29.09.2021 |

UNFSS: a People’s Summit or pro-corporate agenda? Outcomes and views

The UNFSS excluded key food system actors (Photo: CC0)

After months of preparations and controversies, the United Nations Food Systems Summit finally took place on September 23. The aim of the UNFSS was to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through transforming food systems. “World leaders commit to tackling global hunger, climate change and biodiversity loss at historic UN Food Systems Summit”, was the promising headline of the official press release published on Thursday. The UN proudly announced that more than 150 countries made commitments to transform their food systems, while championing greater participation and equity, especially amongst farmers, women, youth and indigenous groups. And Secretary-General António Guterres said in his ‘Statement of Action’ that the summit “provided an essential boost of energy into the 2030 Agenda and a silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic”. He added that “all stakeholders – especially governments – must now reaffirm a commitment to act with urgency, at scale and in solidarity with one another to keep the promise of the SDGs”. This may all sound good at first sight but many civil society and farmers’ organisations, food and human rights experts, farmers and indigenous peoples across the globe are far from happy with the results. They feel that their criticism and fears voiced over the past months have been proven correct, including concerns over the private sector’s influence on the summit’s agenda and its outcomes.

In his ‘Statement of Action’, Guterres sets out five areas for action that emerged from the Summit process which are entitled (1) Nourish All People, (2) Boost Nature-based Solutions, (3) Advance Equitable Livelihoods, Decent Work and Empowered Communities, (4) Build Resilience to Vulnerabilities, Shocks and Stresses, and (5) Support Means of Implementation. He explains that action must be driven at country-level by governments in their local contexts. In the run-up to and during the summit, states as well as different stakeholders made commitments to accelerate action to transform food systems. State submissions will be released in an official compendium, while pledges made by organisations and groups were lodged with an “online commitments registry”. This means that the summit did not end with concrete and legally binding obligations but participants were able to pick what suited them best. Many of these commitments are so vague and difficult to measure that it will be almost impossible to hold governments or companies responsible because accountability mechanisms are missing. According to the summit press release, for example, New Zealand will join the Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems Coalition and is committed to promoting the significant role of Māori in the country’s food sectors and encouraging the growth of Māori agribusiness by removing barriers and empowering Māori leadership. Other countries pledged support for indigenous rights. Honduras wants to strengthen the role of local authorities, Samoa will promote traditional and indigenous knowledge to boost nature-positive production, and Peru and the Philippines will support the formalization of land tenure. Burkina Faso committed to including the right to food in their constitution, while Cambodia pledged to work towards the promotion of gender equality and the creation of job opportunities for youth and women in the food system.

Among the new initiatives launched by civil society, financial institutions, academia and philanthropists was a new US$922 million pledge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) to address global nutrition over the next five years. Nutrition will be prioritized through four key foundation portfolios, the first of which is biofortification. “The foundation will deepen its engagement in large-scale food fortification by investing in solutions to produce actionable data; delivering high-quality technical support to millers and food producers; achieving innovations in the types and level of vitamins and minerals that can be delivered through staple foods; increasing industry self-monitoring and transparency; and promoting the adoption of more and better standards for large-scale food fortification,” the Foundation announced on its website. The Global People’s Summit (GPS) on Food Systems, a Global-South led coalition and counter-summit held simultaneously with the UNFSS, slammed the UN summit for “paving the way for greater control of big corporations over global food systems and misleading the people through corporate-led false solutions to hunger and climate change”, such as the BMGF programme. The GPS said that biofortification promotes industrial monocultures over agroecological food diversity, and ushers in the next generation of genetically-modified crops, such as the Gates-funded Vitamin-A “Golden Rice”. Moreover, US President Biden announced that Washington would spend $10 billion to strengthen food security and to “expand inclusive food systems at home and abroad”. Half of the money will go to the “Feed the Future” initiative which also works with US businesses such as Cargill, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Mars and others to supposedly fight global hunger. GPS criticizes the initiative because $1.2 million of its funds to help “combat the economic toll of COVID-19” in 2020 went to “private sector partners” in Africa, such as agrochemical, fruit export, and microfinance companies, instead of small farmers most affected by the pandemic. Part of Biden’s UNFSS pledge will also be spent on food fortification programs.

The summit has also been used by the US and United Arab Emirates to advance the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate, an initiative which aims to increase public and private investment in “climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation”. 12 new countries announced their support for the initiative, as well as the FAO and the BMGF. According to World Food Prize and Right Livelihood Award laureate Hans Herren, AIM is “largely focused on ameliorating the climate impacts of the current – heavily polluting – approach to food production rather than shifting to genuinely sustainable agricultural systems”. He also mentions the positive aspect that the summit also produced some commitments on subsidy reform and that a handful of governments had started to take agroecology seriously. For example, “A Coalition for the Transformation of Food Systems Through Agroecology” committed to collaborate towards implementing the policy recommendations of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) on agroecological and other innovative approaches, guided by FAO’s 10 elements of agroecology and the 13 principles of agroecology set out by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). But most funds will continue to prop up a more-or-less business-as-usual approach, says Herren, and the summit wasted the chance to consider real alternatives to our corporate-led, environmentally harmful ways of producing what we eat: “It should have been a leap forward for the future of the planet, but instead it’s been a textbook example of how not to run a summit,” the IAASTD co-chair wrote in his article for Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The UN Food Systems Summit was designed to turn the page on our failing food system and point the way towards a climate-resilient, food-secure, and equitable future,” Herren wrote. “Instead, we’re back to square one: a grab bag of good, bad, and ugly ‘solutions,’ yet a deafening silence on the root causes of the problems we face.” He added that “food and agri-business talked the talk on food system transformation in the build-up to the summit, nodding to climate, livelihoods, nature, transparency and more. But there are no guarantees corporations will walk the walk if governments don’t hold them to account.”

Another view is expressed by former FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva: “What we have seen ahead of this week’s Summit is a lot of “nutri-washing” and thousands of proposals reflecting the voices of well-nourished people and little (if any) proposals for putting an end to hunger and other forms of malnourishment as a political priority by governments around the world,” he wrote for IPS News. ETC Group, a North America-based NGO, is of the opinion that the outcomes of the FSS could result in the world’s food systems being hijacked by the industrial food chain. “The FSS approach threatens to destroy food sovereignty and replace it with the techno-giants’ version of ‘food systems’. The summit was specifically designed to spin a story that props up those techno-giants and expands the industrial food chain at the expense of other food systems,” ETC Group said. “A genuine people-led summit on food systems and food sovereignty is needed, to challenge the industrial food system’s impact on food, health, climate and biodiversity.” Oxfam International criticised that the summit failed hundreds of millions who are going hungry every day, “by offering elitist and mere band-aid solutions rather than tackling the root causes of our broken global food system”. Thierry Kesteloot, Oxfam’s food policy advisor said: “We cannot end the hunger pandemic without addressing the climate crisis, the erosion of agricultural biodiversity, or the deep inequalities and human rights violations that perpetuate poverty, hunger and malnutrition.” He added that the Summit ignored proven solutions and failed to address needed policy actions to radically transform food systems. “Instead, it has catered to the interests of a handful of food and agribusiness giants, while side-lining most food and smallholder farmers' organizations at the forefront of food production.”

The UNFSS had earned criticism from the very beginning of the process because the summit lacked transparency, inclusiveness and accountability mechanisms and was disproportionately influenced by corporate actors. The summit results from a partnership between the UN and the World Economic Forum, formed by the world’s top 1000 corporations, and was convened by Guterres without involving the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the most inclusive intergovernmental platform for food systems issues. Agnes Kalibata, the president of the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), was appointed special envoy to the summit. As early as March 2020, 550 organisations wrote to the UN Secretary-General to warn him that the summit is not building on the legacy of past world food summits, which were once convened by the FAO, thus had a mandate and which allowed for the active participation of civil society. Instead, it follows a strong multi-stakeholder approach, which puts on equal footing governments, corporations, other private sector actors, scientists, philanthropies and NGOs. But criticism from human rights experts, scientists and NGOs went unheard. In spring, many experts and organisations finally decided to boycott the event and withdrew from the process. Following the counter-mobilizations to oppose the UNFSS Pre-Summit in July, which gathered more than 9,000 participants from all over the world, civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ groups continued to sound the alarm on the dangers and deficiencies of the UNFSS.

In mid-September, the “People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit”, a grassroots process consisting of hundreds of international, regional, national and local organisations representing peasants and smallholder farmers, women and youth, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists and landless, agricultural and food workers, fisherfolks, consumers, urban food insecure and NGOs from many areas of society, released a political declaration. It has been signed by more than 600 organisations and individual signatories, including the Foundation on Future Farming/ Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft. The declaration also condemns the multi-stakeholder approach “in which all actors (…) are portrayed as equal participants”. “While majority of the world’s food is produced by small-scale producers and workers, this individuated multi-stakeholder process gives outsized power to a few powerful corporations that control food, agricultural and capital markets,” the text reads. The signatories say that multi-stakeholderism is enabling a corporate takeover of the UN: “Large multinational corporations are increasingly infiltrating the multilateral spaces of the United Nations to co-opt the narrative of sustainability, and divert it back into the channels of further industrialization with digital and biotechnologies, extraction of wealth and labor from rural communities, and concentration of corporate power in national-global governance. The capital and technology focused agenda proposed by the UNFSS reflects these corporate interests and is politically, socially, economically and ecologically destabilizing. We denounce the UNFSS 2021 for disregarding the urgent need to address the gross power imbalances that corporations hold over food systems and this UN event, and we reject false solutions which will continue to oppress and exploit people, communities and territories.”

The UNFSS had also been heavily criticized for months for its lack of inclusiveness. Last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, once again mentioned that the summit’s multilateral approach “has not provided a meaningful space for communities and civil society to participate”, with the risk of “leaving behind the very population critical for the summit’s success”. On the eve of the UNFSS, he issued a statement together with two other UN Special Rapporteurs. They once again voiced their deep concern that the event will not be a “people’s summit” as promised but will instead leave behind the most marginalized and vulnerable people. According to the three human rights experts, who were involved in the Summit preparation, “The Summit claims to be inclusive, but it left many participants and over 500 organizations representing millions of people feeling ignored and disappointed.” The UNFSS seems at least to have noticed the calls for more inclusiveness. It rather over-emphasized in the summit press release that the commitments “come out as a result of an 18-month inclusive and engaging process with diverse stakeholders”, boasting that “the Summit process was also applauded by farmer leaders for its inclusivity”. It quotes Elizabeth Nsimadala, the President of the Pan-African Farmers Organizations, who said that as producers they held several independent dialogues at all levels and these dialogues resulted into a global common position. “The Summit has been very inclusive,” she said. The UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed also did his best to underline the inclusive character: “In terms of inclusiveness, I don’t know of a more inclusive process. People look at the SDGs. They see themselves in that, and we wanted to reflect that in this people solution Summit,” he reportedly said at the UNFSS press conference. The Global People’s Summit (GPS), however, is not convinced. “It was just as we expected. While branding itself as the ‘People’s Summit’ and even the ‘Solutions Summit,’ the UNFSS did not listen to the voices of marginalized rural peoples, nor forward real solutions to the food, biodiversity and climate crises. Instead, it let powerful nations and big corporations play an even bigger role in determining food and agricultural policies,” said Sylvia Mallari, global co-chairperson of the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), one of the co-organizers of the GPS. “The UN has finally made it clear what ‘multilateralism’ is all about – paying lip service to the people while skewing priorities for the interests of imperialists and monopoly capitalists,” she said.

The lack of inclusiveness in the run-up and during the summit could remain a major problem in the follow-up to the UNFSS. The Secretary-General announced in his Statement of Action that “at the global level, working across the UN system and with partners, the Rome-based Agencies – FAO, IFAD, WFP – will jointly lead a coordination hub that collaborates with, and draws upon, wider UN system capacities to support follow-up to the Food Systems Summit.” These partners will include non-governmental actors, such as civil society and business. The ‘coordination hub’ will have key functions in the implementation process and is supposed to strengthen linkages to other priority global and intergovernmental processes relating to the environment, climate, food security, health and nutrition, as well as key intergovernmental fora. The hub will also establish its own “Champions Advisory Group” where different groups, particularly Youth, Indigenous Peoples, Producers, Women and Private Sector, will be represented. “The CFS remains an essential intergovernmental and stakeholder platform for all working together to ensure food security and nutrition for all through sustainable and transformative food systems,” the statement promised vaguely.

The decision to create these institutions was heavily criticized by civil society organisations. According to the Liaison Group of the People’s Autonomous Response to the UNFSS, “such a ‘coordination hub’ and its newly created ‘Advisory Group’ would encroach into the functions of the CFS, which is precisely the UN Committee mandated to ensure inclusive policy development, coherence, coordination, and convergence across the UN systems on issues of food security and nutrition”, the group said in a policy brief. “It undermines the mandates and roles of the most important inclusive intergovernmental and international platform of global food governance, the CFS, and the most innovative Science Policy Interface in this field, the HLPE.” The authors also warned that the Secretary-General “does not have a mandate to establish follow up mechanisms for this Summit” because Member States are the decision-makers in the UN system and “did not request or agree to put these new structures and mechanisms in place.” If they support such suggestions, Guterres as well as the heads of the Rome-based agencies are clearly acting outside their mandates, the group said. “Such a change in the existing governance architecture without any intergovernmental deliberation and mandate is completely illegitimate and unacceptable.” Professor William G. Moseley, a member of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE), says creating a new mechanism would waste valuable time in the fight against global hunger, be less participatory, and create an unnecessarily fractured global food security apparatus. “Over the past 12 years, a broad range of experts and organisations came to trust that their voices were being heard (within the CFS and HLPE) when scientific reports were produced and policy recommendations developed. While these actors certainly did not always agree, they had confidence in the process. Sidestepping this process feels like a slap in the face and a return to top-down decision-making and narrower understandings of food security and nutrition,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera. “The biggest breakthroughs in the way we understand hunger and malnutrition in recent decades have come from a more inclusive and participatory scientific process. We need to embrace these same principles after the Summit if we are to have a chance of ridding the world of hunger and malnutrition any time soon,” Moseley added. (ab)

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