New hunger report spotlights controversial UN Food Systems Summit 

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Hunger and malnourishment increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a sobering United Nations report released Monday. The report is the first comprehensive assessment of hunger since the pandemic struck, and estimates a 25% increase in the number of severely undernourished people across the globe. While no region of the world was spared, Africa was the hardest-hit. The report estimates that more than a third of the continent’s population is undernourished.

“Nearly 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food in 2020”

Hunger and malnutrition have been worsening for over a decade, the report notes, due to conflicts, economic recessions and climate extremes. But the pandemic “continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems,” UN leaders said, warning that we are at a “critical juncture” to transform food systems. They pointed to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) this September, the COP26 on climate change in November, and December’s Nutrition for Growth Summit as crucial events that will shape how food systems develop in the years ahead. The Food Systems Pre-Summit kicks off in Rome on July 26.  

These events are mired in controversy, however. For over a year, the Food Systems Summit has sparked criticism, protests and calls for boycotts from food security experts, UN insiders and hundreds of organizations from Africa and other countries. A chief concern of the critics is the dominant role of large corporations and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, which are pushing a narrow set of approaches for profit-driven agricultural development. African groups described the approach as “business-as-usual, quick-technofix policy prescriptions of the agribusiness agendas.” What is needed instead, these groups said, is a “radical shift from fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture and corporate monopolies of food and agriculture to food sovereignty and agroecology.” 

Sharp criticism of food summit

Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, described the criticisms of the UNFSS in a concise July 14 post in her Food Politics blog. “The criticisms are so severe,” she wrote, “that the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism for relations with the UN is organizing counter events July 25-27.”

From Nestle’s post, “The Summit has been heavily criticized on the grounds that it:

  • Sets agenda themes determined by corporate entities such as The World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation.
  • Favors corporate technological solutions to food system problems.
  • Ignores agroecology, organic farming, and indigenous knowledge.
  • Excludes meaningful representation from people most affected by food system transformation.
  • Promotes corporate control of food systems.
  • Ignores the conflicted interests of its organizers.
  • Is fundamentally undemocratic.”

Many groups have written statements critiquing the UNFSS. U.S. Right to Know is posting these statements, along with reports and news coverage about the food summit controversy and the influence of the Gates Foundation. See, Critiques of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural interventions in Africa.

High stakes battle over food system governance  

Billions of dollars in public and private investments to improve food systems are at stake through the food summit negotiations, according to Michael Fahkri, the UN rapporteur on the right to food. He and other UN insiders have harshly criticized the summit’s leaders, describing a process that is ignoring human rights, marginalizing civil society and  restructuring the UN process to shift power away from the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) into the hands of a small set of private sector actors.  

“the UN-WEF partnership is helping to establishing ‘stakeholder capitalism’ as a governance model for the entire planet.”

Civil Society Mechanism

The High Level Panel of Experts on food security and nutrition, which advises the CFS, called in 2019 for a paradigm shift away from industrial agricultural and toward agroecological approaches and policies that address social needs and inequality. Rather than follow the direction of its expert panel, however, the UN has allowed what observers describe as an agribusiness takeover of food system negotiations. The 2021 UNFSS was announced alongside a new partnership agreement between the UN and World Economic Forum, the first of its kind. UN Secretary General António Guterres then appointed Agnes Kalibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to lead the food summit.

These moves sparked outrage from hundreds of groups who called for termination of the WEF agreement and asked for Kalibata’s appointment to be revoked over concerns that AGRA “promotes a high input agricultural model is not sustainable beyond constant subsidy, which is drawn from increasingly scarce public resources.” Although Kalibata vowed the summit would consider all stakeholders’ interests, tensions continue to mount.  

In a new report published last week, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) described a problematic new science-policy framework and governance structure that is being proposed through the food summit. If adopted, the plan could marginalize the CFS, its expert panel and civil society groups even further, effectively excluding them from UN decision-making processes. IPES described the situation as “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems. This, in turn, is part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.”

IPES has also raised concerns about a restructuring process now underway to unify the CGIAR — a network of 15 agricultural research centers that have major influence over how food systems develop in the Global South — into “One CGIAR” under a centralized board. The proposed restructuring, also led by a Gates Foundation representative, “fails to equip CGIAR for the urgently needed paradigm shift in food systems.”

Transforming African food systems 

Sub-Saharan Africa is ground zero for the debate over food systems transformation. More than 40 million people in the region are at risk of increased hunger and poverty as countries grapple with multiple shocks from the pandemic and climate change. Many African groups say that current market-based agricultural development models driven by external actors, including the Gates Foundation, are worsening the situation.

In March, hundreds of faith groups and people of faith from Africa asked the Gates Foundation to stop promoting “a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people.” The groups wrote their letter “out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”

“The same false solutions are being recycled, with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors.”

African Centre for Biodiversity

In a May letter to summit leader Agnes Kalibata, the 50-member African Food Sovereignty Alliance called for a new paradigm of agricultural development on the continent. “Development interventions to date … reinforce indebtedness, inequalities and social exclusion,” the groups wrote. The current models “deepen dependency on destructive, short-sighted and short-lived fossil fuel and capital intensive projects, and global agricultural and forest value chains, which all contribute to creating conditions for extreme vulnerability to shocks.”

In June, the Alliance said their concerns about UNFSS were not addressed and so they will not participate. In a July 6 article in Scientific American, AFSA’s leaders also called on Bill Gates to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.” 

Documents posted earlier this year by USRTK describe how UN dialogues in Africa, held in preparation for the summit, were heavily skewed in favor of policy proposals that benefit private industry. The documents bring into focus “plans for the massive industrialization of Africa’s food systems,” said Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity. The group said in a statement that the summit dialogues “are deaf and blind to the converging systemic crises we face today, and the drastic urgent re-think it demands.” 

A recent historical analysis of African food systems provides further support for view that hunger problems in Africa are rooted in the interference of external forces. The researchers found that “before colonialism, farmers grew a diverse range of food crops, staggered planting for easy labour demands during harvesting, and managed risk in various related ways. But under colonial rule they were coerced into growing export commodities for which they received limited real value.” The authors concluded, “The focus must move from what the developed world dictates to what Africa needs.”