As concerns over the UN Food Systems Summit mount, civil society’s hunger for change deepens | Equal Times

A market in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq
A market in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

It is widely agreed our food systems are failing many and that radical change is needed. There is less agreement on what should be done, and who should be leading that change.

As the pre-summit of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) 2021 gears up to begin in Rome next week, small-scale food producers, civil society, Indigenous peoples and human rights groups are sounding the alarm. This growing alliance of activists are expressing deep concern that the conference is on course to push our global food systems even further in the wrong direction.

The pre-summit will be decisive for the bearing and outcomes of the landmark meeting, to be held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this September. The main summit aims to transform the world’s food systems and launch actions to deliver progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are all connected in some way to a more sustainable and just food systems.

But despite its stated aim to be a ‘people’s summit’, critics have decried its narrow focus on high-tech fixes and markets, and for ignoring human rights, agroecology (an ecologically sound way of producing food that draws on traditional and scientific knowledge, informed by justice and equity) and food sovereignty (simply put, the right of people to control their own food system). Its trajectory, they warn, will further entrench the corporate and neocolonial control of food systems and fail to deliver urgently needed changes in the way food is produced, distributed and consumed.

“The UN Food Systems Summit has no legitimacy and is meant to sideline the views, participation and centrality of small-scale food producers,” a spokesperson for La Vía Campesina South Asia wrote in a statement to Equal Times.

Criticism of the summit has echoed around the world. The current and two former UN special rapporteurs on the right to food have critiqued the UNFSS’s shortcomings, while over 500 civil society organisations have promised to boycott the event and hold counter events. Hundreds of scientists have also called for a boycott, citing the summit’s top-down approach and impoverished vision of whose knowledge matters.

A system ripe for transformation

Along with the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow this November, and December’s Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo, the UNFSS will play a crucial role in shaping the way in which food systems develop over the coming years. It is taking place at a critical juncture. Despite the world producing enough food for 10 billion people, hunger and malnutrition have been rising since 2014 and the world is likely to fail to meet the target of ‘zero hunger’ as laid out in SDG Goal 2 by 2030.

At present, 41 million people face imminent famine, 811 million people go to bed hungry every night, over two billion adults suffer from malnutrition and adult obesity is increasing in every region of the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified inequality and hunger, and revealed the fragility of global supply chains. “We have witnessed the industrial food system grind to a halt during the pandemic, disrupting global food production and distribution. Amidst this chaos, local agriculture systems based on peasant production proved their resilience and became a lifeline for many. It highlighted the need for building local food systems on the principles of food sovereignty,” La Vía Campesina South Asia told Equal Times.

Covid-19 has also heightened awareness that industrial agriculture – the primary cause of deforestation, biodiversity collapse and the loss of topsoil – is unsustainable, causing ecological destruction, creating ideal conditions for zoonotic disease to thrive and driving climate change, with global food systems responsible for 21 to 37 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

It is widely agreed our food systems are failing many and that radical change is needed. There is less agreement on what should be done, and who should be leading that change.

Who is at the table?

Small-scale producers – peasants, pastoralists, fishers, Indigenous peoples, women and youth – provide more than 70 per cent of the food consumed in the world using less than 25 per cent of natural resources, while industrial agriculture utilises over 75 per cent of natural resources and provides food to less than 30 per cent of the global population.

Despite the critical importance of small-scale producers to global food systems, they have found themselves largely excluded from what claims to be “a people’s summit” for everyone everywhere. The summit’s opaque preparatory process and the invitation to civil society and governments to participate within narrow rules of engagement that they had no say in shaping, have left civil society feeling that their concerns and agendas have not been adequately prioritised, if not outright dismissed. A March 2020 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres signed by 550 organisations detailing these concerns remains unanswered to this day.

Hakim Baliraine, the Uganda-based chairperson of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum, a network of grassroots organisations across 16 countries, says the way the consultations were conducted effectively shut them out.

“It was not inclusive…consultations were started at the highest level and this didn’t give us the opportunity to air our insight about the food system we want,” he says.

The virtual format of most dialogues creates further obstacles to farmers’ participation because of limitations ranging from access to gadgets to high internet costs. Consequently, he adds, “the majority of us have never contributed to the proceedings.”

“We need a transformation in our food systems, yet the UN Food Systems Summit falls short of, if not threatens, implementing any meaningful change towards just, equitable, healthy and sustainable food systems,” says Sylvia Mallari, the Philippine-based global co-chairperson of the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty. “Without us marginalised and oppressed peoples at the table, at the helm of decision-making, then for whom is this so-called ‘transformation’?”

A controversial menu

After Guterres announced the summit in late 2019, many were surprised that it had not involved the Committee on World Food Security, the most inclusive intergovernmental platform for food systems issues.

Molly Anderson, professor of food studies at Middlebury College, Vermont, and a member of the International Panel of Experts in Sustainable Food Systems, says that by not involving the Committee on World Food Security, summit organisers have taken a selection of problems to address and solutions to emphasise from an intergovernmental space, where member states are accountable to their citizens, to a multi-stakeholder space, which lacks any formal means of accountability. Besides inviting serious conflict of interest, this has shifted focus “away from social movements, Indigenous peoples and other parts of civil society and toward business interests, powerful governments and large institutions,” says Anderson. “Multi-stakeholder platforms tend to be dominated by interests that are already powerful and serve to increase that power.”

The summit has also faced criticism for its corporate capture over the involvement of individuals and organisations linked to or funded by multinational corporations and philanthropic organisations, like Cargill and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The appointment of Agnes Kalibata – president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which promotes agribusiness interests – to lead the forum has elicited particularly strong outcry.

Critics draw a line between the corporate influence on the summit and its agenda and vision focused on investment-friendly, high-tech solutions, such as gene editing and artificial intelligence-controlled farming.

In January, the current UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, wrote to Kalibata expressing concern that the summit was prioritising big business over human rights, which were initially not included in summit preparations. “The Summit still appears to be heavily skewed in favour of…market-based solutions. A human rights-based approach to food systems, however, puts people before profits…There will be no real solutions if we focus on science and technology, profits and markets, without also addressing fundamental questions of equality, accountability, and governance,” wrote Fakhri.

Mallari says the private sector-led, market-oriented and technology-driven solutions and processes being put forward by the summit come from the same neoliberal frameworks that led us to the crises we now face. “By framing hunger as a ‘shortage’ and ‘market access’ issue, they gloss over the fact that poverty, injustice, occupation, neocolonialism and inequality are at the heart of hunger,” she explains.

Hungry for change

La Vía Campesina South Asia expressed doubt to Equal Times that the summit can offer any meaningful solutions to hunger, malnutrition, global warming and food wastage. “We believe that no systemic transformation is possible without recognising and protecting at the local level the rights of those who are the heart of the food systems. We want food sovereignty in our territories…we want a food system that…is climatically, culturally appropriate and diverse for each locality and community. The priority should be to wholly fulfill the human rights of food producers as stated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants.”

They are one of hundreds of civil society organisations that has long-demanded a food system transformation rooted in food sovereignty and agroecology. Food sovereignty is widely recognised as an effective strategy to address the overlapping hunger, inequality, biodiversity and climate crises. Agroecology is considered key to the struggle for food sovereignty because of its potential to transform food systems.

For Baliraine, agroecology must be prioritised unequivocally. “As the only tried and tested food system which can produce food sustainably, [agroecology] should be promoted, domesticated, and mainstreamed in all agriculture policy frameworks from the grassroots to the global level.”

In September, a parallel Global People’s Summit on Food Systems will be held online and on-the-ground in participating countries around the world, co-organised by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty, to amplify the voices being shut out of the Food Systems Summit.

To change our food systems, we must listen to and support civil society, which has the most progressive ideas for how to transform them in the direction of equity and sustainability, says Anderson. “Perhaps the most important thing is to question every ‘solution’ that you hear and ask who is supporting it and why, whom will it benefit and whom will it harm.”

This story was originally published by Equal Times