UN Food Systems Summit: it’s time to listen to civil society’s concerns

Guest blogger Molly Anderson kicks off a new blog series leading up to the UN’s first ever Food Systems Summit. Here, Anderson sets out practical ways for the summit’s convenors to regroup after getting off to a rocky start.

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Molly Anderson
Molly Anderson is professor of food studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury, and a member of the International Panel of Experts in Sustainable Food Systems
22 June 2021
Food year: exploring the policies and practices to transform our food systems
A series of blogs shining a light on the critical issues for food policies around the 2021 Food Systems Summit
Woman puts greens on a plate

Farmer and food vendor from the Bardege Division in Gulu District, Uganda. She produces her own food and sometimes buys from the market (Photo: Joseph Muhumuza/IIED via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

The world is falling well short of meeting Sustainable Development Goal 2 (to end hunger) by 2030, and many fear the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) will not deliver on its promise to get the world on track to genuinely transform the way food is produced, distributed and consumed. 

While the summit brings much needed political attention to food systems, there is also concern that the preparatory process is not sufficiently engaging representatives of poor and hungry people and small-scale food producers, or prioritising their agendas.

And that it is sucking up huge amounts of time and energy that would be better spent on promoting known solutions, such as the right to food, agroecology and food sovereignty. 

This is the first blog in a new series that will explores policies and practice to transform our food systems  

With climate chaos looming and biodiversity shrinking, we must make radical changes to our food systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restore degraded landscapes and habitats.

Rising inequality and the added strain of COVID-19 are leaving growing numbers of people food insecure. Farmers, pastoralists and fisher-people are struggling to nourish their own households and sell their produce or catch at fair prices. 

Food sovereignty – where local communities have democratic control over their food systems, based on human rights including the right to food and agroecology – is a widely recognised strategy to address these problems, but it is being ignored. The UNFSS is pushing in a different direction.

Problematic processes, skewed substance

In 'Frontiers in sustainable food systems', my co-authors and I explained many of the criticisms of the summit that have been raised by civil society organisations representing small-scale producers, peasants and Indigenous Peoples, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and others (see the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) communications on the UN Food Systems Summit).

First, in terms of process, the summit:

  • Was launched without the involvement of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS)
  • Is led by people with deep ties to corporations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, thus inviting serious conflicts of interest between the public good and private profit-seeking
  • Promotes ‘multi-stakeholderism’, which does not put representatives of poor and hungry people centre-stage, and tends to best serve the most powerful without accountability
  • Lacks transparency regarding decision-making and how funds are allocated, and
  • Is structured in convoluted and ever-proliferating layers of action tracks, action areas and other entities with no clarity about how themes or leaders are selected.

Second, in terms of substance, the summit:

  • ignores the devastation COVID-19 has wrought on societies (which affects people’s ability to engage in virtual meetings) and evidence of the resilience of localised food systems
  • Fails to set human rights as a fundamental principle of engagement
  • Ignores civil society’s significant previous work on food system transformation
  • Ignored requests from the largest civil society assembly, the CSM, to establish an action track on the transformation of corporate food systems that is led by civil society, and
  • Legitimises a narrow technology-biased view of science and policy.

But now the summit is just months away, we must consider how to get the best possible outcomes, and prepare for damage control.

Don’t sideline the CFS

First, there’s real danger the UNFSS will undermine support for the CFS, the UN’s most inclusive platform for considering all issues connected with food systems and nutrition. How? By establishing new governance channels based on multi-stakeholder partnerships, a mechanism imported from corporate governance that will bypass the CFS. 

Multi-stakeholder partnerships allow the very businesses that have given us obesogenic foods, greenhouse gas emissions and agrochemicals – and that stubbornly resist regulation of their labour and environmental practices – to ‘help’ devise solutions. By trumpeting the ‘inclusivity’ of the summit, the UNFSS is presenting itself as a legitimate and authoritative voice.

The CFS – while not perfect – offers an established and equitable space for negotiating and transforming food system policies. Since its 2009 reform it operates through multilateralism or negotiation among member states and has given the CSM a seat at the table.  Member states are accountable duty-bearers to support human rights, and policymakers are responsible for implementing food system changes at the national level. 

Scientific group: don’t let technology take over and don’t subvert the High-Level Panel of Experts

Second, the scientific group of the UNFSS has expressed interest in setting up a new science-policy interface for food systems – a kind of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but on food. 

Who will participate? We fear it would be the members and friends of the scientific group, which comprises natural scientists and economists with a strong predilection for technological innovation, trade liberalisation and global value chains.

They emphasise data and digitalisation, without looking at consequences and control issues. ‘Science-technology-innovation’ seems to have replaced ‘science’ in the scientific group’s outputs, as if the only purpose of science is to push technology. 

The group has no members who are well-versed in agroecology, traditional and Indigenous knowledge, human rights or transition science. Why is an ‘IPCC on food’ needed, given the High-Level Panel of Experts of the CFS is already serving this role competently and transparently, with abundant opportunities for input to its reports and recommendations?   

Real transformation to meet SDG2

The UNFSS is barrelling along through virtual ‘dialogues’ involving ‘experts’ at a time when the poorest, most food insecure communities are devastated by COVID-19 and unequal access to vaccines. Many people from social movements in these countries, who grow most of the world’s food yet are the most food-insecure, are being left out of virtual forums. 

We cannot continue to operate in a food system that only allows wealthy people and wealthy countries to make the rules determining who gets to eat, what they can eat, and who profits from food system labour. 

And we cannot continue to support food systems that are destroying ecosystems and making people sick. It’s essential to grow support for the CFS among all member states and for alternative bottom-up solutions, such as food sovereignty and agroecology, that will deliver healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems for all, particularly the most marginalised and vulnerable.