Corporate food systems grab should not get UN approval

Small scale farmers and social movements are mobilizing to fight the corporate takeover of food systems ahead of a UN food summit

The UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment in Rome next week can help to tighten the grip of industrial agriculture on food systems, with disastrous consequences for health, climate and livelihoods write Shalmali Guttal and Sofia Monsalve in openDemocracy.

The first United Nations’ Food Systems Summit held two years ago was supposed to address lack of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. It was dubbed a “people’s summit” by the organizers but caused an outcry among the people who feed most of the planet when their calls to roll back the power of transnational corporations were cynically ignored.

Inviting the fox into the henhouse

Corporations that dominate global food systems, such as Bayer and Nestlé used the summit to promote greenwashing initiatives and techno-fixes rather than address pressing problems such as food speculation and the impact of COVID 19 on world hunger.

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a foundation partly funded by processed food and consumer goods giant Unilever, headed discussions on eradicating hunger, while transnational corporations were invited to discuss solutions to problems they had largely created. The whole event was an excellent opportunity for them to identify new profit-making ventures and to capture the global narrative of “food systems transformation”

More than a thousand small scale food producer associations, Indigenous Peoples groups, academics and social movements boycotted the event – which was widely criticized by UN human rights experts and others. An existing, more inclusive, forum in the UN Committee on World Food Security was sidelined.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food Michael Fakhri described it as “inviting the fox right into the henhouse”.

Transnational corporations are accountable above all to their shareholders and driven by profits. They have a poor track record of promoting the common good, and preventing land grabbing, malnutrition or overuse of pesticides.

Food is a common good and access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right enshrined in UN covenants. These are the issues that governments and the UN should focus resources on.

Agribusiness vs small farmers

Instead, the UN will hold another food systems summit next week, which looks set to further consolidate corporate control over food and natural resources.

Hundreds of grassroots groups have called out the UN, saying they are still being excluded and claiming the summit is “poised to repeat the failures” of two years ago and want to see fundamental change in food systems.

A handful of agribusinesses control more than 70% of the world’s farmland. Smallholder famers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples, who use agroecology and other sustainable practices, feed 70% of the world’s population with just 10% of global farmland.

Agriculture is responsible for nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost 90 percent of deforestation and 80 percent of biodiversity loss, the bulk of which can be attributed to industrial agriculture and agribusiness operations.

The disruption of global fertilizer supply chains has been a major focus of the UN's response to the global food crisis. But the dangers of market concentration which make food systems extremely fragile to shocks have been largely ignored.

In just the last five years the world’s nine largest fertilizer companies – with nearly 40 % of global synthetic fertilizer sales – have tripled their profits. Rocketing fertilizer prices have less to do with disrupted supply chains than quasi monopolies. 

Despite all this and the growing global obesity pandemic, for which consumption of ultra-processed industrial food bears a major responsibility, the UN continues to empower corporations. Instead it should address structural inequalities such as land concentration, so that peasant agroecology can have a real chance to flourish and make a significant contribution to tackling hunger, climate change and biodiversity loss.

Industrial agriculture has failed

A dystopian future where a handful of corporations control everything we eat is just around the corner, if we do not resist now.

About 60% of all calories consumed worldwide come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn and soy. Everyone is vulnerable if we are over dependent on global corporate-controlled supply chains. Industrial agriculture has failed to address rising levels of hunger and malnutrition which are now at an estimated 828 million.

The global governance of food is being hijacked by corporate interests. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization receives less than a third of its USD 3.25 billion budget from the world’s governments, making it dependent on “voluntary contributions” – including from corporations and their proxies – for the rest.

But there is an alternative.

We are facing a stark choice between unsustainable, exploitative, corporate-controlled food systems and diverse, locally sourced ecological food that prioritizes the needs and rights of those most affected by the hunger, climate, and health crises.

It is time the UN and the governments of the world wake up to this fact and change course.

Shalmali Guttal is executive director of Focus on the Global South and a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES).

Sofia Monsalve is secretary general of FIAN International and a member of IPES.

Read FIAN's latest report on corporate capture of global food systems here.

For more information or media interviews please contact Clara Roig Medina, FIAN International Digital Communications:

An abridged version of this article entitled UN should be learning from sustainable food producers – not hosting Big Ag was first published on July 23, 2023 by openDemocracy under a creative commons license.


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