Q & A: (Almost) Everything you Need to Know About the UNFSS

Dissecting and digesting what’s behind the controversy-ridden 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

This article is a collaboration between FIAN International and A Growing Culture. The original article is published here.

After two years of preparations, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is set to take place on September 23rd. The Summit states its goal as “setting the stage for global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.”

It sounds promising. But the Summit has been mired in controversy practically from its outset. We’ve broken down the most important questions and answers about the upcoming Summit to clarify exactly where the controversies lie and offer some ways to get involved in the response.

Q: WHAT ARE FOOD SYSTEMS?

Conversations about food have been predominantly centered around increasing production. For decades, higher yield and global market integration have been sold as solutions to the growing problem of hunger; solutions that have never tackled the root causes of hunger.

More recently, the discussion has turned to food systems. This is a more holistic approach to talking about food, because food systems are not only about what we eat. The way food is produced and consumed impacts the environment, quality of life, cultural identity, and heritage.

Food systems include everyone, everywhere, because our lives are inextricably tied to food. By looking at all the activities from production to consumption, we can start asking deeper questions about the relationship between food and power — who decides what food is produced, how it’s produced, how it’s distributed, how it’s marketed, and who has access to it. Currently (and historically), a small handful of powerful states and large corporations hold the vast majority of power in these decisions.

Some still try to remain apolitical when talking about food, treating hunger as if it’s nothing more than an equation to be solved. When we talk about food systems, though, we can’t ignore the communities whose lives and livelihoods are affected each day by the consolidation of corporate power. This makes food systems a more promising framing to move beyond agricultural productivism and market-based solutions and address the real problems behind hunger.

Q: DOES EVERYONE MEAN THE SAME THING WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT FOOD SYSTEMS?

In short, no. For many, the painful history of our food systems is something they’d rather ignore. It’s easier to pretend that our problems can be solved in a lab or through new technology, rather than venture into the territory of colonial legacies, reparations, sovereignty, and systems of power, privilege, and exploitation.

There are many different food systems in the world: local, peasant, or indigenous food systems based in small-scale food production and rooted in territorial markets and economy, as well as the global industrial food system embedded in long and distant value chains, and big supermarkets.

The tensions between local food systems and the global industrial food system are often ignored in international food system discussions, as the needs and operations of local food systems contradict the advancement and interests of the large agri-food corporations.

In essence, most people are actually talking about the food system singular (meaning the dominant, industrial food system), rather than genuinely discussing food systems that take into account the plurality of different approaches and subsystems that characterize how we produce and consume food.

Although the food systems lens could offer a paradigm shift and recognize food systems as a public good, the dominant use of the approach tries to enforce the status quo of the industrial, globalized, corporate-controlled food production and distribution model, sidelining human rights and impeding real transformative pathways towards agroecology and food sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the UNFSS is also designed under this dominant framing of food systems.

Q: WHY IS THE UN FOOD SYSTEMS SUMMIT CONTROVERSIAL?

The United Nations is the international body for governments to exchange ideas and discuss global issues. They have organized the Food Systems Summit in order to realign policy priorities and actions to build more just, healthy, and sustainable food systems.

However, the Summit is organized in a way that cannot meet these aims. Real solutions to support social justice and environmental health — solutions that communities have been demanding for decades — are taking a backseat to the interests of powerful corporations. Methods like agroecology, which recognizes the vitality of traditional indigenous practices and maintains communities’ self-sufficiency while preserving biodiversity, have been sidelined.

Digitalization, genetic modification, precision agriculture, and other chemical-, capital-, and fossil fuel-heavy approaches are taking center stage because these ‘solutions’ are the ones that are most profitable to corporations (at the expense of the environment and farmers’ livelihoods).

Q. WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THE SUMMIT?

Powerful Northern governments and large-scale corporations are behind the summit. The Summit was initiated just after the United Nations signed a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF), a platform of the 1000 leading corporations, and early documents indicated the WEF as a co-organizer of the summit.

Agnes Kalibata, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), was named as the Special Envoy for the Summit. This has been another source of controversy because AGRA is an organization, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations (as well as many governments), that promotes a high-tech, high-cost approach to agriculture, heavily reliant on agrochemical inputs and fertilizers.

They have been at the forefront of predatory seed laws and policies that marginalize and disenfranchise peasant farmers on a massive scale. Despite USD$1 billion in funding, food insecurity has increased by 30% in the countries in which they operate.

Attempts to build bridges with civil society organizations have failed. In sessions with civil society groups, Ms. Kalibata has demonstrated a lack of awareness of the growing peasant-led movements that reclaim traditional agricultural methods as promising avenues to a more sustainable food system. These groups feel unseen and unheard, and their concerns over Ms. Kalibata’s appointment went ignored.

Other corporate-driven platforms such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WCBSD), multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN), leading corporate Philanthropies such as Rockefeller, Gates, EAT and Stordalen Foundation, international NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Care as well as corporate-friendly scientists have been playing strong roles in the Summit process.

Q: BUT THE SUMMIT ORGANIZERS HAVE TALKED ABOUT HOW PARTICIPATORY THE SUMMIT IS, AND HOW EVERYONE CAN JOIN AND GIVE THEIR INPUT. IS THAT NOT TRUE?

Unfortunately not. The Summit organizers are paying lip service to participation and inclusivity, but in order to really assess that claim, we must ask ourselves what true participation looks like.

If true participation looks like having a say in setting the agenda, then the Summit was not participatory. Peasant and Indigenous groups, as well as other civil society organizations and social movements, have been left out of the Summit’s agenda-setting process and their solutions to problems in the food system have been sidelined.

If participation looks like responsiveness to concerns of millions of small-scale food producers, workers, and Indigenous Peoples, then the Summit is not participatory.

Civil society organizations sent letters with over 500 signatory organizations expressing deep concern over the appointment of Special Envoy for the conference and received no reply from its organizers.

The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples mechanism has proposed concrete actions to make the summit human rights-based but its course has not been changed.

If participation looks like making a session link open so that anyone can “attend” and “participate” freely then the Summit is surely participatory. But that is a completely misleading understanding of participation. It ignores that the different stakeholders that are coming together are different in their power, interests, rights, and obligations.

This form of “participation” is opposed to a human rights approach where those most affected must be at the center of decision making and governments must be accountable to their citizens and make corporations liable for their human rights violations. Groups from around the world are demanding better.

Q: WHY IS IT SUCH A PROBLEM FOR CORPORATIONS TO BE CENTRAL TO THE SUMMIT? LIKE IT OR NOT, DON’T THEY HAVE AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN FOOD SYSTEMS?

It’s not a problem for corporations to be present at the conference; they are a stakeholder in the food system, for better or for worse.

The problem is that the Summit is organized to serve the interests of large corporations at the expense of the rights of the people and communities across the world who are most affected by hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition- including especially small-scale food producers, Indigenous Peoples and agricultural and food workers.

Government and UN officials have allowed corporations to be central to the summit based on the belief that transnational corporations are essential for providing food since they have more capital, technologies, and infrastructure than most nations.

It is also based on the belief that their interests are aligned with the public interest which is unfortunately not true. Governments lose and voluntarily relinquish their power to corporations and this places them, and their products, as central to solving problems that they themselves helped create.

In the long run, the “solutions” proposed in the summit will worsen the global problems we are facing because they are embedded in corporate gains and rely on a business-driven understanding of the global food system.

The main solutions that are being proposed at the Summit are technology-based; hybrid seeds, agrochemicals, precision agriculture, big data, and biotechnology.

These will not mitigate climate change, hunger, social and political conflicts; in fact, they will widen inequalities between countries, pushing more people into poverty. Prioritizing the desires of a small group of powerful corporations and their profits over the needs of people is the essential problem within the UN Food Systems Summit.

Q: ISN’T THIS JUST ONE EVENT THOUGH? WHY ARE PEOPLE SO UPSET?

The UN Food Systems Summit, unfortunately, is not a one-time event. The Summit is an attempt to set the stage for the coming decades of food policy. It will change the narrative, establish frameworks, and direct the funding for years to come.

The preparations for the summit have been ongoing since 2019, creating new structures that bypass the existing mechanisms by which civil society can influence governments. Through these new structures, corporations can even further increase their control over food system governance.

UNFSS organizers will also try to import the working methods of multi-stakeholder governance from the Summit to existing UN spaces such as the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) or the UN’s organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO). If this corporate capture is to dominate policy spaces, it will further undermine democracy, self-determination, and peoples’ sovereignty.

The UNFSS will also have a lot of impacts at the national level. States are encouraged to define “national pathways” for food systems transformation based on the summit´s outcomes and to join so-called coalitions of actions that will further promote increased corporate power at regional and national levels at the regional and national levels.

So it’s not just about one event. It’s about all of the small changes to multilateral governance that this Summit is bringing about, and the troubling amount of power this is placing in the hands of corporations to decide the future of our food systems. The least we can do is not let this happen quietly.

Q: SO WHAT ARE GROUPS DOING IN OPPOSITION TO THE SUMMIT?

Over 300 social movements and civil society organizations from all over the world have converged and created the Autonomous People’s Response to the UN Food Systems Summit. During the UN Pre-Summit at the end of July 2021, they have organized online and in-presence counter-mobilizations to denounce the corporate food systems agenda promoted by the UNFSS, but also to defend the work done over the past 70 years to build a multilateral, democratic, and civic space for human rights that is the United Nations.

Under the struggle for a real transformation of the food system based on human rights, food sovereignty, and agroecology, they are uniting in solidarity and globally to resist the advancement of corporate capture within the United Nations. If you want to join the process, please express your interest here.

Other groups have also organized separate actions to counter the Summit, such as the Global People’s Summit created by the People’s Coalition for Food Sovereignty (PCFS), among others.

Q. WHAT CAN I DO?

The first thing to do is to understand how food systems connect us all. We can’t remain under the illusion that when we talk about the need to address hunger, exploitation, and injustice we’re talking about someone in some faraway country. This Summit will directly impact the way each of us has access to food in the future; what’s grown, how it’s grown, and whether we’ll be able to feed everyone on the planet.

The second thing is to listen to those most marginalized by our current food system and find solutions rooted in their experiences. One of the core problems with the Summit’s approach is that it does not take into account the fact that communities themselves know best how to solve their own problems. Instead, they prescribe them from outside.

Third, speak with your government, including the local government. We must call on them to protect public policy spaces from corporate influence, to ensure the meaningful participation of small-scale food producers and other groups most affected by hunger and malnutrition, and put in place policies and other measures that support and protect local food systems that sustain nature, contribute to people’s health, and foster social justice.

Talk about this on social media. We can only challenge the dominant narratives if enough of us engage. We must resist corporate capture and continue struggling for strengthening our communal and public institutions all the way from local to global so that food sovereignty can flourish.

The worst outcome would be to have this Summit go unchallenged in the media. We must band together to take back our narrative.