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OPINION: UN summit stays silent on root causes of our failing food system

Thursday, 23 September 2021 10:53 GMT

Farmers harvest rice in a field in the province of Al-Sharkia, northeast of Cairo, Egypt, September 21, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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The global forum has wasted the chance to consider real alternatives to our corporate-led, environmentally harmful ways of producing what we eat

It should have been a leap forward for the future of the planet, but instead it’s been a textbook example of how not to run a summit. The UN Food Systems Summit was designed to turn the page on our failing food system and point the way towards a climate-resilient, food-secure, and equitable future. Instead, we’re back to square one: a grab bag of good, bad, and ugly ‘solutions,’ yet a deafening silence on the root causes of the problems we face.

An international summit on food was long overdue. Our food system doesn’t work for humans, animals, or the planet. Food production pumps out vast quantities of greenhouse gases that warm the planet, responsible for 37% of emissions. We’re experiencing rising levels of obesity and malnutrition while progress on hunger has gone into reverse, with a tenth of the world’s population going hungry last year

Transforming the way we produce, process, and consume food is key to addressing all these problems. The summit was a critical opportunity to secure the kind of changes that simply don’t happen outside of these exceptional moments. So, what went wrong?

Excessive corporate influence over the summit – a sector largely responsible for the dire state of food systems – has caused controversy from the outset.

The summit formed a close partnership with the World Economic Forum, a private-sector organisation set up to defend business interests, and was co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose private sector connections are no secret.

This sparked a boycott by groups representing peasant farmers and small-holder producers through to international NGOs

Their concerns were well-founded. Food and agri-business talked the talk on food system transformation in the build-up to the summit, nodding to climate, livelihoods, nature, transparency and more. But there are no guarantees corporations will walk the walk if governments don’t hold them to account.

Lack of ambition has been another major obstacle to success. The case for wholesale reform has never been clearer: new figures last week found that 87% of global agricultural subsidies, totalling $540 billion, are damaging to climate, nature, and human health. Yet the Summit failed to chart a clear course towards more sustainable food production.

Agroecology has been found to increase crop yields by almost 80%, improve people’s access to food and reduce hunger, boost farmers’ earnings, and build resilience in the face of floods, droughts, and other shocks but it remains severely underfunded. 

While the summit produced some commitments on subsidy reform, and a handful of governments are starting to take agroecology seriously, most funds will continue to prop up a more-or-less business-as-usual approach.

For example, the summit has been used as a launchpad for AIM, a US climate initiative to increase support for ‘climate smart’ agriculture that is largely focused on ameliorating the climate impacts of the current – heavily polluting – approach to food production rather than shifting to genuinely sustainable agricultural systems. 

The summit has also been used to fundraise for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an initiative bankrolled by the Gates Foundation and headed up by Agnes Kalibata, the summit's special envoy. More money for AGRA means more top-down solutions designed for Africans, not with them.

The summit’s final calling card has been a top-down, non-transparent way of working. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ‘Scientific Group,’ which was set up to fast-track advice to policymakers, but which has come under fire over its bias in favour of industry friendly, high-tech solutions


Organisers have been forced to abandon plans to turn this group into a permanent body but attempts to advance this version of science will outlive the summit – threatening to undermine the crucial work done by existing institutions, such as the Committee on World Food Security, whose scientific body brings together a more diverse range of voices including producers and civil society. 

Together, these failures have delivered a summit that has taken us further away from the real solutions on food and climate. So where do we go from here?

Getting back on track means building consensus around ideas, like agroecology, that have been proven to make a difference. To do that, governments must build on, not undermine, existing institutions, such as the Committee on Food Security, which have the buy-in and genuine participation from people on the frontlines of the food, health, and climate crisis. This is the right forum to take back the agenda of transforming our food systems and take forward the ideas that will deliver it. 

The climate and biodiversity summits give us another chance to get food system transformation on the table. Governments need to recognise this opportunity and put a fair and sustainable food system at the heart of a deal to cut CO2 and methane emissions, at the heart of a deal to cut deforestation, and at the heart of spending decisions. 

The Food Systems Summit has served up business as usual dressed as something new. In the face of urgent climate, health, and environmental crises, we can’t afford to make that mistake again.