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Food Politics

Worldwide, more than 2 billion people don’t have enough to eat, while 2 billion are overweight or obese, and nearly a third of the food that gets produced is wasted and ends up discarded

 According to Michael Fakhri, the UN’s special rapporteur on food rights, the UN global food summit, “… is being led by scientists and research institutes who are pro-corporate sector. People say, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, let’s see if it is the ‘people’s summit’ it is claiming to be. But they have failed in what they had set out to do. It is not the people’s summit. It is elitist.”

His is not the only criticism, Hundreds of organisations and NGOs representing small-scale and subsistence food producers, consumers and environmentalists are protesting about the summit for being undemocratic, non-transparent and focused only on strengthening only one food system: that backed by the big corporations. An online alternative forum in July, running in parallel with the pre-summit meeting in Rome, attracted about 9,000 participants. This week, even more, are expected. The counter summit’s slogan is “Farmers, not corporations, feed the world”, puts clearly the contending visions: it’s about the conflict between agribusiness on the one hand and small-scale producers, the civil society supporting them and agroecological science on the other.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems added its dissenting voice to how the Summit operates. “From the start, the Summit threatened to replace democratic debate with increasingly unaccountable modes of decision-making… the Summit’s rules of engagement were determined by a small set of actors. The private sector, organizations serving the private sector (notably the World Economic Forum), and a handful of scientific experts kick-started the process and framed the agenda…”It concluded that the Summit is being used to promote a new science panel – an ‘IPCC for Food’ – falls short in several respects: it is non-transparent; imbalanced in its composition and biased in its perspectives and sources of knowledge; unreflexive about the relationships between food systems and society; and is pursuing a business-oriented 'technology and innovation' agenda."

Why is the summit facing such widespread opposition? The main reason is that organisers have given agribusiness a lead role in the process and largely ignored the social movements and small farmers’ organisations around the world that produce a third of all food. As a result, the summit will unavoidably push for an industrialised and corporate-driven food system, undermining the future of the millions of small-scale farmers, fishers, herders, food vendors and processors across the world. Worldwide, 70% of food is produced by small farmers, who use only one-quarter of total farmland.

Johanna Jacobi, an environmental scientist and professor of agroecological transitions at the Swiss federal institute of technology ETH Zurich, explains Small producers are facing cut-throat competition for land, water and market access from corporations and large landowners, who control 70% of global agricultural land but only produce up to 40% of the food, as Jacobi outlines. “And it is precisely these big players’ representatives that are leading the world food summit,”

Stephen Rist, a professor of human geography and critical sustainability research at the University of Bern, cites ecological and social reasons for boycotting the summit. As he explains, the organisers are pursuing strategies and approaches that will not solve the main problems underlying today’s food systems but will actually exacerbate them. For the past six years, Rist has headed an international research project on nutritional sustainability. This has found that smallholder and family-run farms, in contrast to monocultures from large-scale plantations, grow food in a manner that is very close to the principles of agroecology.

“Their main problem is not that they don’t know how to produce food ecologically and sustainably, but that the extra work involved is not fairly remunerated by the markets,” says Rist. “The agro-industrial focus also overlooks the fact that the globally organised large companies and corporations are primarily responsible for the bulk of food waste,” Rist adds. It is important, he believes, to put forward a clear alternative, namely agroecology as a practice, a social movement and science.

 A report by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development showed profits for large food companies escalating, while people producing, processing and distributing food were trapped in poverty and hunger. It calls for a “revolution” to place small rural farmers, who produce a third of the planet’s food, at the centre of the world’s food systems.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), representing some 200 million small-scale food producers in its continent-wide network, directly challenged  Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and its claim to represent Africa. AFSA sent a letter to AGRA donors signed by 160 international organisations demanding an end to funding for failing Green Revolution projects, speaking out about what it seeks from agriculture and life: food that is both healthful and nourishing and produced in a way that is not harmful to the environment and is culturally suitable.

AGRA promised to double yields and incomes for 30 million families while cutting food insecurity by half in 13 African countries by 2020. Over the last decade, AGRA acquired funding of nearly $1 billion and spent half a billion dollars advancing the use of genetically modified and hybrid seeds, commercial fossil fuel-based fertilizers, and chemical pesticides. In AGRA’s 13 focus countries, hunger has increased 30%, as farmers were pushed to abandon nutritious, traditional farming practices to focus on monoculture fields of cash crops.

AFSA opposes philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates, Western governments, foreign aid organisations, multinational corporations and certain African governments who are pushing policies of industrial agriculture, spending billions to sway governments to opt for agrochemicals, genetically modified organisms and high technology.  The goal is to take Africa down the path of industrial monoculture rather than promote agroecology.

La Vía Campesina is one of the world’s largest social movements. Made up of 200 million small farmers, peasants, farmworkers, and indigenous peoples, has long advocated the idea of food sovereignty, the right of peoples to control and defend their own food systems using healthy, agro-ecological methods.

The UN Food Systems Summit is based on the assumption that global food systems will become more sustainable only if agro-industrial food production continues to expand.” The negative consequences of agribusiness, such as deforestation, soil and water pollution, risks to human health and animal diversity, land grabbing and food speculation, are being swept under the carpet and brushed aside. 

The agro-industrial food system uses a lot of fossil energy, pesticides, commercial seeds and artificial fertilizers to produce food. It is not a sensible strategy to seek to turn the basic problem underlying today’s farming methods into a solution.

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