Business interests have hijacked the UN food summit

Small farmers, social movements and human rights are being elbowed out, says Kirtana Chandrasekaran.

Faustina, a street vendor in Accra, Ghana, has a steady stream of customers each day. She pays daily, monthly, and annual tolls to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly in order to carry out her work. 
Women like Faustina constitute about 70 per cent of the union's membership, and vendors of vegetables, grains, legumes, fish, and other related items like utensils, charcoal, and provisions are well represented. 
Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment 

The United Nations agencies are warning that 270 million more people – over four times the UK population – are on the brink of starvation because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the pandemic alone has not brought us to this, rather it has highlighted the fragility and injustice that lies at the heart of our world’s industrialized food system.

The pandemic has seen agriculture and food workers living on plantations, on farms of all sizes, in orchards, greenhouses and packing stations across the world lose their incomes and be exposed to great health risks. Lockdowns saw fishers all along the African coastline cut off from their waters overnight – while the factories of transnationals stayed open. Farmers from the Uruguay-based family producers association COPROFAM are reporting ‘an increase in cases of expropriation of land and water resources and assassination of social leaders’.

Covid-19 held up a mirror to our food system. It showed how that those who feed the world are the least able to feed themselves because for governments and institutions the human right to food comes second to free trade and corporate profits. The way we govern our food systems serves to shape existing injustice and determines whether we can solve them. And so, the most important question must be: who is steering decisions and in whose interest? This makes the difference between who can and cannot meet their basic needs, and ultimately, who lives and who dies.

These issues are coming to a head at the UN Secretary General’s Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), due to take place later this year in New York. It has become the focus of efforts ‘to renew global commitment at the highest political level to eliminate hunger and malnutrition’.

But the summit is under fire from hundreds of small food producers and civil society organizations – including mine, Friends of the Earth International – who believe the UNFSS is ignoring human rights and sidelining the small-scale producers who produce 70-80 per cent of the world’s food, prioritizing instead the interests of corporations.

The way we govern our food systems ultimately makes the difference between who lives and who dies

A people’s or corporate summit

The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the primary inter-governmental space for food security and nutrition, a forum where people can dialogue and debate with states and where those most affected by food policies and the actions of corporations to have the space and power to make their voices heard.

But instead of the CFS, the summit seems to be more closely aligned with the World Economic Forum. This body brings together the world’s top 1000 corporations including Pepsi, Nestle and even asset managers Blackrock – named the ‘world’s top investor in climate destruction’. Large corporations make billions – uninterrupted by Covid-19 in many cases – from business models that destroy planet ecosystems, pay workers poverty wages or sell junk food. Yet they are now positioning themselves to provide solutions to the problems they are creating. The appointment of Agnes Kalibata, president of the agribusiness platform Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as the UN Special Envoy for the summit has served to cement these fears.

This summit is not geared towards systemic change to solve the multiple crises we face. It talks about sustainability, but not justice. It talks about better nutrition but not about curbing the junk food industry. It talks about improving farmer livelihoods but not about stopping corporate concentration and land grabbing. Nowhere in its five ‘action tracks’, does the summit explain how it will put people first.

Informal worker Monica Agyei sells food products in Makola Market. Monica is one of the more than 2,000 members of the Makola Market Traders Union, an affiliate of the Ghana Trade Union Congress. Its main intervention activities include development projects in the market and negotiations with local and national government for better conditions for its members.
Civil society groups say the interests of informal workers like Monica Agyeisells, pictured selling food products in Makola Market, Ghana will not be represented at a UN summit while
powerful corporations hold sway over the agenda. Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

Human rights and democracy sidelined

Unless those most affected by hunger and malnutrition become central to this summit, the solutions it produces will never solve hunger. This was the substance of a letter sent by more than 550 civil society organizations to the UN Secretary General in April 2020. The current and former UN Special Rapporteurs for the Right to Food have also sounded the alarm bell over the summit’s focus.

In response, the summit recently invited the Civil Society Mechanism (part of the CFS) – of which I am a part – to participate in the summit. Formed in 2009 to strengthen the voice of farmers and small producers, the CSM is the largest international space of civil society organizations working to eradicate food insecurity and malnutrition.

But the CSM and our 300 million affiliates will not ‘jump on a train that is going in the wrong direction’. We are asking that the summit radically change course. It must begin by holding to account the corporate actors who have disrupted peoples’ lives, livelihoods, communities, ecosystems, well-being and health.

Unless those most affected by hunger and malnutrition become central to the UN food summit, the solutions it produces will never solve hunger

The summit then needs to realign its whole programme to focus on human rights and explain in detail how these will not be made secondary to economic growth and business interests. The UNFSS leadership must underline the importance of a democratic multilateral system, including the CFS. Part of the summit’s programme must be facilitated autonomously by civil society and address how to reverse the corporate capture of our food systems.

Unless these demands are met, the summit will create the conditions for more people to become sick, hungry and malnourished. The climate and health crises – and the hunger and inequality they have exacerbated – will continue unabated. The summit will have failed and, with it, the entire international system.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran is food sovereignty programme co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth International. She is part of the CSM liaison group for UNFSS.

To read more about the growing hunger crisis that has been exacerbated by Covid-19, visit our Food Justiles Files page.