Categories: Politics

The UN is holding a summit on building a sustainable future for food and ag. Why are so many people upset about it?

Farmers, ecologists, academics—and even some of the UN’s own food policy experts—say the organization is favoring corporate interests over human welfare.

On September 23, the United Nations will hold a first-of-its-kind Food Systems Summit in New York City. Conceived to help launch a “Decade of Action,” in which countries commit themselves in earnest to the organization’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), the summit is meant to design “bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs”—ranging from ending poverty and hunger to transitioning to clean energy and responsible consumption—”each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems,” according to the summit website. Rosters of experts were selected for the summit’s advisory and scientific committees and in late July, a “pre-summit” was held in Rome to drum up enthusiasm for the presumptive main event.

The summit’s stated goals, which include “urgent” transitioning to more sustainable and equitable food systems, seem to line tidily up with the stated goals of many sustainability-focused nonprofits and advocacy organizations. So why did it set off bitter protests, fiery op-eds criticizing the methodology and intentions of summit organizers, and high-profile summit withdrawals from invited stakeholders?  

For example, the pre-summit sparked an estimated 9,000 people to participate in a three-day, mostly online protest called the Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems. The protest kicked off with an eight-hour rally, then morphed into a series of dialogs with people who felt their voices had been left out of the official proceedings. Thousands of farmers, producers, and food activists came together to discuss community-driven solutions to the intersecting crises currently plaguing food, nutrition, and health. These stakeholders say they have extensive, boots-on-the-ground knowledge and experience, and should have been included in the UN’s dialogue. 

At the Counter-Mobilization, thousands of farmers, producers, and food activists came together to discuss community-driven solutions to the intersecting crises currently plaguing food, nutrition, and health.

Friends of the Earth International

At the pre-summit, global leaders declared intentions to forge an international road map for the future of agriculture on a rapidly changing planet. They were “expected to step up and launch bold new actions, solutions, partnerships, and strategies” to vastly improve food and ag systems. “That’s where the decisions [were] made,” explained professor Molly Anderson about the decision to protest the pre-summit. “The cake [was] baked at the pre-summit and the summit will be the celebration where they eat the cake.” 

Anderson is academic director of food studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. She’s also a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), which announced it was withdrawing from September’s summit—alongside a boycott by scientists, researchers, and academics—citing opaque methods of decision-making and a favoring of tech-heavy, corporate-centric private sector voices. These flaws put the summit at risk of “being captured by a narrow set of interests,” the group wrote in a statement. Said Sylvia Mallari, global co-chairperson of the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty, a civil society initiative representing the interests of small food producers: “It was important to take the position that if the UN cannot reorient itself into placing the interests of people over profits, we would have a counter-summit and make our intervention from the outside.”

Over and over, the summit has been criticized for its close links to private-sector corporate actors seeking to boost industrial agriculture. “They want digitalization and gene editing and precision agriculture, which won’t help the poorest and hungriest people in the world very much, and will make the gap between the very poor and hungry and the wealthy even wider than it is now,” said Anderson. On the other hand, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), which organized the pre-summit protest, favors “solutions that are resilient, community driven, and that impact the most vulnerable,” said Qiana Mickie, a member of the CSM coordination committee and former director of New York City nonprofit Just Food. (CSM is an autonomous “space” within the United Nations comprised of 500 global grassroots organizations, with 380 million affiliated members, that was created to tip some balance of policy power to smallholder farmers, women, youth, and ag workers, after the UN reformed its Committee on World Food Security back in 2009.)

The summit website is now replete with mentions of civil society—promising a broad array of youth, smallholder farmers, Indigenous peoples, and researchers along with representatives from the private sector, policy leaders, and ministers of agriculture, environment, health, and finance. Mickie said this language came late in the game, however, and that it’s mostly lip service meant to make the organization’s efforts “sound like [they] had more global grassroots involvement rather than [promoting just] a corporate agenda.”

IPES-Food’s statement alleges that organizations representing the private sector, such as the World Economic Forum, a.k.a. Davos—widely seen as a mechanism that benefits the wealthy global elite—were allowed to frame the agenda from the outset. Mickie said their goal was to focus on “investment-friendly” solutions, and that civil society was “invited to come to a table that had already been set.” CSM and a long list of supporters, including UN special rapporteurs, have claimed that the way various invitees were picked was dubious. 

“There was no transparency about how they were selected,” said Anderson about the summit’s Scientific Group, which skews heavy on economists over agriculture experts. Also of concern to CSM was the fact that Agnes Kalibata was named special envoy to the summit. The former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Kalibata is also known for her past presidency of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Hailed as salvation for some Asian countries when they were in the throes of famine in the 1960s and ‘70s (and later, countries in Africa), the Green Revolution tilted food production heavily toward the industrial chemical model, which some argue is ecologically ruinous and runs counter to the UN’s own proposed SDGs.

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Anderson and members of CSM also take issue with what they see as controversial corporate and financial participants, such as representatives of agrochemical and biotech trade organization CropLife International and the World Bank—the latter an actor in what Anderson and her co-authors called in a working paper the “coalescing of a market-based vision of food governance…holding the line against the food sovereignty movement.”

“We are the rights holders that keep this system going and we shouldn’t be in the same room as a multinational corporation that’s extracting value from labor and trashing the environment.”

Other CSM complaints include the organizers’ initial failure to center discussions about human rights for both workers and eaters, and its unwillingness to show openness to sustainable agroecology solutions that are backed by science. These include methodologies, such as integrated pest management, that would limit chemical inputs; move food systems away from their dependence on industrial agriculture; and rely much more heavily on the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples. 

Jordan Treakle, programs and policy coordinator for the National Family Farm Coalition, said the upcoming summit follows an emerging trend of “multi-stakeholder-ism—an approach where the UN brings to the table corporations, governments, and sometimes farmers and says, ‘Let’s have an important policy discussion, without acknowledging or balancing the different hierarchies.’” When participation of civil society—which is generally considered to encompass NGOs and other groups that hold institutions to account and speak on behalf of marginalized populations—has been welcomed into summit-related events, it was “purely symbolic,” Treakle said. The way he and other members of CSM see it, in such a forum their voices and concerns are not adequately heard or taken into account. “We are the rights holders that keep this system going and we shouldn’t be in the same room as a multinational corporation that’s extracting value from labor and trashing the environment,” Treakle said.

In early September, the U.S. government hosted a listening session to solicit ideas about food systems and food security in advance of the UN summit. It was attended by Richard McCarthy, former executive director of Slow Food USA, who discussed the importance of farmers markets. At the listening session, although some civil society organizations were in attendance, they chose not to participate in the session. McCarthy feels this was the wrong move. He said that in so doing, the grassroots ceded ground to corporate voices, which “were heard [and] were the loudest,” McCarthy wrote in an email. “The revolution is shaped by those who show up. We need voices on the outside, voices on the inside, and voices that know how to jump between.” 

“The revolution is shaped by those who show up. We need voices on the outside, voices on the inside, and voices that know how to jump between.”

For her part, Mickie wishes the UN had worked from the get-go to take CSM’s concerns to heart, to ensure a Summit with “genuine engagement and amplification of innovative solutions to the persistent issues in our food system like hunger and impacts of climate change,” she wrote in an email. Nevertheless, Mickie, Treakle, and Anderson agree that the UN isn’t the only place where critical issues around food, climate, and social justice can and should play out. For instance, non-governmental organizations throughout New England are currently trying to address land reparations for Black farmers and the rematriation of land and seeds to Indigenous people, Anderson points out. Treakle also calls recent language out of the Biden administration, about worker rights, racial diversity, and the climate crisis, “hopeful,” and is glad to see the federal government addressing concentration in the livestock sector. 

Meanwhile, on September 7, 200 civil society organizations called for an end to western funding of AGRA, which they deemed a “failed corporate-driven development actor,” as Treakle put it. Another protest, of the summit itself this time, called the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems, will be held from September 21-23, to draw up an alternate plan for “just, equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems.”

Mickie says she and other members of CSM will continue to try to galvanize support for solutions that center regular people. “Personally, I plan to keep finding communications opportunities to amplify the issues, organizing, and increasing awareness of CSM’s efforts,” she said. “This is not where you stop. This is hopefully just the start.”

Clarification: After this story was published, a spokesperson for Slow Food emailed with the organization’s official stance on the summit, as follows:

“Both Slow Food USA and Slow Food International are in fierce opposition to the UN Food Systems Summit, based on the exclusionary approach that was taken to develop the summit and the centering of corporate interests within the programming at the summit. Each organization has made statements and supported counter-summits and grassroots efforts to shed light on the UN’s event, including a half-day virtual counter-mobilization co-hosted by Slow Food USA on Thursday, Sept. 23.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that the University of New Hampshire was specifically addressing reparations to Black farmers and Indigenous populations, when it’s actually a broader effort by NGOs in New England.

Lela Nargi
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Lela Nargi

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