ourEconomy: Opinion

UN should be learning from sustainable food producers – not hosting Big Ag

Small-scale farmers and Indigenous groups say they have again been shut out of the UN Food Systems Summit

Shalmali Guttal Sofia Monsalve
21 July 2023, 1.48pm

A farm worker harvests pineapple in the Philippines. Small-scale food producers say they have been shut out of the UN Food Systems Summit in favour of global corporations


Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A UN summit on global food systems should be an opportunity to address structural inequalities and tackle hunger. It should be a chance to learn from small-scale producers whose sustainable food practices feed 70% of the world. Instead, next week’s conference in Rome will be a festival of greenwashing, allowing Big Agriculture corporations to tighten their grip on food systems.

This will be the second Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). The first, in 2021 was supposed to address the lack of progress towards the UN’s sustainable development goals. It was dubbed a “people’s summit” by the organisers, but caused an outcry among local producers when their calls to roll back the power of transnational corporations were cynically ignored.

Corporations that dominate global food systems, such as Bayer and Nestlé, used the summit to promote greenwashing initiatives rather than address pressing problems such as food speculation and the impact of Covid-19 on world hunger.

Discussions on eradicating hunger were hosted by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a foundation partly funded by processed food and consumer goods giant Unilever, while transnational corporations were invited to discuss solutions to problems they had largely created. The whole event was an excellent opportunity for them to identify new profit-making ventures and to “capture the global narrative of ‘food systems transformation’”.

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More than a thousand small-scale food producer associations and Indigenous Peoples’ groups, academics and social movements boycotted the event, which was also widely criticised by UN human rights experts and others.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food Michael Fakhri described it as “inviting the fox right into the henhouse”.

Agribusiness vs small farmers

Food is a common good and access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right enshrined in UN covenants. These are the issues that governments and the UN should focus resources on, and next week’s summit provided a perfect opportunity.

Sadly, it looks set to simply consolidate corporate control over food and natural resources.

Hundreds of grassroots groups have called out the UN, saying they are still being excluded and claiming the summit is “poised to repeat the failures” of two years ago and want to see fundamental change in food systems.

Here’s the picture as it stands. A handful of agribusinesses control more than 70% of the world’s farmland. Smallholder farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples, who use agroecology and other sustainable practices, feed 70% of the world’s population with just 10% of global farmland.

Agriculture is responsible for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost 90% of deforestation and 80% of biodiversity loss, the bulk of which can be attributed to industrial agriculture and agribusiness operations.

The disruption of global fertiliser supply chains has been a major focus of the UN’s response to the global food crisis. But the dangers of market concentration, which make food systems extremely fragile to shocks, have been largely ignored.

In just the last five years, the world’s nine largest fertiliser companies – with nearly 40% of global synthetic fertiliser sales – have tripled their profits. Rocketing fertiliser prices have less to do with disrupted supply chains than quasi-monopolies.

Despite all this – and the growing global obesity pandemic, for which consumption of ultra-processed industrial food bears a major responsibility – the UN continues to empower corporations. What it should be doing is addressing issues such as land concentration, so that peasant agroecology can have a real chance to flourish and make a significant contribution to tackling hunger, climate change and biodiversity loss.

Industrial agriculture has failed

A dystopian future where a handful of corporations control everything we eat is just around the corner, if we do not resist now.

About 60% of all calories consumed worldwide come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn and soy. Everyone is vulnerable if we are over-dependent on global corporate-controlled supply chains. Industrial agriculture has failed to address rising levels of hunger and malnutrition across the world, which are now at an estimated 828 million people.

The global governance of food is being hijacked by corporate interests. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization receives less than a third of its $3.25bn budget from the world’s governments, making it dependent on “voluntary contributions” – including from corporations and their proxies – for the rest.

We are facing a stark choice between unsustainable, exploitative, corporate-controlled food systems and diverse, locally sourced ecological food that prioritises the needs and rights of those most affected by the hunger, climate and health crises.

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