Boycott UN Food Systems Summit
The upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (FSS), to be held on September 23rd, is a step backwards in the fight for just and sustainable food systems and must be boycotted.
This years summit strengthens corporate control over global food systems and does so under the label of UN pro-poor and pro-planet narratives, misleasing lay audiences and painting a picture of possible solutions that is far from what is needed. It constitutes an event of large-scale greenwashing and co-optation of a previously relatively inclusive format for discussing agricultural transformations that comply with sustainable and just futures.
As a supposed continuation of previous World Food Summits, the new design and organisation of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit has caused a wave of protest and ultimately boycotts on behalf of civil society organisations concerned with food justice and democratic and sustainable agricultural transformation. While previous summits and UN forums such as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the High-Level panel of Experts (HLPE) provided increasingly democratic spaces for civil society and the private sector to participate in questions concerning agricultural justice and futures, these platforms were excluded in the design and decision-making processes for the new FSS. In fact, a new panel called ‘IPCC on Food’ could serve to fully undermine the HLPE and its inclusive orientation.
While the FSS proudly labels itself as the ‘People’s summit’ we attest that it is in fact the opposite
Excluding smallholder farmers and instead favouring agro-business and technological solutions, the summit goes down the wrong alley and intensifies farming techniques and business structures that are the ones responsible for climate change and the exploitation of land and labour globally. Actors pushing for concepts such as food sovereignty and agroecological farming are being strategically excluded which has caused organisations such as long-term Global Aktion partner La Via Campesina, Friends of the Earth and the International Panel on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) to boycott the summit.
Corporate power in agriculture
While the FSS proudly labels itself as the ‘People’s summit’ we attest that it is in fact the opposite. What we witness here is the co-optation of one of the more inclusive and progressive fractions of the UN system that now provides an umbrella for corporate interests to greenwash their solutions, pushing forward a new and problematic science-policy agenda. The summit is designed by and oriented towards scalable, scientific and technological so-called solutions to the agricultural crisis. In fact, it is corporate-driven actors and platforms such as the World Economic Forum, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the International Agri-Food Network that dominate the summit. Further, the summit promotes multi-stakeholder platforms as a replacement of public institutions on all levels, removing mechanisms of accountability and democratic decision making, displacing direct participation and creative solutions. This is mirrored in a newly developed design regarding the building of coalitions at the summit where groups that are already well-resourced experience benefits in grouping together in solution clusters pushing forward their ideas and agendas. The solutions that will result from this year’s FSS will fuel new waves of resource grabbing, wealth extraction and labour exploitation, advancing the globalisation of value chains as well as the concentration of power and wealth within food systems. And possibly the worst about these solutions is that there is no need for them: successful and promising alternatives have already been developed in the form of agroecology and food sovereignty. The only ‘problem’ with them is that they do not include large profit margins for the world’s elite and transnational corporations. In that light, the summit almost seems like a desperate effort to undermine increasingly strong alternative networks and ideas.
While 75% of the world’s food production-related natural resources are controlled by giant corporations, they hardly manage to feed a third of the global population.
Another inconsistency surrounding the summit’s allegedly inclusive and progressive design lies in the nomination of Dr Agnes Kalibata as special envoy of the summit. Kalibata is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) which is well-known to advance the interests of agribusiness, producing unjust and ineffective food systems that orient farmers into exploitative global value chains with standardised commodities and monocrops. Programmes such as those of AGRA promote the intensification of agricultural practices that support and feed into fossil-fuel based methods of farming and food production which we need to turn away from as soon as possible.
In a letter to UN Secretary general Guterres, 176 organisations from around the world state that ‘Dr Kalibata’s appointment is a deliberate attempt to silence the farmers of the world who feed, nurture and protect the planet.’, trying to revoke her appointment as special envoy. Yet, we argue that revoking her appointment might not actually be beneficial if the rest of the summit’s set-up remains the same, but could have given more weight to the summit’s sustainability label, pretending to take seriously the demands of activists and farmers worldwide. Merely exchanging personnel is not enough to address the issue at stake and sticking with Kalibata at least shows in all honesty what this summit is all about: intensification of corporate control in the agricultural sector at the expense of people and the planet.
Why are food systems important?
You might be asking yourself why this summit is of importance for activism in Europe and Global Aktion. Food production is at the heart of our economy and human existence, to frame it dramatically. With exploiting our soils and environments we are entering an increasingly precarious situation on farms and production sites globally. Beyond feeding the world’s population, food systems also are a large employer and offer tremendously important scopes for the fight against climate change and environmental protection. Yet, it is also one domain of the global economy where ownership, power but also benefits and burdens are distributed fantastically unequally.
The FSS under the UN umbrella creates an illusion of inclusiveness which is misleading and in fact dangerous in co-opting and distracting from political action and calls for radical change.
While 75% of the world’s food production-related natural resources are controlled by giant corporations, they hardly manage to feed a third of the global population. Instead, they are very successful in creating negative outputs: about $400bn worth of food is lost annually and large amounts of greenhouse gases are created through technology-intensive farming methods and profit-driven global value chains. On the other hand, around 70% of the world’s food is produced by small scale farmers whose farming methods prove particularly resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. What these farmers need is support in further developing agro ecological models and localised trading and growing schemes, instead of technocratic processes of developing capital-intensive innovations and scientific solutions. Ideas such as food sovereignty, which is the right of people to determine their food and agricultural systems autonomously, as well as localised and agroecological peasant production of food that respect and co-exist with our natural surroundings are the ways forward. They show how food production intersects with more fundamental values such as solidarity across class and nationality, as well as collectivism and environmentalism. This is why boycotting and protesting against the FSS is crucial. On a different note, food systems and how we design them also relates to the domain of land rights and access to land endangered by the presence of large corporations, questions that are acutely pressing and need urgent attention as well.
What does this tell us about international development politics?
With regards to development politics and the much-needed radical transformation of food and agricultural systems worldwide, the significance of the boycott of the FSS must not be underestimated. Global Aktion expresses its full solidarity with all organisations boycotting the summit and allies with organisations and movements fighting for a genuine, democratic, inclusive and sustainable transformation. The solutions for an agricultural transformation already exist in the form of agroecological farming and food sovereignty. These will lead us to greater food security, gender justice, climate justice, the preservation of biodiversity, constitute the base for human and planetary health and minimise sources of conflict. It is dangerous for an organisation such as the UN, generally portrayed as pro-poor, to expose an enormously business-friendly agenda. The FSS under the UN umbrella creates an illusion of inclusiveness which is misleading and in fact dangerous in co-opting and distracting from political action and calls for radical change.
In the broader context of global (environmental and economic) governance, the idea behind and design of the food summit are symptomatic of narratives that promote lies and greenwashing in the context of private sector involvement in global efforts towards sustainability and decent living conditions for all. The domination of corporate interests at the summit is nothing less than a manifestation of broader tendencies of corporate interference with matters that should be collectively decided and autonomously and/or locally governed if there was a genuine interest in putting people and planet before profit maximisation. Efforts that claim to work towards a better world ought to be stripped of demands for privatisation and financialisation. As the pre-summit was completed without notable development to enhance food security globally, this also makes us question the legitimacy of high-profile events such as the FSS more generally – and especially if they constitute a ‘green capitalism attack’ on global food sovereignty as starkly as the one coming up in September. Transnational agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto and Dow Dupont will not be stopped without radical change and full transparency in decision-making processes. The privatisation of politics and capture of the UN system that is happening with this summit at least offers a clear answer which is that this particular event ought to be boycotted!
There was an alternative food summit organised by civil society organisations. It took place in July and offers a good range of resources at https://www.foodsystems4people.org/.