In September this year, the United Nations will host the World Food Systems Summit in New York. The organizers of this summit view it as a critical discussion during the decade to determine the future of agriculture. It aims to bring together the various stakeholders across sectors who play a role in the global food system.
However, organized peasant and indigenous movements from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, which collectively represent most of the world’s small-scale food producers, have called for a complete boycott of this summit. In April of this year, dozens of scientists, researchers, faculty and educators working in agriculture and food systems issued an open call to boycott the event.
To understand why social movements and scientists remain outside the UN-sponsored summit, it is important to know how the food system works in the world today.
Today’s global food and commodity trade is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations. For example, only two companies – Dow Dupont and Monsanto-Bayer Crop Science – have 53 percent of the market share in the seed industry. Only three companies own 70 percent of the global agrochemical industry that manufactures and sells chemicals and pesticides used on crops. This corporate focus is also evident in the livestock sector, animal pharmaceutical industry, agricultural machinery, commodity trading etc.
Therefore, from sowing seeds and growing crops to processing, distributing and consuming food, TNCs control and decide everything. Most of these companies are now partnering with big tech companies to digitize the global food system to consolidate their dominance.
But here’s what is striking about these giants. Although they control nearly 75 percent of the world’s food production-related natural resources, they can barely feed a third of the world’s population. On top of that, they are responsible for most of the $400 billion worth of food lost annually and for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases.
By contrast, we – small farmers, fishermen, farm workers, peasants, pastoralists and indigenous peoples – barely a quarter of the world’s food-producing natural resources in our name and often neglected in public policies – continue to provide about 70 percent of the world’s food. Our network of small local food producers surged in every corner of the world when the industrial food supply chain collapsed under the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, when it comes to determining the future of our food system, guess who is being invited by the United Nations to conceptualize and build the plan, principles and content of the World Summit. It’s a big farming business!
The UN Food Systems Summit has sparked controversy due to its exclusivity since it was announced in December 2019. In March 2020, 550 organisations, comprising some of the world’s largest peasant and indigenous movements, wrote to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to warn him that the Summit does not build on a legacy Past World Food Summits, called for by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
FAO has been given a mandate to organize these events by its member states and has allowed the active participation of civil society through parallel self-organizing forums.
However, there was no such mandate to organize the 2021 Food Systems Summit. The decision to create the Summit was taken by the United Nations Secretary-General in close partnership with the World Economic Forum, a private sector organization representing the interests of global businesses.
Management of the summit remains in the hands of “experts” who are known to be loyal advocates of industrial agriculture, and some countries, which host many of these large multinational corporations, are leading the agenda. Through the charities run by the billionaire and its partners, they were also able to secure the participation of a small section of global civil society and publicize this as a testament to the inclusive nature of the summit.
However, some of the largest food producer networks and movements, including La Via Campesina and Fisher People’s Global Forum, among others, have refused to join the initial consultations set up by the organizers and stand firm in their decision to boycott the summit.
There is no denying that the global diet must undergo a drastic change. The COVID-19 pandemic and the logistical bottleneck many countries faced after the outbreak has accelerated the demand for an overhaul.
Twenty-five years ago, at the 1996 World Food Summit, social movements insisted that food systems built around the idea of food sovereignty offered a path toward a better, healthier future. Food sovereignty is the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems. It meets people’s most urgent and urgent needs: to have healthy, nutritious and climate-friendly food grown in their area or neighborhood
Eco-agriculture and local agricultural production are respectful of food and coexist with our natural surroundings and promote human principles of solidarity and collectivity. It keeps away harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers and promotes a variety of nutritious crops, unlike the industrial practice of monoculture.
Over the past two decades, social movements have made many developments on this front and have persuaded the United Nations and many member states to adopt and implement this idea while formulating public policies. Through efforts spanning two decades, peasant movements have found spaces of representation within the United Nations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Committee on World Food Security (CFS).
But these two institutions were initially excluded from organizing the summit. The current and former Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food have criticized the current format of the Summit for not building on previous Food Summit experiences and noting that “the Committee on World Food Security already has the structure that the Summit organizers hastily reconstructed”.
Summit organizers invited the Chair of the Committee on World Food Security to join the Summit’s Advisory Committee in November and asked the FAO Office on the Right to Food to participate – albeit with a limited mandate – in March.
Despite these last-minute changes, advocates for agribusiness still have the power to set the summit agenda. This means that the event will not only advance corporate interests, but will also reduce the already limited space available for social movements and civil society within the United Nations.
This decision by the Secretary-General to grant such leverage to agribusiness at the summit is inconsistent with Article 10.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Rural Workers, which states our right to participate actively and freely in the preparation and implementation of policies. Programs and projects that may affect our lives, our land and our livelihoods.
However, we will not remain silent in the face of this blatant attempt to decide our lives and livelihoods without our participation. We will boycott the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and join the People’s Counter-Summit, which will begin on July 25. And there, we – small food producers and indigenous peoples – will reaffirm the principles of our solidarity and food sovereignty rooted in our region. Land and our way of life.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.