The role of finance at the UN Food Systems Summit 2021

Rabobank aims to bridge the gap between “food” and “finance”

The first-ever UN Food Systems Summit (FSS) will be held in September 2021, virtually or as an in-person event in New York. The urgency is high: there’s a clear need for rapid change in the way we produce and consume food. And farmers aren’t the only ones responsible. Companies, NGOs, governments and financiers also have an important role to play in bringing about this change. Rabobank, as a thought leader in financing the food and agri sector, aims to contribute to the summit by delivering actionable solutions. Suzanne van Tilburg, Global Head of Food & Agri Networks, shares more about the bank’s role at the FSS.

The facts are almost hard to believe, but the latest figures on world hunger are irrefutable. Over 690 million people suffer from chronic hunger – that’s one in eleven people. In total, two billion people experience hunger or don’t have regular access to nutritious food. And as many as eleven million people die each year from nutrition-related diseases. These figures are from a recent report by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The figures do not include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the FAO projects that an additional 83 to 132 million people will suffer from hunger as a result. In addition, it is increasingly recognized that existing food systems have a negative impact on nature and the environment, thus contributing to climate change.

In short, there is a clear and urgent need for global food supply chains to work together on new solutions. Perhaps even more so now that the Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping the world. To this end, stakeholders in the food industry have engaged in a series of Food Systems Dialogues and events in order to find solutions for transforming the food system. And this fall, all those preparations, commitments and coalitions will culminate in a Political Declaration from world leaders at the UN Food Systems Summit in New York. The United Nations sees this event as part of the “Decade of Action” to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Part of the solution

Rabobank is among the parties preparing to attend the summit. Since last summer, a Task Force led by Suzanne van Tilburg, Global Head of Food & Agri Networks, has been engaged in defining the role that the bank will play at the summit. “As Rabobank, we aim to help bridge the gap between food and financing,” explains Van Tilburg. “The financial industry is viewed with distrust for its role in the shift to a more sustainable food system. ‘Isn’t this just greenwashing?’ is the accusation you typically hear from skeptics. That’s part of the reason banks are usually seen as an obstacle to quick solutions. But we want to, and can be part of those solutions.”

Given the high degree of knowledge Rabobank possesses about food systems, Van Tilburg sees the bank as a solutions provider. For decades it has been one of the largest financiers in the global food industry and agriculture, and has built a unique network in that space. But even more important is Rabobank’s role as a global linchpin: connecting cooperatives of smallholder farmers in emerging markets to mega-farms in Australia or the US, and commodity traders to large, globally operating food companies. Rabobank’s broad food and agri network is unmatched by any commercial bank in the world. 

It is the ideal candidate for a prominent seat at the conference tables in New York, you might say. But it doesn’t work like that, according to Van Tilburg. “The summit itself will only be attended by world leaders who will collectively develop guiding principles: frameworks within which the food systems transformations can take place. Leaders from the business community don’t have an individual role to play at the summit. They accompany government officials – like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – on the trip, as they would on trade missions. Or they are actively involved in other ways, for example as co-organizer of thematic side events related to carbon or food waste,” Van Tilburg says. “The real decisions and important commitments will be made prior to the summit in September.”

Food Systems Summit

Strengthen and scale-up

“Our strength lies in the work we do, in the way we and our clients already assess different sustainability transition pathways and how we can facilitate, finance or accelerate them through preliminary events. We need to leverage that experience. It shows that a lot is already happening and that we don’t need to set up all kinds of new things again,” she continues. “It also gives us a good idea about the things we might have overlooked, such as a good infrastructure with global norms and measurable standards, which collectively identify whether a farmer or company is on the right track and whether fair prices are paid for the food produced.”

Van Tilburg’s big challenge now is to bring visibility to the food transition projects Rabobank is actively involved in – such as the AGRI3 Fund, the new partnership with MasterCard, the Carbon Bank, and “Sustainability Linked Loans” (impact loans with lower interest rates). Once that is done, Rabobank will strengthen and scale up these projects through, among other things, coalitions that can be expanded. The projects can then be presented at on- and offline global meetings in the lead-up to the FSS. She points to the alternative Davos Summit of the World Economic Forum, which is set to be held in Singapore in August and the pre-summit event to be held in Rome this summer.

“I hope that our Carbon Bank plan, for example, is finalized soon so that we can roll it out further using the momentum of the FSS,” Van Tilburg says. The aim of the Carbon Bank project is, among other things, to position Rabobank as the global financial intermediary between companies that want to offset their emissions and farmers who want and are able to store carbon. They can do that by letting their land lie fallow or by planting trees in order to earn carbon credits they can “sell for profit.” The bank oversees the process on both sides.

Many of the existing Rabo projects align seamlessly with the five FSS themes: Nutrition, Sustainable Consumption, Nature-Positive Production, Inclusion and Resilience. They also align with the meeting’s cross-cutting themes, such as food loss and waste. “‘Growing a better world together’ has been our mission for many years. Our aim is to illustrate this clearly in the context of this Food Summit through examples of the work we do, and to partner with other global leaders to deliver solutions,” says Van Tilburg.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to show how we are helping to accelerate the SDG ambitions with, for, and by our clients"

Suzanne van Tilburg, Rabobank

Inclusion and practical solutions

In the lead-up to the summit, the FSS will follow so-called “action tracks,” which cover the following areas: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food, shifting to sustainable consumption patterns, boosting nature-positive food production and preparing for crises such as COVID-19 or climate fluctuations. Suzanne van Tilburg: “The summit is characterized by two principles: it is a ‘people’s summit’; inclusion is the code word for all plans. We focus on all inhabitants of this planet, with solutions for large and small farmers, for SMEs and even for indigenous tribes with their specific cultures, eating traditions and wonderful examples of how you can work the farm with respect for nature. It is also a ‘solutions summit’ that is based on concrete and actionable solutions that can be operationalized today.”

Rabobank is working hard to deliver these actionable solutions. Talks regarding the five themes are already underway with food sector clients and relevant partners and coalitions. Through these talks and in external FSS events and dialogue sessions – the previously mentioned Food System Dialogues – Rabobank aims to show that it is possible to close the gap between food and finance. Not only is this important for accelerating the development of solutions for the summit themes, but, if all goes well, it will also create a new pipeline of projects for the bank.

“My aim during this summit is to encourage attendees to draw conclusions that will allow us to help our clients all over the world – from small banana farmers to large beer brewers – truly move their businesses forward. We will do this by helping them prepare their businesses for future-proof food systems. And providing the most appropriate form of financing for their specific needs,” says Van Tilburg. She talks about the inspiring leaders within Rabobank – like Chairman Wiebe Draijer and Managing Board Member Berry Marttin – who can tell the bank’s story like no other. “That’s where so much of our strength lies; Prime Minister Rutte should also make a point of sharing that during the summit,” Van Tilburg believes. “And soon we’ll be sitting in the front row to affirm that. It really is a wonderful opportunity to show leadership as a bank in a field that we have known for so long and so well.”


Raboboank & UN Food Systems Summit infographic

Engaging the next generation of food leaders

Rabobank is also looking to actively engage young people in the Food Summit. They too have a voice, especially the Gen Z-ers (born between 1996 and 2015), who, according to Van Tilburg, are eager to share their insights and ideas. That is why a special hackathon series – events where teams of participants work nonstop to quickly develop solutions for a number of challenges – has been organized. The bank has also launched a social media campaign called #Food4Future, which is linked to the FSS themes. Young people between the ages of 15 and 19 can sign up for the hackathons.