(This article co-authored by Elizabeth Mpofu and Henk Hobbelink first appeared on The Guardian on 23rd September 2021)
Thursday’s UN food summit proposes to help solve the world’s nutrition crisis, with 800 million people going hungry and 1.9 billion labelled obese, by better aligning food systems with development goals. But it won’t achieve any of this. The summit was hijacked early on by powerful corporate interests – but people are resisting.
Hundreds of social movements and civil society groups across the world 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. Civil society bodies active at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for instance, are running a massive grassroots boycott of the summit, and there is a website and several actions dedicated to it. Grain, a small nonprofit group campaigning for biodiversity-based food systems, shut down its website and social media in protest on Thursday and many other organisations are holding their own protests around the world. 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.
Even the scientific community is walking out on this farcical effort to address the urgent challenges facing our food systems. It is especially concerned about the summit creating a new scientific agency to justify its agenda, undermining existing UN bodies already responsible for this work. Mainstream development agencies are also starting to question the wisdom of the current direction of travel. The UN Environment Programme has just issued a scathing nine-point assessment of the industrial food system. In a recent joint report, three UN bodies assailed the $540bn (£396bn) of agricultural subsidies that governments currently hand out for promoting food systems that are “harmful for the environment and human health”. Also, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food has rebuked the summit for its corporate bias and lack of a human rights framework.
So 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.
In contrast, small farmers’ movements such as La Via Campesina and its allies are presenting a very different future. La Via Campesina launched its vision of “food sovereignty” 25 years ago, at the 1996 world food summit. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It is based on a model of small-scale sustainable production benefiting communities and the environment. Food sovereignty prioritises local food production and consumption, giving a country the right to protect its producers from cheap imports and to control its production.
It includes the struggle for land and genuine agrarian reform that ensures the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. La Via Campesina sees agroecology as a viable alternative to the industrial food system. It recognises that small farmers, including fishers, pastoralists and indigenous people, who make up almost half the world’s population, are capable of producing food for their communities and feeding the world in a sustainable and healthy way.
There’s no doubt that the current global food system needs a massive overhaul. It is being torn apart by inequality, environmental destruction, the climate crisis, worker and human rights abuses, all of which were laid bare by the Covid pandemic. But peasant movements have a viable alternative. One where the needs of most of the world’s food producers and consumers are put at the centre of the food system, where their voices are heard and where sustainability and the climate are the main concerns. The UN Food System Summit, unfortunately, does not want to hear this.