The Corporate Capture of Food Systems

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 | News and analysis
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Left: A man gathers up the harvest, Right: A drone sprays pesticide across the fields
The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 will achieve nothing meaningful while its agenda is shaped, and its language defined, by the very corporations that have engineered our current — broken — food systems.

In October 2019, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, announced that he would host a Food Systems Summit in September 2021. Its goals would be “meeting the challenges of climate change, making food systems inclusive, and supporting sustainable peace”.

Billed as a “summit for everyone, everywhere”, the UN stated its intention to bring together the many voices of indigenous people, youth organisations, environmental activists, farmers, scientists and businesses. However, from the outset, movements, NGOs and unions — from La Via Campesina to the CSM (the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism) — expressed their concern at the way the summit was being organised.

The CSM and more than 500 organisations, including War on Want, sent a letter1 to the UN Secretary General to share their concerns about the strategic partnership agreement signed between the UN and the World Economic Forum (WEF), which grants transnational corporations preferential access to the UN system, despite them being responsible for the climate, poverty, hunger and malnutrition crises.

This agreement contradicts the UN Charter, by replacing intergovernmental decision-making processes with new institutions, built upon “multistakeholderism”2. This move erodes democratic accountability and steamrolls any attempt to prioritise human rights concerns above the creation of corporate profits.

The UN Foods Systems Summit will take place in September 2021 in New York, with a pre-conference in Rome between 25th and 27th July 2021.

Corporations and philanthropists have played an alarmingly large role in shaping the agenda for the summit. As a result, the CSM3 has highlighted, the summit lacks grounding in human rights and does not embrace the need for the urgent and deep system change necessary to create just global food systems. That is why War on Want, together with hundreds of movements and organisations across the world, joined the call to participate in the Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems on 25, 26 and 27 July 2021. Our event: A Global Green New Deal: Fixing our Broken Food Systems is available below.

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Corporate capture – a growing concern  

The corporate capture of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 (UNFSS)is part of a wider trend, denounced by civil society and academics alike, of corporations co-opting ;spaces which aim to address our broken food systems.

The most senior UN committee on agriculture, the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), established in 2009 “to facilitate multilateral policy negotiations on a wide range of critical food system issues”, is an inclusive space premised on an intergovernmental approach. The panel is accountable to civil society organisations via open consultation and through its transparently selected international steering committee. However, its new proposed replacement, the Science Policy Interface (SPI), loses much of this inclusivity.

As a result, the People’s Mobilisation notes that the new SPI has “a one-dimensional focus on modern science, ignoring many of the other knowledges (e.g., Indigenous, experiential, farmers’, tacit, feminine). Such exclusive approaches to knowledge and science tend to favour the powerful, especially the corporate sector, and to neglect the huge problems posed by conflicts of interest for research and science.”4 

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MONLAR affiliated Farmers in Sri Lanka demonstrate for their rights

The UNFSS may catalyse the HLPE’s replacement with a one-dimensional corporate mouthpiece. The SPI is likely to become a gatekeeper of truth, establishing ‘modern science’, with conclusions drawn by its own authorities, as the only way to tackle our current food system crisis. The consequent exclusion of other types of peasant and indigenous knowledge systems, such as Food Sovereignty and agroecology, which are capably tackling the current environmental degradation and climate crises, will seriously diminish meaningful climate action. 

Farmers’ movements are already beginning to challenge this corporate ownership of science by sharing and decentralising knowledge, such as the Campesino to Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) movement in Cuba and Central America, and the Zero Budget Natural Farming movement in India. Farmers are also responding to the UN Food System Summit with concrete alternatives based on food sovereignty and peasant agroecology. 

Tools for the wrong harvest 

After the Second World War, faced with the task of fighting famine and feeding growing populations, countries across the world needed to dramatically increase agricultural yields and food production on a global scale.  

Whilst technological improvements (improved breeds, pesticides) were a temporary answer to tackling the problems faced 50 years ago, the challenges, however, have changed. We no longer face issues of underproduction -- the world produces enough food to feed 10 billion people. The problem today is that we ;face issues of unequal food distribution, exploitation of people and natural resources, and increasing environmental degradation. 

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Agricultural machinery

The technology-only approaches being championed by corporations and governments will not solve the multiple crises affecting our food systems. Technological solutions are all focused on temporary fixes: whether the development of gene-driving techniques (to quickly spread desired traits among a population) to the creation of climate-resistant varieties of crops, to the application of highly hazardous pesticides, the use of blockchain-based technology5& to make fertiliser usage more efficient, to; “digital hyperlocal advice”6 - an early warning system for plant disease. 

None of these technological advances challenge the structural problems at the root of our current food system crisis. They still depend on the extensive use of harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides, maintaining seed-dependency and the damaging practice of mono-cropping on one hand; and unsurprisingly on the other, increasing the concentration of knowledge, data and technology already in the hands of just a few corporations.  

One-size-fits-all solutions aimed at the non-existent problem of increasing food production -- such as market control, monocropping and land concentration -- are only exacerbating the real issues, whilst negatively impacting millions of peasant family farmers. Embraced by governments and intergovernmental bodies alike, these one-dimensional tech quick-fixes are grotesquely promoted as "climate-smart agriculture" or "nature-positive solutions". Climate smart and nature positive they are not.

Protester at climate march holds up placard reading "Mi Futuro esta en sus manos" (My future is in your hands)

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