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Billions pledged and awareness raised, but UN food summit fails to heal divisions

‘There is a big, global, normative shift underway on food, as there is on climate.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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The first-ever Food Systems Summit, held virtually last week, raised the profile of global food challenges and touted thousands of potential solutions. But the divisions that marred the lead-up to the UN-run event show little signs of healing, and some critics branded it a failure. 

In a whirlwind of videos and speeches, more than 150 attendees – from 86 world leaders to dozens of donors, farmers, Indigenous representatives, UN officials, and business executives – laid out their visions of a well-fed future based on fairer, more nutritious, and greener food systems.

Amid some technical difficulties and translation problems, donors pledged nearly $11 billion – the bulk of it from the US government – over the next five years. A dizzying array of new initiatives and coalitions were announced: from repurposing agricultural subsidies and resizing the livestock industry to supporting Indigenous food systems and improving school meals.

“There was much to celebrate in the Food Systems Summit,” Edward Davey, international engagement director of the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) and an adviser to Britain’s team hosting the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, told The New Humanitarian. “The summit has catalysed greater action, by a broader set of players, than was the case before; and given rise to dynamic and innovative new partnerships which could make a real difference.”

Agnes Kalibata, the event’s UN special envoy, told The New Humanitarian: “The summit was only the beginning. My hope is that the Food Systems Summit… will create the direction and legitimacy for an unstoppable transformation of our food system."

However, preparations for the event – consultations over 18 months featuring 1,500 independent dialogues with stakeholders around the globe – risked becoming overshadowed by disagreements and public boycotts from hundreds of scientists, civil society groups, and grassroots organisations, amid accusations that corporate interests were being favoured.

“I think it falls a bit short in calling for bolder actions.”

And, after the summit itself, several observers told The New Humanitarian they had been expecting a lot more, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic that has left millions more people around the globe facing chronic hunger and malnutrition.

Jessica Fanzo, professor of global food policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins University and editor-in-chief of the Global Food Security Journal, responded with one word when asked what she thought: “Underwhelmed”. 

Others, like Estrella Penunia, secretary general of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), had also hoped for more. “I am happy that, in the statement, [UN Secretary-General António Guterres] has recognised the need to engage family farmers, herders, workers, Indigenous peoples, women, and youth; that the SG has asked to see food not just as a commodity but as a right,” she said. “But I think it falls a bit short in calling for bolder actions.”

Martin Wolpold-Bosien, coordinator of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) Secretariat, a group of more than 500 organisations that boycotted the event, were far more blunt in their criticism. He said the summit hadn’t addressed the main issues around food: how COVID-19 is worsening hunger and malnutrition; how existing power structures are causing the poor to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic; and how to rein in the emissions associated with food production.

“We consider this a failed summit. It fails the people, it fails the planet and the real needs of this time,” Wolpold-Bosien told The New Humanitarian. “This has been clear before the summit. It’s now confirmed.” 

Corporate interests and competing groups

Tensions centre on rival visions of the future – between those who believe food production needs to be intensified to feed a growing population but to do it sustainably through technological innovation, and those who prefer smaller-scale, eco-friendly practices together with a broader overhaul of the political and economic influences on the food chain.

“Instead of focusing on the transformation of industrial agriculture to address the huge damage caused by agrochemicals, intensive farming, and monocropping, [the summit] pushed solutions to increase food production using technologies that only benefit corporations while further exploiting farmers and communities,” Alberta Guerra, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, told The New Humanitarian. 

On Thursday, the main day of the summit, a coalition of groups boycotting the event released a report and a declaration that accused it of having been captured by corporate interests. Two days earlier, Unearthed, Greenpeace’s journalism unit, citing leaked documents, said meat industry associations were lobbying the summit to push for more meat consumption.  

At a press conference during the event, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said businesses were brought into the discussions “because they have to be part of the solution given that they've been a large part of the problem in many countries”.

Follow-up will be done by a new coordination hub led by three Rome-based UN agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The hub will establish a “Champions Advisory Group”, with representatives from civil society and the private sector, among others. 

Both Guerra and Wolpold-Bosien said this decision threatened to undermine existing bodies that use a more “human rights-based, inclusive approach”, ensuring the participation of those most affected by hunger and malnutrition; namely, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) – an intergovernmental body that includes civil society and members of the private sector and develops policies on food security and nutrition.

While the new hub will also bring stakeholders together, they fear it will do so without recognising and countering the power imbalances between them. The hub also goes against previous assurances made both publicly and privately by Mohammed not to set up new structures that would overshadow work already being done, said Wolpold-Bosien. 

Others expressed frustration over the renewed call for an “intergovernmental panel for food” from Joachim von Braun, chair of the summit’s Science Group. 

The idea – to set up a body to provide scientific reports and assessments around food systems, akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative body on climate science – was first floated in a strategy draft in July. It drew strong opposition from more than 200 scientists, who said such a group already exists: The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, or HLPE. 

No new summit has been announced, but Guterres has said there will be a stocktake in 2023. In the meantime, the idea is that countries will start implementing their declared “national pathways”, while the new hub provides support through existing agencies and the coalitions work on improvements in specific areas.

Money and awareness boost

Despite the lingering disagreements, there was broad support for funding pledges to transform food systems in general. These included $10 billion over five years from the United States – half to be spent globally through USAID’s Feed the Future initiative. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told a summit press conference that the goal of the initiative is to reduce poverty and stunting by 20 percent in targeted countries. 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a donor to The New Humanitarian) also announced $922 million to improve nutrition, and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the world’s largest multilateral climate fund, said it aims to invest $2 billion a year between 2020 and 2023. 

Yet even here, the emphasis on food fortification by the US government and the Gates Foundation drew ire, with many saying it should only be used in emergency situations, and that more diverse and nutritious diets are the long-term solution for malnutrition. 

“Local production can meet such needs, and my experience in developing countries show this is the only solution,” Hilal Elver, an international law professor and former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, told The New Humanitarian.

Habib Ur Rehman Mayar, deputy general secretary of the g7+ Secretariat, a group of 20 fragile and conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan and Central African Republic, welcomed the extra funding but suggested a more radical rethink was needed.

“Will we think of sustainable solutions to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity in the world?”

“We appreciate and are encouraged and motivated by these pledges… but sometimes we wonder how long we can count on humanitarian and development assistance, or how long we can afford [to be just] reacting to these crises,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Will we think of sustainable solutions to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity in the world? Those are important questions for us.”

Meanwhile, conservation organisation WWF urged countries to pay more attention to combating climate change and reversing declines in nature, for which food production is a major cause. While more than 100 countries have developed detailed new national pathways to transform food systems and an additional 50 made commitments at the summit, “a majority of these failed to place sufficient focus” on climate change and nature, it said in a statement

Still, there was one thing everyone who spoke to The New Humanitarian agreed upon: Awareness around food systems has never been higher, and that is a good thing. 

“I think there is a big, global, normative shift underway on food, as there is on climate,” said Davey. “In every country, there is a nascent or well-established movement in favour of action.” 

Even Sylvia Mallari, co-chair of the People's Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), which was so critical of the gathering that it co-organised a three-day counter-event, was swayed on this point: “The summit has elevated the talk about food systems into a higher level, and especially those who matter – the peasants, the fisherfolk, the rural women, agricultural workers, pastoralists – are into this and want to have their voices heard.”

Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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