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Food Systems Summit glosses over substance with empty promises

On Thursday, September 23, the United Nations will host a one-day summit meeting in New York on food systems. You would think they had it all — a great topic (who does not eat?) and great timing, too, as the collective failure to halt the pandemic continues to push the number of people living with food insecurity higher, while unprecedented experiments with social protection programs and universal income point to the potential for transformative change and a redefinition of the social contract that binds citizens and their governments.

At the same time, the importance of food and agriculture as both problem and solution in the joint climate change and biological diversity crises is coming to rival that of the energy sector in the minds of politicians and the public alike. Food is front page news, and for good reason. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlighted, industrial agriculture produces an estimated 40% of world’s methane, more than the fossil fuel sector. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and much of our production in industrialized countries is unnecessary. What if at the summit, governments simply pledged to regulate real cuts in methane emissions from the industrial livestock sector in the next five years?

Sadly, this is not the summit we have. Instead, global animal agriculture corporations are pushing to increase meat consumption from their unsustainable models, flying in the face of the recent IPCC advice. Overall, government officials seem confused and somewhat irritated when you ask about the summit. The technologies that the private sector are showcasing distract policymakers from the kind of transformation needed. Transformation will have to address entrenched economic distortions in the food sector, not novel suggestions like toilet-training for cows. Frustration with the process and content in the pre-summit held in Rome in July generated an outpouring of protest and creative actions from social movements and civil society organizations from every corner of the world. That resistance continues today. Hundreds of organizations and academics have refused any formal engagement with the summit. They, like us, are angry because there was never any formal U.N. process in which to engage, no satisfactory answer to our civil society letter to the U.N. Secretary General asking to put the U.N. Committee for World Food Security (CFS) at the center of the summit and — over the two years of preparations — no meaningful attempt to lay the ground rules for a successful event. There was no transparency in decision-making, no clarity on what governments hoped the summit would achieve and no indication of what status the summit outcomes were expected to have. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has provided clear and cogent analysis of these failures from the start.

If the formal summit is largely ignored by the wider world as a result, as seems inevitable, does it matter? Who does it hurt?

Unfortunately, yes, it does matter. There are (at least) three reasons to mourn this outcome.

First, the United Nations Food System Summit (UNFSS) has been an enormous diversion of time, energy and money. The U.N. could have chosen to invest in reinforcing and strengthening the important institutions that were built on the painful lessons of the 2007-2008 food price crisis and the hunger (and political turmoil) that resulted. Instead, the UNFSS has provided a platform for a handful of academics and two problematic NGOs: The Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), which is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project that has also been partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss foundation that hosts the elite annual Davos meeting on globalization. AGRA has been under attack this summer by a platform of African voices demanding self-determination for their food systems, while the WEF is founded on principles of elite decision-making by vested interests. The summit turned into a missed opportunity to build trust between governments and food constituencies, damaging existing relationships with hundreds of thousands of small-scale producers, food workers, women’s rights organizations, environmentalists and others who look to the U.N. for leadership and for a voice in the food systems we all depend upon. The U.N. Secretary-General lost a huge opportunity to garner public support for one of the biggest challenges facing the world: Ending hunger by 2030, as committed to by all governments in 2015.

Second, today’s food systems are Janus-faced: The Roman god of gateways — and by analogy, transitions — is said to look both forwards and backwards. Similarly, food systems around the world are simultaneously looking back to a 20th century model of food production and ahead to a less predictable future of unstable weather and damaged ecosystems in need of transformation by approaches rooted in old and new adaptive farming techniques that respect biodiversity. The 20th century relied on raising productivity plant by plant (and animal by animal), regardless of the natural resources required, the pollution, the price effects of over-supplied markets, displacement of marginalized farmers off their farmlands or the malnutrition that resulted from diets that put calories ahead of nutrition. AGRA espouses the 20th century. Instead, we need both to cut greenhouse gas emissions and invest in adaptive practices that will see our children and grandchildren into a food secure future. The summit organizers have set no parameters on the debate and have no way to bind participants in the summit to meaningful reforms. A rare moment of intergovernmental focus on the possibility of food system transition has been wasted.

Third, the problems created by the summit now look as if they may not end with the summit. The opportunity missed to strengthen the existing institutions, especially the CFS and its associated High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). There is now potential for an ongoing distraction as a new group of scientists, largely self-appointed, seek to establish themselves instead of supporting the HLPE and the CFS. In a similar vein, several self-designated "coalitions of the willing" emerging from the various action tracks carrying out the summit’s preparatory work are proposing themselves as a legitimate outcome even though there has been no transparency or clarity on how actions or their supporters have been chosen, nor any attempt to integrate these tracks into the existing work of U.N. agencies and national action plans.

Enough is enough. Bad enough the summit has been such a diversion of attention and so big a missed opportunity. Let us not now increase the harm exponentially by attempting to create rival centers of knowledge and advice outside the U.N. institutions we have. We need to strengthen the CFS and the HLPE. The U.N. needs to restore trust with civil society and end the special deals and arrangements with global private corporations with a long record of damaging the environment and ignoring farmers’ voices. The U.N. is committed to end hunger by 2030, while simultaneously trying to meet global sustainability goals. The UNFSS is a huge step back in that endeavor, but we have a dozen or more actions we could take right now to move in the right direction. Let's get to it.

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