The concerns are intense and the resistance is global. The Pre-Summit of the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is going to take place in Rome from 26–28 July 2021. The peoples' organisations working for food and nutritional security, particularly those active with farming and indigenous communities to safeguard the local environment, ecology, and biological basis of our lives, are raising their voices about the summit.
Over 300 global civil society organisations of small-scale food producers, researchers, and indigenous people are organising online protests during 25-28 July 2021 against this Pre-Summit. They are concerned that global policy leaders are distracting from the real problems of hunger, nutrition, food, climate and health crises.
Rather than solving the crisis, they are deepening it by accelerating and ensuring corporate control over the global food system. And that is happening in a Covid 19 global pandemic moment of disaster when people around the world deserve passion, care, and commitment, including involvement in the process of the Summit.
The concern against UNFSS is also because of the UN partnership with the World Economic Forum (formed by the world's top 1,000 corporations). The disproportionate corporate involvement will undermine both the process and the outcome of the summit.
A rights-based, legitimate, and inclusive multilateral policy process is now a distant expectation. In a process that lacks transparency and accountability mechanisms and where participation of civil society and people's organisations is weak, the influence of corporate actors in the decision-making processes will be heightened. A world still reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic deserves a far better inclusive process. This may ultimately strengthen and deepen the corporate control over food systems.
While the people need decisions, determinations, and actions to transform the food systems to ground it on a life-affirming foundation, corporate control over the food systems will further destroy the biological, biodiverse, and agroecological foundation of agriculture in favour of technological fix and profit. This will worsen the already precarious situation.
The world is facing a high prevalence of undernourishment (PoU), reaching a level of around 9.9%, heightening the challenge of achieving the Zero Hunger target by 2030. It increased by 1.5 percentage points in one year during the pandemic in 2020.
According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, by FAO, UNICEF, IFAD, WHO, and WFP, 2021, between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020.
The report also reveals that over 80% of the undernourished are in Asia and Africa; more than half are found in Asia (418 million) and more than one-third in Africa (282 million). In the year 2020, during the pandemic, 118 million more people have been added in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The undue corporate influence on the summit and the lack of transparency and clarity of its preparation process has raised concerns in the participating organisations. They have therefore decided to launch a call for engagement to a process of building joint strategies around essential issues for the life and wellbeing of our peoples and communities: food, health, nature, peoples' sovereignty, and economic, social, gender, and climate justice.
The Peoples Autonomous Response, a platform organised by more than 300 civil society organisations and movements to reorient the UNFSS process from the corporate-controlled to people-centred objectives argues that "the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the already existing deep structural problems of corporate and increasingly globalised food systems.
A radical, human rights-based and agroecological transformation of food systems is more urgent than ever, towards food sovereignty, gender justice, climate justice, economic and social justice, biodiversity, people's and planetary health, preconditions for lasting peace".
They also argue that the solutions to world hunger already exist. The peasants around the world provide 70% of the world's food, using only 25% of the resources. The technological fixes such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or other so-called solutions like "sustainable intensification", "climate-smart agriculture" or 'nature-positive solutions' will only increase corporate profit, and not solve world hunger.
The Peoples Autonomous Response is based on the experiences of millions of smallholders. That includes the farmers, fishermen, pastoralists, agricultural and rural workers and the indigenous communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They have been practising agroecology as a way of life and a form of resistance to an unfair economic system that puts profit before life.
On 15 April 2021, a coalition of over 300 scientists around the world issued a press release saying "from the start, this summit has been deeply compromised by a top-down exclusion of many food systems actors and an impoverished view of whose food system knowledge matters. This exclusive approach undercuts ongoing work by farmers, farmworkers, and food workers worldwide to advance transitions to justice and sustainability. For this reason, we write as researchers, faculty members, and educators who work in agriculture and food systems across disciplines to announce our boycott of the UN Food Systems Summit."
Scientists argue that "through the Summit, "science" has been weaponised by powerful actors not only to promote a technology-driven approach to food systems but also to fragment global food security governance and create institutions more amenable to the demands of agribusiness".
A controversial scientific group of the UNFSS has been created to support a "science- and evidence-based summit". The members of the scientific group are handpicked experts amenable to "game-changing" solutions — access to gene-edited seeds, digital and data-driven technologies, and global commodity markets.
Through this group, biotechnology, big data, and global value chains are offered as the solution to all agronomic problems and the crisis of overfishing. Three UN special rapporteurs on the Right to Food, including Michael Fakhri, the current UN special rapporteur on the right to food, gave their critical opinions on the summit. They raised the question "What if the table is already set, the seating plan non-negotiable, the menu highly limited? And what if the real conversation is happening at a different table?"
The summit's rules of engagement were determined by a small set of actors, including the private sector, organisations serving the private sector (notably the World Economic Forum), scientists, and economists who initiated the process.
The table was set with their perspectives, knowledge, interests, and biases. Investors and entrepreneurs working in partnership with scientists framed the agenda, and governments and civil society actors were invited to work within those parameters".
The protest against the UNFSS process, including the pre-summit, is a much more long-term confrontation with industrial agriculture that has ruined the farmers and the food sources for the people. The summit is dominated by giant corporate interests: corporate front groups and corporate-driven platforms.
These are the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WCBSD), the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the EAT Forum, Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network, as well as leading corporate philanthropies such as Rockefeller Foundation, Gates Foundation, and Stordalen Foundation, who have been playing strong roles in the summit process.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given US$6 billion funding from 2003 to 2020 in agriculture, mainly to be used in Africa. The foundation's trust fund has big investments in food and agribusiness companies, buys up farmland, and has equity investments in many financial companies around the world. The foundation has given US$73 million to biofortification initiatives that essentially seek to artificially pack nutrients into single crop commodities.
Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) started in 2010, (over 63 countries as members), is a global movement against malnutrition. But this movement is based on food fortification and other business and technological fixes to malnutrition. By 2015, the Gates Foundation announced to provide $776 million for six years as part of a "new commitment to nutrition". Their focus was on three countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso) and two countries in Asia (India and Bangladesh).
According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) Bangladesh's hunger and undernutrition situation in 2018 was 26.1. It went down from a GHI score of 36.0 in 2000, its rates of undernourishment, child stunting, and child mortality have all declined. In 2015, 22.6 percent of babies were born with low birth weight (NNS 2017), contributing to child stunting.
Bangladesh joined the SUN movement in 2012 and has formed a Bangladesh SUN Business Network (SBN), emphasising food fortification.
Bangladesh is also a target country of biotech corporations for introducing various genetically modified food crops such as Bt brinjal, Golden Rice, Biofortified Zinc Rice, and other GMO and fortified technological fixes to food and nutrition.
The upcoming UNFSS and the Pre-Summit is indeed an example of collaboration of the corporate-driven platforms and the high-level UN officials to utilise the United Nations towards a corporate-friendly transformation of food systems, keeping the control of the global food system in few hands. This will certainly go against the millions of smallholder farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples, and other stakeholders all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
For the millions of Bangladeshi farmers, fishers, and indigenous people, the UNFSS poses a threat, too.
Farida Akhter is the Executive Director of UBINIG.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.