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September 17, 2021

By Alberta Guerra, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, Catherine Gatundu, interim head of resilient livelihoods and climate justice at ActionAid International, and Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, national campaigner at ActionAid USA

The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is rapidly approaching. The event on 23 September will be convened by UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to catalyze commitments from governments and other actors to take swift action towards the transformation of the global food system; to ensure food security, and address biodiversity loss and climate change. 

With global hunger on the rise after decades of decline, and with poverty and inequality exacerbated by the impacts of the climate crisis, conflicts, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is off-course to achieving almost all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The agricultural sector accounts for almost one-third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, it’s highly impacted by climate change, with women and the most vulnerable paying the highest price. Therefore, agriculture will play a huge role in shaping the transformation we need to ensure the right to food and to protect the environment. Unfortunately, the UNFSS has been revealed to be a huge waste of time and resources. The summit is diverting the attention of policymakers and the public away from what is urgently needed to transform the global food system. Instead of providing clarity, the summit has created more confusion.

UNFSS organizers have created a dense and complicated architecture with multiple layers of consultations, workstreams, and committees, but no clear means for civil society and voices from the Global South to input into its design.

Mavis, 25, exhibits her crops grown through agroecology practices. Photo: ActionAid Zimbabwe.

Even though the organizers of the UNFSS now call it a “People’s Summit,” social movements with deep experience of working with the UN, understand that when there is no inclusivity or clarity about how to contribute ideas and input on how decisions are made, then it is powerful corporate interests – not the “people” – who will take control behind the scenes. This lack of clarity hides an agenda led by agri-food corporations that are using the summit to push for market-based solutions to increase their own profits.

After the UNFSS was announced in October 2019, it soon became clear that corporate interests would drown out the participation and authority of communities most affected by hunger. ActionAid joined the global coalition boycotting the summit. This coalition recently mobilised more than 9,000 people from civil society organisations and movements globally for a Counter-Mobilisation held in July. 

More than 10 million people were reached over social media during this action, which brought global attention to the deep, structural problems and concerns surrounding the UNFSS.

Frustration and criticisms are also being raised from the inside, including from indigenous peoples, food experts , and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, who sent recommendations to make the summit more human rights-focused.

Nasima, 35, is a smallholder farmer. Photo: Jamil Akter/ActionAid Bangladesh.

So, what are the summit’s main shortfalls?

The summit doesn’t have the necessary legitimacy and authority. It has been convened by a unilateral decision of the UN Secretary-General and not by an intergovernmental decision, bypassing the UN Committee for World Food Security (CFS) which is the most legitimate space to govern global food issues. It will culminate with a general declaration, but without any formal endorsement by governments, without any accountability mechanism, and without clear rules on how it will incorporate the outcomes of the national and regional consultations prior to the summit. Despite claiming to be a “People’s Summit,” the most relevant social movements and food producers’ associations have not been properly involved in the process. The power of the people and civil society groups to self-organize and engage in food issues globally has been undermined, leading them to decide to boycott the summit.

The summit is driven by corporate interests. The summit was announced in 2019 immediately after the UN signed an unprecedented Partnership Agreement with the World Economic Forum (WEF) – an organization of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals and corporations. The involvement of the WEF suggests that the summit was always intended to favor the corporate sector. Big agribusiness, through their networks – such as the WEF, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) – and individual supporters have set the agenda and the narrative of the summit. The most evident example has been the appointment of Agnes Kalibata, the President of AGRA, which sponsors input-intensive and agribusiness-led solutions for agricultural development in Africa, as Special Envoy of the summit.

This influence is even more evident when looking at the solutions proposed, as well as at the model of science they promote. The push to create a new Science Policy Interface (SPI) to inform policymaking through scientific advice is not only almost exclusively focused on technological fixes, it excludes traditional and indigenous knowledge, and undermines the existing High Level Panel of Experts, which applies a participatory approach in its independent, comprehensive and evidence-based analysis and advice.

The summit doesn’t address the root causes of hunger. The dominant narrative of the UNFSS has been framed around the question of how to boost productivity in a more sustainable way, even though the world produces more than enough food for everyone But the main problem around hunger and poverty is not the scarcity of food, but rather how to enable people to access and produce it. The summit strengthens the power and the role of corporations and does not address the huge responsibility big agribusiness has in marginalizing food producers, contributing to human rights abuses, grabbing and exploiting natural resources, destroying biodiversity, and polluting the air and water. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic Lucimara, 34, received food packages with ingredients sourced from smallholder farmers. Photo: ActionAid Brazil.

As the economist Jeffrey Sachs recently said, “we have a system, but we need a different system. Corporates must behave, pay taxes, and follow the rules.” By focusing on questions of how to increase productivity instead of focusing on how to better share the abundant food we already have, and by focusing on questions of technology instead of questions of power, the summit simply obscures who’s creating the problems and instead allows those that are responsible for such problems to offer their “solutions.”

The summit is proposing market-based solutions which have not worked in the past and won’t work now. The summit proposes to identify “game-changing solutions” to the problems with the global food system. These solutions mostly entail pointing at the benefits of digitalization (using data and artificial intelligence in agriculture) and so-called “nature positive solutions,” which are minimal reforms to the chemical-industrial model of farming that dominated the 20th century and which has caused so many of the ecological and climate problems we encounter today.

For the most vulnerable food producers, these “solutions” don’t resolve the problems they face. Even if they did work, most small-scale farmers, workers, and rural and indigenous communities would never be able to afford these costly and sophisticated technologies that just a handful of corporations control. These kinds of schemes benefit the corporations. Increased digitalization is pursued to collect massive amount of data that is used to manipulate consumer’s choices or to appropriate genetic information under intellectual property rights.  

“Nature positive solutions” is a very vague definition that relies on sustainable intensification schemes, carbon markets, and offset mechanisms. They don’t eliminate or even reduce emissions, but aim to compensate emissions by sequestering carbon by planting trees elsewhere. However, GHG emissions are so high that they would need more land and natural resources than the planet can provide. For example, the land needed to plant tree plantations to offset emissions from a coal plant far away will be taken from rural communities, while the polluting corporations can continue without changing carbon intensive – production systems. At the same time, massive public incentives will continue to sustain harmful practices.

The summit is a threat to the multilateral governance of human rights. Since it was announced, the summit has sidelined the CFS, which is the legitimate space to govern global food issues. The CFS is the human rights, intergovernmental space for the governance of food that was reformed in 2009, in the wake of the 2007-2008 food price crisis, to ensure the inclusive and effective participation of people most affected by hunger and food insecurity.  The current summit promotes a new form of governance based on “multi-stakeholderism,” which puts big corporates at the same level of governments and rights holders, ignoring the conflicts of interest and the power imbalance among the different actors. The corporate sector has secured preferential access to public spaces and decision-making processes without any mechanism to hold them accountable.  Agribusiness corporations can influence the standard-setting processes in their favor, promote voluntary codes of conduct instead of accountability mechanisms, and use their enormous financial power to force reforms in legislation, policies, and incentives that work for them. 

In coalition with many other CSOs and food producers’ movements, we have opposed the summit and continue to raise awareness around the risks of increased corporatization of the world food system. Solutions to hunger should come from those who produce most of the world’s food, particularly small-scale food producers, indigenous communities, and women in the Global South. We want to defend and preserve the multilateralism governance model with human rights at the cornerstone, and dismantle the corporate capture of public space, narrative, governance, and science.

This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of food sovereignty – the political blueprint for the food system we want, based on the right to food, agroecology, and real climate solutions. This makes it all the more important to stand up for what we know is right, to defend what we know is working, and to oppose outcomes that will harm people and planet.