The UN Food Systems Summit: How Not to Respond to the Urgency of Reform

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Opinion

At a critical juncture on the road to the UN Food Systems Summit, three UN rights experts warn that it will fail to be a ‘people’s summit’ unless it is urgently rethought.

NEW YORK, Mar 22 2021 (IPS) – Global food systems have been failing most people for a long time, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made a critical situation even worse. 265 million people are threatened by famine, up 50% on last year; 700 million suffer from chronic hunger; and 2 billion more from malnutrition, with obesity and associated diet-related diseases increasing in all world regions.


Michael Fakhri

Everyone agrees that we need urgent solutions and action. The convening of this year’s UN Food Systems Summit by Secretary General António Guterres was therefore welcome. However, as we move towards critical junctures on the road to the Summit, we remain deeply concerned that this ‘people’s summit’ will fail the people it claims to be serving.

After more than a year of deliberations, the Summit participants will meet this October in New York to present “principles to guide governments and other stakeholders looking to leverage their food systems” to support the Sustainable Development Goals. We will be told that the outcomes have been endorsed by the civil society groups who took part, with ‘solutions’ crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of people around the world. And if other solutions are not there, we will be told that this is because their proponents refused to come to the table.

But coming to the table to discuss ‘solutions’ is not as simple as it sounds. What if the table is already set, the seating plan non-negotiable, the menu highly limited? And what if the real conversation is actually happening at a different table?

These concerns are still as pressing today as they were on day one.

First, the Summit initially bypassed the bodies already doing the very hard work of governing global food systems. The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) already has the structure that the Summit organizers have been hastily reconstructing: a space for discussing the future of food systems, a comprehensive commitment to the right to food, mechanisms for involving civil society and the private sector on their own terms, and a panel of experts regularly providing cutting-edge reports. In other words, everyone is already at the table. The Summit has flagrantly – and perhaps deliberately – shifted governments’ attention away from the CFS.

Hilal Elver

Second, the Summit’s rules of engagement were determined by a small set of actors. The private sector, organizations serving the private sector (notably the World Economic Forum), scientists, and economists initiated the process. The table was set with their perspectives, knowledge, interests and biases. Investors and entrepreneurs working in partnership with scientists framed the agenda, and governments and civil society actors were invited to work within those parameters. Inevitably, that has meant a focus on what the small group saw as scalable, investment-friendly, ‘game-changing’ solutions – the bread and butter of Davos. Reading between the lines, this means AI-controlled farming systems, gene editing, and other high-tech solutions geared towards large-scale agriculture.

As a result, the ideas that should have been the starting point for a ‘people’s summit’ have effectively been shut out. For over a decade, farmers, fishers, pastoralists, and food workers have been demanding a food system transformation rooted in food sovereignty and agroecology. This vision is based on redesigning, re-diversifying, and re-localizing farming systems. It requires that economic assumptions be questioned, human rights be protected, and power be rebalanced.

Some concessions have been made on the road to the Summit. But these changes have been too late, or too cosmetic, to impact meaningfully the process. Only in November was the CFS added to the Summit’s Advisory Committee. And only this month was the FAO’s Right to Food office invited to participate (with a limited mandate). Presumably there will be further changes at the margins: human rights will be mentioned in general terms, agroecology will be included as one of many solutions.

Olivier De Schutter

But this will not be enough to make the Summit outcomes legitimate for those of us — inside and outside the process — who remain skeptical. Having all served as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, we have witnessed first-hand the importance of improving accountability and democracy in food systems, and the value of people’s local and traditional knowledge. It is deeply concerning that we had to spend a year persuading the convenors that human rights matter for this UN Secretary General’s Food Systems Summit. It is also highly problematic that issues of power, participation, and accountability (i.e. how and by whom will the outcomes be delivered) remain unresolved.

Those of us who came to the Summit table did so in the hope that we could fundamentally change the course. As the end-game approaches, we still hope that this is possible. But radical change is needed:

    ● The right to food must be central to all aspects of the Summit, with attention on holding those with power accountable;
    ● Agroecology should be recognized as a paradigm (if not the paradigm) for transforming food systems, alongside actionable recommendations to support agroecological transition;
    ● The CFS should be designated as the home of the Summit outcomes, and the place where it is discussed and implemented, using its inclusive participation mechanisms.

In other words, to make this a people’s summit, the table needs to be urgently re-set.

Michael Fakhri is the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
Hilal Elver served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2014-2020.
Olivier De Schutter served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2008-2014, and is the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and co-chair of IPES-Food.

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Indigenous Knowledge, a Lesson for a Sustainable Food Future

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BCFN Yes winner Geraldin Lengai is researching bio-integrated crop management among tomato farmers in Tanzania. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

MILAN, Italy, Dec 4 2019 (IPS) – Local knowledge systems rooted in traditional practices and culture passed down generations provide sustainable solutions to food and nutritional insecurity on the back of climate change, a conference heard this week.


More than 370 million indigenous people, living in 70 countries, make up just 6 percent of the global population, according to the United Nations. But their food systems are models of diet diversity, innovation, conservation and local adaptability the world can benefit from in the face of risks such as climate change, delegates at the 10th Forum on Food and Nutrition convened by the Barilla Centre heard.

Speaking at a panel session on Preserving Mother Earth, Food Culture, Local Traditions and Biodiversity, Mattia Prayer Galletti, lead technical specialist on indigenous peoples and tribal issues at IFAD, said indigenous peoples have a connection with nature. They understand the concept of sustainability and the protection of natural resources.

IFAD has promoted an Indigenous People’s Forum to foster dialogue and consultant among indigenous people organisations and IFAD member countries. Through this Forum, IFAD has supported the economic empowerment of indigenous people, particularly women and the youth. IFAD has also contributed to the improvement in livelihoods of indigenous peoples through the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility which has provided small grants of up to US$50 000 for development projects.

He said indigenous food systems provide food security and biodiversity because indigenous communities have cultivated resilient foods, making them ideal in adapting to climate change. This despite the growing threats indigenous communities have faced, including marginalisation, loss of their ancestral lands and the destruction of their way of life.

Dali Nolasco Cruz, an advisory board member of the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) from Mexico. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

Dali Nolasco Cruz, an advisory board member of the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) from Mexico, concurred saying indigenous people are being criminalised and killed by big powers that are extracting natural resources in their lands.

“We need alliances, we need to fight for Mother Earth,” Cruz said, “We need to transform our livelihoods by protecting the Earth to help others.”

Indigenous Innovations for food security

Indigenous knowledge provides innovations researchers are convinced can provide models for promoting resilience in our current food systems. Several researchers shared their on-going work on this.

Martina Occelli, a PhD student at the Santa Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, is undertaking multidisciplinary research on how smallholder farmer’s collective knowledge is shaping soil productivity in the Gera Gera region of Ethiopia among 300 smallholder farmers. The research has shown that collective knowledge within and between households which farmers learnt from their fathers was relevant in determining the soil ability, which is critical in food production and resilience.

Martina Occelli speaks at the 10th International Forum on Food and Nutrition. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

Occelli is a winner of 2018 BCFN Yes international multidisciplinary contest launched by the BCFN Foundation in 2012 to support research on promoting the intersection of food sustainability and environmental sustainability.

Geraldin Lengai, another BCFN Yes winner, is researching on enhancing sustainable agriculture through the adoption of bio-integrated crop management among tomato farmers in Tanzania comparing conventional and non-conventional farming methods. Her research expects to provide insights into the use of organic pesticide properties of ginger and turmeric – cash crops grown by farmers in Tanzania – in fighting pests and diseases in vegetables. Also, she has researched the efficacy of organic fertilisers such as goat manure and chicken manure on the productivity of the spice coriander and amaranthus, a plant cultivated as a vegetable.

“Sustainable agriculture is important because you need a doctor once in a while, but you need the farmer at least three times a day,” Lengai told IPS. “I believe people should have access to food that is safe and healthy. How we produce the food, process it and how the food reaches the end consumer is the business of sustainable agriculture, and my research is on crop protection because people use crop protection synthetically yet there are alternatives that nature has provides. Before synthetic pesticides, our forefathers used tobacco to control insects, and if we can look at other plants that have the same capacity, we can promote sustainable agriculture.”

Lengai said the benefits of manure has in producing vegetables and the near to zero cost for farmers who keep animals means farmers have a sustainable fertiliser for organic produce which is attractive for global markets. Citing the case of pesticides with the Kenya market for French beans, Lengai said organic produce had secured international markets which have traceability systems in place.

“Growing organic vegetables and using organic pesticides and fertilisers is a win-win for everybody for the environment, for the farmer for the consumer,” said Lengai. She added that synthetic pesticides are favoured because they are easy to apply and cheaper – but come at a cost to the environment and health.

 

Fixing the Business of Food

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Delegates grappled with getting the business of food right. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

MILAN, Italy, Dec 4 2019 (IPS) – Milan is the city where Leonardo da Vinci painted his iconic Last Supper. Frozen in time is the moment Christ told his disciples there was a traitor among them. Visitors to the painting can examine the expressions on the faces of the disciples and look the food they might have eaten – the bread and wine, and of course the spilt salt. As one delegate to the 10th International Forum on Food and Nutrition noted, the diet did not seem varied or healthy.


Several centuries later, with the spotlight firmly on the state of our planet, global warming, delegates grappled solutions for producing and consuming food, nutrition and the state of the earth. Taking centre stage was the question of the roles, activists, workers, businesses and leadership play in the food cycle.

Mario Monti, Senator for Life of the Italian Republic; articulated the challenge succinctly. The forum with the theme Fostering Business and Innovation while preserving Mother Earth he said, provided a “beautiful challenge” dedicated to securing food for people to inhabit the planet.

Ertharin Cousin, from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, referred to a conundrum that while in the United States 1450 deals were signed across 1000 agri-food tech start-ups none of the businesses focused on addressing the challenges of low-income people.

It was clear from the presentation by Jeremy Oppenheim, Founder and Managing Partner, SYSTEMIQ the food system’s hidden costs amounting to $12 trillion, including food subsidies – that the food system is dysfunctional.

Many speakers alluded to resolving the conundrum involving complex interplays between activism; innovative business practice and digital innovation, financing and political commitment.

Changing the culture of business and financing of companies was considered a major consideration which needed change to fix the food system.

Ben Valk, Lead Food and Agriculture Benchmark, commented that, for example, there were solutions which reduce the pressure on land and therefore on deforestation.

“First things we should do is to start to implement those solutions,” he said, but added that it astonishing to that so little money was allocated towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Change was needed and money allocated to sport for, example, should be reduced to ensure the SDGs were achieved.

Charlotte Ersbøll, representing the United Nations Global Compact, commented that businesses should be aware that employees were committed to sustainable practices. She referred to a study done in the US where half of all the staff would accept a salary cut if they were if they could work for a more climate-friendly company. “And if you look at the millennials, it would be two thirds. And, and all of them were frustrated that they really didn’t see the companies following through and really taking the lead.”

Oppenheim concluded his presentation with a note of caution. People at the conference were the converted, people already finding and looking at solutions to food and nutrition.

“What we need to do is to take this room and have thousands of rooms of like this … The real opportunity is to take this agenda to seize it with both hands to translate it into massive business opportunities.”

 

Right to Food Denied by Poor Policies and Inaction

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MILAN, Italy, Dec 3 2019 (IPS) – Global food systems are ripe for transformation if people are to be nourished and the planet sustainable, says Hilal Elver, Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food of the United Nations Human Rights Council.


Hilal Elver, Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food of the United Nations Human Rights Council speaking at the 10th International Forum on Food and Nutrition convened in Milan. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

Elver, told delegates at the 1oth International Forum on Food and Nutrition convened in Milan by the Barilla Centre, that the world needs food citizens who will act responsibly in promoting food equality and reducing food waste, which underlie global food and nutrition insecurity in the world today.

Food citizens are responsible for protecting the right to food through multi-actor actions including promoting a conducive environment that will secure food for all while promoting dialogue around food access, production and equitable distribution.

Citing the situation in Zimbabwe, Elver said the food crisis was a blot on the right to food that the world must respond to with urgency.

“The situation in Zimbabwe in mind boggling,” said Elver who has just returned from a mission to Zimbabwe to access the situation. “We need to know what is going as we talk about the need to diet, many in Zimbabwe eat once a day if they are lucky and food aid basically maize, just one meal a day. .. This is a very serious issue that we do not know it beyond the sustainable.”

Elver spoke with IPS on her mission to Zimbabwe. Excerpts of the interview:

IPS: You have just come back from Zimbabwe, what did you see?

Zimbabwe is an amazing country but if it facing a lot of challenges. It does not have basic public services and only four hours a day electricity and I understand that and government buildings, companies and some restaurants are using generators. But also you need fuel for the generators and for your car – if you have money to buy gas (fuel). The system is collapsing. People do not have time to work, because they either have to wait for gas for hours and hours and have to wait in front of the banks to get cash and 24 hours and transportation is very expensive. It is a vicious cycle and something should give in internally and externally because this has affected the food situation in the country too.

What has these challenges mean for the right to food?

That is a major problem. The root causes are a man-made journey to starvation. Every person in Zimbabwe has a responsibility to act. It did not come from drought. Yes drought is there. Other countries had a drought. Zambia had a drought, Mozambique had a drought and Cyclone Idai but Mozambique had huge aid from outside and Zimbabwe only got ten percent of it because of the sanctions.

What has been the impact of sanction on food security?

The intentional community should consider lifting the sanction because sanctions in the 20 years have had multiple impacts on the ordinary people’s lives. They talk about the targeted sanction but the sanctions are targeted by US, UK and EU, they are living perfectly fine and they do not travel a lot outside as they are high level government officials. It is okay for them but for the ordinary people it is not. They are suffering because all the international aid is blocked in one way or another. Investment is not coming. No one wants to invest in a country under sanctions.

Ask the IMF or World Bank why they cannot give the money to them. All the money they try to help Zimbabwe with goes to the NGOs and international organisations. If you are given $100 million, the people on the ground only get 20 percent of it. This is bad and this must change.

Is lifting sanctions everything to get Zimbabwe out of its challenges?

That is an important question. The government should make some democratic reforms, the freedom of speech, and freedom of association and give the opportunities to the people because the people are peaceful. The first thing is that the government should sit together with the opposition and all parties in a democratic manner and to think about how they can help their people together.

Land reform has been done in the last 20 years gradually here and there and there has been some kind of complaints as to why white farmers need compensation and black farmers are dysfunctional, these are myths going round. Black farmers are dysfunctional because they did not get any help from the government. You need first of all credit and you need technical help and you need seed and the government is in a terrible shape to give all these things. Of course there is disfunctionality but they cannot access resources there is land but they cannot do anything with it. If people find one square metres of land they just produce on it. The main problem is this corn based reliance. People are so obsessed with sadza, who brought maize to Zimbabwe? We should think about that.

Are you saying food diversification is a solution to the food problem?

Of course. The traditional food in Africa is very much good for the environmental conditions. Traditional small grains do to need too much water like maize and they should go back to this.

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Tradition and Technology Take Centre Stage at BCFN Food Forum

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Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

MILAN, Italy, Dec 3 2019 (IPS) – A coffee producer will receive a cent and a half from a $2.50 cup of coffee. This one stark fact stood out as scientists, researchers, activists and grappled with solutions for change in food and nutrition practises, which would benefit the greater community.


While the solutions are many – slow food to artificial intelligence – it was clear that the delegates were united around one idea: Key to the solution is to ensure that the solutions need to be put in the hands of the broad community – not just in the hands of the powerful.

This also needs the commitment of every sector of society – from multi-national businesses to small scale local farmers.

This message was reinforced by Guido Barilla, founder of the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition at the 10th International Forum on Food and Nutrition. The forum had the theme of Fostering Business and Innovation while preserving Mother Earth.

He urged all stakeholders come together and educate on the importance of sustainable and virtuous food systems.

Professor Angelo Riccaboni agreed – cooperation between institutions, corporations, NGOs, philanthropic institution and academia was crucial for changing the trajectory.

Ertharin Cousin reminded delegates that biologist Paul Ehrlich once predicted large scale famines, particularly in India – but through innovation in the agricultural sector and community of actors involved in the Green Revolution, these grim visions were overcome.

Even so, she said the challenges are huge – and research suggests that by 2030 half the world’s population would suffer from some form of malnutrition, whether from a shortage of food or micronutrient deficiency.

Delegates debate at the 10th International Forum on Food and Nutrition in Milan. Credit: Busani Bafana / IPS

Jeremy Oppenheim, founder of Systemiq, who used the example of the cup of coffee pointed out how starkly pointed out how unequal the chain of production, processing, distribution, consumption and the way it is disposed of requires a radical overall.

The mixed signals were unhelpful, he said.

“We’re sending all these mixed signals, every single day to people … In the next in the run up to Christmas again in the UK, food companies, and retailers will spend, 100 billion pounds – advertising largely unhealthy food.”

Mattia Galletti , IFAD Technical specialist, pointed out 70 million people in the world belong to different indigenous people and in studies in the Amazon, for example, where indigenous farming is practised there was no deforestation.

Carlo Petrini, Founder and President, Slow Food International, agreed. Local communities had the solution in their “DNA” and had essential answers to the critical problems of climate change.

“The biggest challenge today is climate change, and politicians are still ridiculing youth asking for climate justice,” says Petrini.

However, he warned that the economy needed to change – one that was rooted in local communities and not in the hands of a few. It was only then that sustainable development could be achieved. Any other solution was just “blah, blah, blah”, he warned.

However, Galina Peycheva-Miteva suggested that the “idea of farming” had to change.

“Farming is not considered prestigious by the young generation. We have to modernize and digitize farming. We have to make farming attractive again.”

If the return to traditional technologies and systems was a big discussion, so too was the use of modern technologies and artificial intelligence as a solution to food security and diet. The technology could be harnessed for everything from testing the soil, to encouraging people, through the use of Apps, to follow healthy diets.

What is clear, though, is that there needs to be a shared agenda for the future.

“We need everyone to work together, we must travel the same road. We need lawmakers to enact clear rules,” Barilla concluded.

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