Social Movements And Scientists Are Challenging the UN Food Systems Summit’s Agenda

The U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) will take place in New York on September 23. But more than 300 civil society organizations and Indigenous groups are boycotting the event due to concerns over exclusion from the agenda-setting process.

The U.N. Secretary General announced the convening of the UNFSS on World Food Day 2019 to drive meaningful change in the food system and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Since its inception, the Summit has promised to engage stakeholders from across the food system, including farmers and fishers, governments, businesses, and civil society.

But as planning for the UNFSS proceeded, food systems leaders began to question the private sector’s influence in its organization. Dr. Olivier De Schutter and Olivia Yambi, co-chairs of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), critiqued the “opaque process leading up to the Food Systems Summit.” The Summit, they write, emerged “from closed-door negotiations between the U.N. and the World Economic Forum (WEF),” with leadership roles going “to the proponents of high-tech, high-cost ‘green revolution’ approaches.”

Civil society organizations also worry that the technological solutions being proposed by the UNFSS will threaten the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, peasants, and Indigenous peoples, since they have not been meaningfully consulted in these processes.

The ETC Group finds that 70 percent of the world’s population is fed by a diverse network of small-scale producers and peasants, and that this group uses less than 25 percent of the resources necessary in agricultural production. In contrast, the industrial food chain feeds only 30 percent of the world, while using over 75 percent of resources.

“Farmers’ traditional knowledge of food systems, and of methods like agroecology, is one of the most valuable resources that we have,” Thea Walmsley, Communications Manager at A Growing Culture (AGC), tells Food Tank. As a farmers’ rights organization, AGC is supporting and amplifying civil society groups in their efforts to counter the summit.

Despite sharing these concerns, some groups are still participating in the UNFSS, hoping to influence its outcomes. For example, youth campaigners of the initiative Act4Food Act4Change are working to give young people a voice at the UNFSS.

Youth leaders of Act4Food Act4Change will deliver a set of demands to the UNFSS co-signed by more than 100,000 young people from across the world, urging leaders to prioritize individual, community, and planetary health in the food system.

“As young people we’re powerful, we can take action,” Lana Weidgenant, youth leader of Act4Food Act4Change, tells Food Tank. “But we need the support of the decision-makers in, for instance, governance and business.”

But some civil society groups feel that intervention is no longer enough, and are pulling out entirely. IPES-Food has withdrawn its involvement, and international peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina (LVC), recently announced that they are also boycotting the summit.

The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), a member of LVC, are pulling out over concerns that the UNFSS is prioritizing profit over human rights. “The multistakeholderism of the process fails to center those who would be most impacted by any policies,” Dee Woods, Food Justice Policy Coordinator at LWA, tells Food Tank.

Woods believes that “hard-fought for democratic and inclusive processes within the U.N.,” are being bypassed in setting the agenda. This includes the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), which brought greater representation of small-scale producers to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), giving rise to discussions of food sovereignty and agroecology in food systems debates.

Civil society organizations “have been invited to ‘participate’ in the Summit, but only in the shallow sense, meaning being able to join sessions or ‘give their input,’” says Walmsley.

In response to the lack of democratic decision-making at the Summit, and the erasure of peasants’ rights in talks, several counter-mobilizations to the UNFSS are springing up across the world.

In June, the LWA held its own virtual People’s Food Summit for organizations and individuals in the UK food justice movement. They are also planning a three-day, in-person People’s Food Summit for 2022.

And the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems, organized by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), will bring together rural peoples, peasant organizations, and civil society groups. This Global South-led counter-summit plans to develop a People’s Action Plan to transform the food system.

Walmsley hopes these counter-mobilizations “will raise awareness about the lack of equity that exists in conversations about the future of food systems.”

“We want to build a movement that is modeling the change for agroecological futures based on diversity, reciprocity, human rights, justice and equity,” Woods tells Food Tank, “one that stands in solidarity with other struggles and people across the globe.”

Photo courtesy of Aboodi Vesakaran, Unsplash. 

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