Will the United Nations Food Systems Summit bring change?

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The global food system is a mess. The way we produce, transport, consume and waste food destroys nature, degrades soils, and pollutes air and water. It is fueling climate change, accounting for about a third of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Social inequalities and human rights violations are widespread. Malnutrition and obesity are two major killers. And while we are producing more food than ever, the UN reported in July 2021 that 811 million people still go hungry every day. That’s more than one in ten people. Perversely, most of them are farmers and their children.

So at first glance, it’s good news that the UN is hosting a food systems summit on September 23. It aims to accelerate the transformation of these systems so that they provide nutritious food for all, be good for people and nature, help fight climate change, and build resilience to environmental and economic shocks. But lift the lid of the process from the top and you will find a hot stew. Stakeholders are deeply divided on how to fix the food system, and many have great concerns about the summit itself.

Criticism and boycotts

UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced the meeting in October 2019, to accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It started with difficulty. The UN has shocked many civil society and farmer groups by partnering with the business powerhouse, the World Economic Forum. Guterres made matters worse by appointing as his special correspondent Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a promoter of high-tech commercial seeds.

Summit planners also bypassed a key UN body, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). It has 125 member countries, mechanisms through which civil society groups, indigenous peoples and the private sector participate, and a scientific advisory body – the High Level Panel of Experts. But the top team left the CFS aside at first. He formed his own scientific group and appointed the leaders of five “courses of action” – to generate “game-changing proposals” for each of the main themes of the summit.

Critics abound. They include hundreds of NGOs, academics, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (and his two predecessors) and scientists, including members of the Summit’s Action Track. In July 2021, thousands of people attended a counter-forum organized by organizations boycotting the summit.

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed addressing the crowd at the closing session of the Pre-Food Systems Summit in Rome in July (Image: © FAO / Giuseppe Carotenuto)

Critics say the summit process marginalizes human rights and fails to recognize that corporate dominance over food systems and weak governance are the root causes of the problems the summit wants to address. They say its various modes of participation are a smokescreen that will allow companies to exercise greater control over food systems and the UN itself.

The UN rejects it. He stressed that the formal leadership structures of the summit do not include any companies, only business networks. It highlights that more than 100,000 people have participated in 147 country-led and independent multi-stakeholder dialogues on food system transformation, the results of which are publicly available online.

Representatives of smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples, youth and women were all involved in the summit’s avenues for action, generating more ideas for improving food systems than private sector participants. These groups also played a leading role in a pre-summit in July. Many praised the degree of consultation and inclusion.

But a seat at the table does not mean equal power. And attendees – including Anne Nuorgam, chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – expressed concern over the lack of clarity on who decides the outcome of the summit. In August, the chairman of the summit’s “governance focus area” resigned, citing concerns about transparency and accountability in decision-making in the summit process.

Science versus systems

The content of the summit is also disputed. The focus is on increasing production and resilience by stimulating the development and adoption of technologies – from biotech crops and precision agriculture to nanoparticle coatings that extend product shelf life.

But there has been less attention to fundamentally overhauling food systems by addressing structural barriers such as access to finance, legal recognition of land tenure, and corporate policies that lock poor farmers into lockdowns. problematic food production patterns. Western science dominates while traditional knowledge developed over millennia remains marginal, despite growing calls for its inclusion in policy councils.

Critics say the emphasis on science and innovation rather than systemic change favors the business agenda of intensive, input-intensive agriculture for export markets, rather than local food systems. diverse and resilient. This flash point is particularly visible around agroecology.

It is increasingly clear that this mode of agriculture – which applies ecological principles – can increase income and food security, while improving biodiversity, storing carbon and increasing the resilience of farmers. These are all the things the summit is trying to promote. But agroecology advocates had to fight for a place on the July pre-summit agenda.

When 10 countries, including Costa Rica and Switzerland, signed a letter demanding this, they had to wait weeks for a positive response. They were disappointed when, just days before the pre-summit, they were given an evening slot for a side event competing with 17 side sessions. Despite this, the agroecology event had the highest overall attendance, in person and online, of any pre-summit event.

Agroecology has also occupied a preponderant place in many solutions proposed through the courses of action and the dialogues of the summit. But his supporters say he is plagued by disinformation campaigns backed by vested interests in high-yield agriculture, who see growing support for agroecology as a threat.

An agroecology project in Thailand

An agroecology project in Thailand. Critics argue that the summit marginalized this mode of agriculture and focused primarily on the role of technology in increasing production. (Photo: © Bienne Calderon / Greenpeace)

Countries supporting agroecology are now forming a coalition that will follow a set of 13 agroecological principles identified by the High Level Panel of Experts – as urged by those boycotting the summit.

Summit Outcomes

Critics aside, the summit process succeeded in gaining a better understanding of how biophysical, social, and economic systems all relate to the food we eat. This systems focus should improve coordination between government ministries and help policymakers make the link between food, climate change and biodiversity.

Climate change in particular featured prominently in the ideas emerging from the action lines and dialogues at the summit. The focus was less on reducing the use of fossil fuels and more on increasing carbon storage through agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, reducing methane emissions from rice fields and livestock and increasing resilience of farmers.

There is, however, no formal mechanism linking the summit to the UN negotiations on climate change and biodiversity – both of which have tended to neglect food and agriculture. To help address this issue, the Global Food Alliance is launching a program to advise a diverse group of countries on how to better integrate food systems into their actions under the Accord. Bets on climate change.

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At the summit itself, Secretary-General Guterres will make a statement outlining the priority ambitions to be achieved by 2030, focusing on 15 areas of action identified by the summit process. The UN is also ready to endorse a subset of the many coalitions proposed during the process, such as those on agroecology, food waste, resilience and school meals. Significantly, some 80 countries that have held dialogues are expected to herald pathways to transform their food systems.

The summit will launch a process in which Member States – with the support of UN agencies – will refine and implement their food systems transformation strategies, individually and through coalitions. A review in 2023 will assess progress and set the ambition for full implementation by 2030.

For the summit to be successful, these pathways must be truly transformative. This means changing not only the parts of the food system that involve food itself, but also the regulatory, financial and administrative systems that underpin it. Countries and coalitions need to resolve the tensions exposed over the past two years – address power imbalances between smallholders and large enterprises, incorporate traditional knowledge alongside science in policymaking, and ensure transparency and accountability in decision-making and implementation.

The multi-stakeholder dialogues that some countries plan to continue after the summit must ensure the effective participation of marginalized groups. True deliberation towards consensus among diverse interests means giving and receiving on all sides. But so far, there is little indication of what the companies that dominate the food system, and have contributed much to its failures, are willing to concede.

With tensions high, summit insiders insist they are listening to their critics. They recognize that food is highly political and that not everyone is happy with all aspects of the summit, its participants and its processes. They stress that no one is excluded from participation and urge boycotters to reconsider their engagement or risk being further marginalized. As the summit process shifts from generating ideas to taking action, its leaders should refocus on one of the principles they initially identified: “building trust”.


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