Agribusiness Interests Hijack 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

| Educate!

Above photo: United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards.

Oakland, CA –This World Food Day (October 16) amidst the ongoing pandemic and the devastating impact of the climate crisis, a Food Systems Summit is being planned a year from now by the United Nations, to fulfil the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. As the Summit takes shape, it is obvious that it does not intend to trigger the deep systemic changes necessary to address the massive challenges that we face. The Summit will do more of the same – green and poor wash – to preserve and perpetuate interests of agribusiness and agro-chemical corporations at the expense of people and the planet.

The key reason for that is its leadership. The deeply problematic appointment of Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), as Special Envoy to the Summit, has been challenged by hundreds of organizations, academics, and social movements, via letters sent to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, to deter the event’s leadership coming from an organization promoting industrial commercial agriculture.

In the face of this global challenge, a mere twelve individuals from development banks, academic institutions, and private firms, expressed their support of Dr Kalibata’s appointment to lead a global food summit. All but one of the affiliated institutions are funded by AGRA’s primary funding source – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Recent research has exposed the failure of AGRA on its own terms. After nearly 15 years and a spend of over US$500 million to promote the use of commercial seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides in 13 African countries, and additional US$1 billion per year of government subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, AGRA  fails to provide evidence that incomes or food security increased for smallholder households across its target countries.

In fact, since the onset of the program, the number of undernourished people across these 13 countries has increased by 30 per cent. Even where staple crop production did increase, there was no reduction of rural poverty or hunger, but instead, often displacement of diverse, climate-resilient crops. These findings reaffirm AGRA’s ill-conceived approach promoting monocultural commodity production by large agribusiness at the expense of sustainable livelihoods and human development.

Despite AGRA’s well-evidenced failure, the composition of the Summit’s Advisory Committee and Scientific Group exposes AGRA’s inordinate power.  While representatives from civil society and social movements remain outnumbered, the same corporate voices that have shaped the current food system that the Summit allegedly seeks to “rapidly change,” are dominant.

Five “Action Tracks” were announced in September to “offer all constituencies a space to share and learn, with a view to supercharging their progress by fostering new actions and partnerships and by amplifying existing initiatives.” Among the leaders of the “Action Tracks” are the Global Alliance for Increased Nutrition (GAIN), the EAT Forum, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Sharing several of the same major donors as AGRA, including the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as agribusiness conglomerates like BASF and Unilever, GAIN, who will lead the “Ensure Access to Safe and Nutritious Food for All” track, is a strong advocate for private-sector solutions to address nutrition issues.

Leading the “Shift to Sustainable Consumption Patterns” Track will be EAT, whose leadership and board is closely tied to the World Economic Forum, an organization representing the interests of the world’s wealthiest. It has no incentive to dramatically change the rules of the game.

The WWF will lead the “Boost Nature Positive Production” track, despite the organization’s deeply disturbing legacy of perpetrating violence and forced evictions against Indigenous communities in the name of “conservation” around the world. By pairing these organizations with United Nation’s institutions to lead “Action Tracks,” the Summit perpetuates a top-down corporate approach to feed the world.

To set herself apart from the agro-industrial lobby, Dr Kalibata in a recent article celebrated the “extraordinary level of resilience among Indigenous people, borne from the continued custodianship they provide for land, biodiversity, agroecology and natural resources.”

If these words were sincere, Dr Kalibata should stand by several long-held demands from Indigenous groups and farmer movements to end corporate intellectual property rights over seeds that a handful of multinational firms closely aligned with AGRA currently hold, halt the promotion of ineffective input subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, and immediately cease the conversion of forests and farmland into large-scale monoculture plantations.

Governments and international institutions must respect and strengthen farmer control over seed systems to ensure farmers can access a wide diversity of plant varieties for their quality and suitability to local conditions. To demonstrate concrete support for the custodianship that Indigenous groups provide for land and natural resources, legal recognition of customary and collective tenure systems that govern 65 percent of the world’s lands as a key path towards food sovereignty must be prioritized, instead of privatizing land to attract investment.

According to Dr Kalibata “Indigenous people can help deliver concrete actions and ideas on how to reverse biodiversity loss, how to strengthen the resilience of people and the environment, and how we redefine the balance of the needs of man and those of nature…if everyone is given an equal voice in the dialogue.”

Centuries of marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, farmers, and pastoralists have crafted the world we live in today. Ensuring they have an “equal voice” to the corporate and institutional players whose pursuit of profit has undermined the right to food for billions of people and led to the current climate crisis, requires the dismantling of the power inequity, or else the Summit guarantees more of the same at a time where changing course has never been more urgently required. 

Barring a radical change in course, the Summit will undoubtedly fail to ensure the necessary transition from corporate-dominated industrial agriculture to a climate-resilient system centred on agroecology and food sovereignty – a system that sustainably produces diversified and nutritious crops, preserves and restores the health and fertility of our soils, manages our water efficiently, ensures resilience to climatic shocks, and provides adequate food to people and income to farmers. 

*Anuradha Mittal is the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute. www.oaklandinstitute.org.