In a world where agriculture and food systems continue to be wrecked by the pandemic and climate disasters, international cooperation and solidarity is paramount to mitigate our crisis ridden present and provide policy directions and hope for a better future. In an emergency situation like this, bringing the international community together to create more sustainable and equitable food systems UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) on 23 September 2021 would normally be seen as a positive and welcome initiative. Why, then, are hundreds of peasant organisations, social movements, academics, and civil society organisations opposed to the summit?
Focus on the Global South is an activist think tank in Asia providing analysis and building alternatives for just, social economic and political change. It regularly cooperates with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s South Asia Office.
Undemocratic and Flawed Process
Using a multi-stakeholder approach the summit brings together participants who subscribe to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Redesign Initiative a controversial project pushing for a greater role for the private sector in global governance. This has led to the marginalization of the established member-state and Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) led multilateral processes. Leading up to the summit, the incumbent and former UN Special Rapporteurs on Right to Food wrote that UN bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Committee for World Food Security (CFS) were included in the process much later than they should have been and that concessions made have been “too late, or too cosmetic, to impact meaningfully the process.” Leaders of the world’s largest peasant alliance La Via Campesina, argue in their call for boycott that the governance of the summit is firmly in the control of large multinational corporations and developed countries that are pro industrial agriculture. This concern is echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Michael Fakhri, who warned in a recent policy brief for member states in August 2021, that the summit process has “noticeably lacked interactive and meaningful participation from grassroots movements, Indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fishers, and human rights advocacy groups.”
The UNFSS created a Champions Network intended to engage with the larger public to generate ideas and build discourse around food systems. Again the process lacked legitimacy because the champions are arbitrarily nominated by Agnes Kalibata, the UN Special Envoy for the UNFSS or the Champions Network itself. There have been no clear criteria given as to how the Champions or the scientific bodies were chosen. In fact, a significant section of the summit leadership has links with the WEF eco-system and other multi-stakeholder platforms. Many have publicly stated positions in favour of market led proprietary technologies and products for climate change solutions.
Pushing Financialization and False Solutions
The consolidation of pro-corporate voices has predictably led to the pushing of false solutions. Take for example, the UNFSS Action Track 01 that identifies Zero Hunger, Access to Nutritious Food and Food Safety as its three Action Areas. A proposed way to decrease hunger among smallholder farmers is to invest in soil health by “issuing impact bonds, sourcing private capital to fund soil friendly input distribution and extension for low-income smallholders in partnership with governments, SMEs, or social enterprises that have distribution networks.” The idea here is to stop the existing subsidy-based input distribution and move towards financialization; cash transfers and credit-based systems where private sector investors or quasi state bodies would provide upfront capital which would later be extracted from the direct beneficiaries of the then improved soil health — in this case most likely the farmer. The thrust of the solution is about monetizing the value of healthy soil.
Another mooted solution is to utilize carbon-markets to activate carbon-sequestering in soil. The process would entail a soil health-certification process, which at present is inaccessible to small producers. The idea proposes to involve “commercial value chain finance” to provide funding to the soil-health focused input distribution for the small holders. The finances for the scheme are proposed to be mobilized from the revenue of high value commercial crops which would then be directed towards funding the carbon-sequestering of soil under staple cereal crops. This idea emerges primarily from the context of the United States and the European Union. The most prevalent carbon-sequestering method used in the US is the conventional no-till method, used over one third of the crop acreage area, it involves specialized planting equipment, chemical herbicides, and genetically modified seed to reduce or eliminate the need for tillage equipment. Scientists and farmers in the US and EU have raised concerns about increased chemical herbicides and fertilizers necessary for this method of carbon-sequestering, therefore, questioning its capability to maintain the long-term effects of carbon sequestering in the soil. However, there seems to be a lack of discussion about the methods of carbon-sequestering, usage, or types of inputs for achieving soil-health by the proposed UNFSS Action Track.
The Private Sector Guiding Group (PSGG) has a prominent place in the UNFSS process and is central to implementing these “game changing” solutions. The PSGG has formed a Coalition for Soil Health which recognizes, “the central role of soils as an asset to the aims of food security and nutrition, economic development, climate change, nature and resilient livelihoods, pursuing the objective to provide a Return on Investment (ROI) up and down the value chain.” The group aims to “define a set of financial mechanisms and investment solutions that can support farmers in their adoption of better soil management practices, be tailored and scaled to different regions, and take into account government incentives and programs.”
The partners in this initiative include large corporations such as Bayer, Nestle, Syngenta, PepsiCo, and CropLife International. Thus, given the concentration of these multinationals in the global seed and inputs market and their role in the solutions for soil-health discussed above, questions have been raised about conflicts of interest. The Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) has been especially critical of the private sector’s co-option of the people centric sustainable food systems framework.
Resist Corporate Driven Global Food Governance
Preparations have already begun to institutionalize the outcomes of the UNFSS through the “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Systemic Change” (MSCFSC). UN agencies along with the WEF and others have prepared a document charting the Future of the Food Systems Collaboration. The document defines the MSCFSC as “a process of participatory governance that enables stakeholders with common sustainability problems and distinct interests to align and collectively learn, innovate, and act upon a complex and changing environment.” The implementation of the Summit outcomes will be monitored by the MSCFSC. Therefore, the construction of the MSCFSC raises existential concerns for the multilateral and inclusive processes being carried under the UN structure of the CSF and FAO. The UNFSS and its post summit plans are then bound to be seen as instruments to dislodge the existing global food governance system.
In the face of such transformative implications for global food governance, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has stressed the crucial role of multilateral action, especially under the reality of COVID-19, in tackling the pandemic’s damaging effects on everyone’s right to food, especially for the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized people. Professor Fakhri has also emphasized that the convergence of food security, public health, and labour crises have acutely impacted food workers’ health and safety. These issues should have taken centre stage at the summit.
Clearly, the stewards of the UNFSS think that a business-as-usual approach is still the best idea. They refuse to recognize that the UN’s own estimates indicate that more than 800 million people faced hunger in 2020, a tragic situation exacerbated by the pandemic. As the autonomous peoples’ response to the UNFSS asserted in their declaration: “The only just and sustainable path forward is to immediately halt and transform corporate globalized food systems. The first step on this path is fully recognising, implementing, and enforcing the human right to adequate food.”
At the World Food Summit in 1996, social movements suggested the idea of food sovereignty, a democratic assertion of the right of people to determine and shape food systems, as the way forward. The last 25 years have shown that that idea continues to inspire not just resistance to false and undemocratic solutions and summits such as the UNFSS but also the vision of a just and equitable food system that puts people and the environment before corporate profit.