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Rival visions compete as UN gears up for summit to defeat hunger

‘Those deciding not to take up a seat at the table are self-excluding.’

Kylee Pedersen/TNH

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International efforts to secure a well-fed world face a widening split between rival visions of the future, even as millions more people face chronic hunger in the wake of the pandemic.

September’s first-ever UN Food Systems Summit aims to tackle hunger, malnutrition, food production, and climate change in a holistic manner. However, many activists and farmers’ groups are boycotting a warm-up “pre-summit” that begins today in Rome and are running their own parallel events.

Debate is heating up on whether the famines of tomorrow will best be prevented by intensive production – driven by technology – or by smaller-scale, eco-friendly practices alongside a broader overhaul of political and economic influences on the food chain.

The summit’s planners recognise that change is needed not only to agriculture, but also to distribution, consumption, economic policies, and waste. 

Objectors say commercial interests have undue influence on the discussions. And there has been a growing disagreement around the aims, the key players, and the outcomes of the main high-profile event in New York later in the year.

The “food systems” concept, which also considers impacts on the environment, health, and society, “is the most powerful way to unlock progress that prevents future famines, humanitarian disasters, and environmental degradation”, Agnes Kalibata, the summit’s special envoy, told The New Humanitarian.

The pre-summit will review “the latest evidence-based and scientific approaches from around the world, launch a set of new commitments… [and] mobilise new financing and partnerships”, she added.

More than 70 countries are confirmed to be attending the three-day Rome event, which also gathers the private sector, civil society and youth representatives, farmers, Indigenous community leaders, and researchers. The eclectic range of participants includes chefs, royalty, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and Sabrina Elba – food campaigner and wife of actor Idris Elba. 

The questions are urgent: Acute hunger is likely killing 11 people every minute, according to Oxfam, while recent data from the UN showed nearly one in 10 people around the globe struggled to get enough to eat last year. 

But Nout van der Vaart, policy lead on food and land issues for Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of Oxfam, said the summit has “no clear mandate, an unclear governance mechanism, no accountability or conflict of interest mechanisms in place”. Van der Vaart said its set-up and direction pay too little attention to human rights as “a fundamental and starting point for reforming food systems”.

Differing visions

In Veracruz, Mexico, 42-year-old organic coffee grower Gisela Illescas Palma is far from hopeful the event will help farmers like herself who are juggling wild weather and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The summit “has been captured by big corporations”, and there is no broad recognition of the role of small farmers, according to Palma, who said she went without a single sale for eight months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Palma is a member of the Agroecological Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean (MAELA) and part of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), which is organising a “counter-mobilisation” to the pre-summit.

Critics say the summit’s embrace of “multistakeholderism” means it is prioritising inclusion over rights and accounting for respective advantages – failing to consider the power imbalance between poor and hungry small-time farmers on one side, and corporations with deep pockets and powerful friends on the other. They also say it has to acknowledge that the failures of today’s food systems are linked in part to the model of intensive farming – favoured by agri-business and linked to land grabs, deforestation, less diversification, and the concentration of power in a few hands.

“We have yet to see how the summit will address the abuses committed by corporations, complicit governments, and backing neoliberal institutions,” said Sylvia Mallari, global co-chair of the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), which is organising another parallel event in Rome.

PCFS is also planning a Global People’s Summit on Food Systems in September, around the same time as the Food Systems Summit.

The main summit’s organisers have repeatedly refuted these charges, but Raj Patel, research professor at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees with the concerns.

“We have yet to see how the summit will address the abuses committed by corporations, complicit governments, and backing neoliberal institutions.”

“The critical difference between what's happening in the Food Systems Summit and in grassroots movements is a frank discussion about power, who has it, and how it should be distributed more equally,” he said.

Patel was also critical of calls for a new “Science-Policy Interface” for food systems – suggested in a strategy draft by the summit’s Scientific Group. Supporters have called for an “IPCC for food”, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): the world’s most authoritative body on climate science.

But such a group already exists, Patel said, pointing to the high level panel of experts under the UN Committee on World Food Security. And more than 200 scientists, including Patel, have objected to the setting up of a new group.

Patel is concerned the new scientific group – as yet still on the drawing board – could create a system whereby knowledge from subsistence farmers and Indigenous groups is dismissed as not science-based when these communities are “entirely capable of generating the big systems change that is required”. He highlighted this in his recently released documentary, The Ants and The Grasshopper, about two Malawian women farmers who travelled to the United States to persuade Americans climate change is real.

‘We have to act now’

Hilal Elver, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, was philosophical about the differences in the lead-up to the summit. Food systems issues are vast and complex, and the problems are different depending on geography and perspectives, so controversies are “inevitable”, she told The New Humanitarian.

Still, Elver is concerned about the pre-summit’s jam-packed schedule, where multiple parallel discussions on many different topics and dozens of side events are planned, lasting between 50 minutes to two hours. “How can you have meaningful discussions in the human rights section in 50 minutes, about important right-to-food violations as well as women’s rights or child protection?” she asked.

Elver’s biggest fear, though, is that the pre-summit could decide that “a paternalistic view of science, technology, and finance” is the way forward because this will keep power in a few hands. Governments, particularly of developing countries, could be persuaded with promises of financial and technological help to agree that transforming food systems requires big farms and big production instead of keeping it small and local, she said.

Joachim von Braun, chair of the summit’s Science Group, acknowledged the fractures in a speech on 9 July and said he welcomed an open debate.

Kalibata, the special envoy, also told The New Humanitarian: “Securing human rights for all through food systems depends on the input of the broadest cross-section of society.” The summit process has provided a forum for everyone to share their insights, she said, adding: “Those deciding not to take up a seat at the table are self-excluding.”

Cherrie Atilano, a Filippina farmer and entrepreneur dubbed a “Food Systems Champion” by the UN, acknowledges the inequalities – including how a lack of internet access excludes some from participating in the virtual discussions that have become the norm – but said the summit’s participatory approach is novel and unusually inclusive for a big UN event.

“For me, [reading] through almost all the game-changing solutions gave me a lot of inspiration and hope for humanity,” she said, referring to ideas on how to transform current food systems – collected from forums, consultations, and online submissions.

However, implementing these ideas locally will be the key to creating fairer and more sustainable food systems, Atilano added.

Ferdinand Wafula, 49, remembers how farmers in western Kenya, himself included, used to have a rhythm for planting and harvesting crops – all based on rainfall patterns.

“Now, the seasons are changing. It’s more unpredictable,” said Wafula, whose non-profit, Bio-Gardening Innovations, works with about 2,000 smallholder farmers, teaching them environmentally-friendly practices.

This year, an unusually dry April caused low yields of maize, the staple food. “Hunger,” he told The New Humanitarian, “is becoming a concern.”

But Wafula said his one-acre farm, which grows a selection of crops – from bananas and cassava to beans and vegetables – is already exploring solutions, including the use of indigenous crop varieties and following stricter agroecological principles. 

“It's not a matter of saying, ‘We still have to do some more research’ [on how to adapt to climate change]. There is evidence, and it is here with us,” he said. “We have to act now.”


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