has the second-highest levels of premature mortality among low middle-income countries. At the same time, we continue to waste a significant portion of the food; food waste accounts for 36 per cent of solid waste in Ulaanbaatar city in summer.
Climate change is massively interfering with food systems, increasing the frequency and severity of dzuds, droughts, floods, and windstorms. For example, Mongolia experienced one of the most severe dzuds in 2021, leading to a large-scale livestock loss of 1.5 million animals. Yet, the current food systems are also part of the problem. The agriculture sector alone contributes 49 per cent of all greenhouse gases in Mongolia.
On 16 October 2019, World Food Day, the United Nations Secretary-General announced his intention to convene a Food Systems Summit in 2021. This decision was based on increasing recognition that transforming food systems must be central in the countries efforts to realize the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For example, food systems and nutrition patterns were identified in the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report as a key entry point to accelerate the worldwide transition to a more sustainable trajectory. Moreover, in the Ministerial Declaration of the 2018 High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development, the UN member states called upon all stakeholders to adopt a sustainable food systems approach.
If Mongolia is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in the remaining time, its food systems must change. We need to rapidly rethink how we produce, process, market and consume our food, and dispose of our waste. We should turn the COVID-19 crisis into the opportunity to rebalance and transform the food systems in Mongolia making them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.
Mongolia has a significant potential to transition to sustainable food systems, that is already underway. This would require technological innovation, strategic use of economic incentives, cohesive and participatory governance, and behavioural changes. Sustainable intensification of agriculture and strengthening agriculture value chains can help to promote the export of value-added agricultural products and reduce dependence on the import of food to meet food demand for a growing population and sustain rural jobs. Policy and institutional coherence are essential to address the linkages across food systems, climate change and natural resource management. Recognizing these trends and challenges, the Government of Mongolia approved a national program ‘Healthy Food-Healthy Mongolian’ in 2019 that aims to provide citizens with healthy and safe foods. Sustainable food systems approaches have been also mainstreamed in the national development policies, including Mongolia’s Vision-2050 for Sustainable Development and mid-term development programmes.
It is also commendable that stakeholders in every sector are beginning to take actions and change their behaviours in support of sustainable food systems. Government and other stakeholders are increasingly aware that food systems are one of the most powerful links between humans and the planet. They want to see a shift in these patterns in the way that enhances inclusive economic growth while safeguarding environment. This has been demonstrated by the strong convening role of the Government of Mongolia in organizing regional and private sector food systems dialogues and the active participation of multiple stakeholders in independent dialogues with youth and civil society.
The National Food Systems Dialogue in Mongolia on 6-8 July 2021 will provide an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on this growing movement and craft a catalytic moment for public mobilization and actionable commitments to accelerate the progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Evidence, ideas, and commitments gained at the National Food Systems Dialogue in Mongolia will not only contribute to the Global Food Systems Summit to be convened by the UN Secretary-General in September 2021 but, most importantly, they will help Mongolia itself to unleash new actions and innovative solutions and strategies to transform the national food systems and leverage the shifts to deliver progress across all Sustainable Development Goals.
 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en
 Second Joint Mission of the United Nations Interagency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, Mongolia, 5-9 September 2016. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017 (WHO/NMH/NMA/17.50). Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO