The UN Food Systems Summit is tainted by corporate interests — the people are building an alternative.
A battle for the future of our lands, food, and rights is underway.
On September 23, the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit (UN FSS) will convene in New York to map out the policy agenda on food and agriculture for decades to come. The Summit is set to unveil so-called “game-changing” solutions to supposedly “transform” global food systems towards the goals of eradicating hunger, reducing poverty, and facing the climate crisis.
The irony is that those involved in the Summit are the same transnational corporations (TNCs) and financial institutions whose neoliberal framework and profiteering have pushed us deep into the food, biodiversity and climate crises that we experience today.
This is made apparent by the UN’s strategic partnership with the billionaire’s club World Economic Forum (WEF) and the appointment Agnes Kalibata, head of Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council, as the Special Envoy to the UN FSS. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is mandated to promote sustainable food and agriculture policies, has formalized a partnership with CropLife International, the global trade association representing the world’s largest pesticide companies. Numerous corporate-funded lobbies are entrenched into the Summit’s Action Tracks (such as the Gates Foundation’s Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) and are expected to push for market-based, tech-driven, and private sector-led “solutions.”
The choice to do the process in a ‘multi-stakeholder approach’ points to the true nature of the Summit. Multi-stakeholderism not only includes big companies, but puts them at the helm of decision-making and drowns out the voices of the few handpicked NGOs that participate. Even representation in the so-called “Independent Dialogues” is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of big business, with almost a third of participants either from corporations or international financial institutions.
Meanwhile, the problems faced and the solutions put forth by small peasants, the majority of the world’s food producers, are ignored. The UN FSS talks about “transformation” without acknowledging how neoliberal global food systems have failed the poor, hungry, and marginalized rural peoples of the Global South—those who put food on our tables but themselves have little or nothing to eat.
Around a billion people go to sleep hungry every night despite peasants producing enough food to feed 1.5 times our global population. This is not a simple anomaly, but a result of decades of imperialist exploitation and oppression.
World Bank-led land market reforms have concentrated ownership and control of agricultural lands at the hands of domestic elites and large multinational corporations. It is estimated that 1% of farms operate at least 70% of the global farmlands. These funnel food into corporatized global supply chains built atop neocolonial trade rules enshrined in the World Trade Organization and mega trade deals. What trade liberalization means for agrarian countries in the Global South is the destruction of domestic food self-sufficiency (read: farmers unable to sell their own produce because of the influx of imported food). It means the continued rise of export-oriented production that ejects communities from their own lands and razes what’s left of our forests.
Only four corporations from the US, China, and EU own and control more than half of the global seed, fertilizer, and agrochemical markets. Since the Green Revolution, policies imposed on and by governments have made our farmers dependent on hazardous pesticides and genetically modified seeds promoted by these companies, while forcing traditional seeds and biodiverse, sustainable farming to disappear. The FSS lends the credentials of the UN to these corporations who have a long history of deceit and malfeasance. They are able to rebrand them as “saviors” and “champions” of global food systems, with even pesticide companies such as BASF and Sumitomo calling themselves as “Food System Heroes.”
Corporate control over food systems is so thorough that even the seas are overfished and exploited almost exclusively by wealthy nation-states, which control 97% of operations both in the high seas and global exclusive economic zones. Meanwhile, the global oligopoly in grain and crop trade controls food supplies.
It is clear that the current neoliberal food systems perpetuate and exacerbate global hunger, the yawning chasm of inequality within and among nations, and the climate crisis we face today. It has even caused global food prices to jump by 39% in a single year amid a raging pandemic. It means that at the time when they need it the most, more people cannot afford nutritious food!
Global land grabs also continue to surge, and peasant killings and conflict-driven famines continue to rise. Farmers feed the world—but as they struggle to collectively defend their rights to lands and natural resources, as they struggle to survive, they are hunted down by corporations and state authorities. In truth, they don’t need to be recognized as “Food Systems Heroes” in the same platform as their oppressors are also recognized. What they need from global governance is not such insulting lip service but a clear break from long-discredited frameworks, policies and solutions.
That is why the Global People’s Summit on Just, Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems is being co-organized this September by people’s movements and CSOs as a counter-summit to the UN FSS. Various activities, dialogues and workshops have been held since early this year. Through the People’s Summit, we hope to develop further and broaden our demands to include an extensive range of rights-holders and peoples, especially from the Global South. A People’s Action Plan to realize Just, Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Food Systems will be the major outcome of the People’s Summit.
The People’s Summit believes that farmers, not corporations, will genuinely transform global food systems. This transformation can only be held up through four major inter-connected pillars. First, peasants must have the right to land and resources. Second, there must be community-led agroecology or sustainability in food production, distribution, and consumption. Third, people’s food sovereignty—or the power of people and communities to assert and realize the right to food and produce food—must be at the core of food and agriculture policies. Only then can people realize their right to adequate, safe, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate food, or what we aspire for as “food for all.”
Ilang-Ilang Quijano is the information and communications officer of PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP), a regional advocacy network that is one of the organizers of the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems.
Photo: Ramadhani Rafid / Unsplash