At the upcoming Food Summit, the United Nations take a necessarily hard look at the world’s food systems. “Not hard enough”, claim an increasing number of food and agricultural scientists who are losing their patience with the globalized system of agribusiness and its failure to deliver for the world’s poor and the environment.
I once played basketball with an enormously tall guy who turned out to be a plant scientist. We quickly got talking genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a central object of hatred among the agrarian social movements that I do research about. Seriously baffled, the plant scientist asked me what kind of movements these were, and he could not believe it when I told him that these are left-wing mass movements across the Global South, most prominently the peasants of La Via Campesina, one of the biggest progressive social movements in the world. To him, critique of GMOs had always been associated with the religious Right. As a self-proclaimed agent of progress, he had never even considered that the project of delivering a better future for the world’s poor through technology could be an object of critique by peasants, not to mention millions of them.
The Globalized Food System
I was reminded of this episode when I read how the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, Dr Agnes Kalibata, reacted to the increasingly vocal and widespread critique of the upcoming summit she is organizing. Called by UN Secretary General António Guterres, the summit will be held in New York this September. Acknowledging the central role of farming in the climate crisis, many were hoping that the combination of these two topics would lay the groundwork for a new approach to agriculture, and particularly its international financing structures. The outline to the summit sounds accordingly promising, aiming at the combination of hunger reduction and improvement of global food systems for preventing both the biodiversity and the climate crisis.
These goals have been formulated time and again within the UN architecture. The development sector, as well as environmental agencies and agricultural organizations under the roof of the UN have alluded to these goals for the last fifty or so years but, as many critics have argued, with the wrong methods. Under the heading of the “Green Revolution”, agriculture has been industrialized for higher yields. Monocultures have been promoted for more efficiency and chemical fertilizers for resistance. This has indeed led to more output and more aggregate food security over time – but at the cost of biodiversity and at the peril of small farmers who could not compete with agribusiness that uses these technologies at scale.
On the one hand, the Green Revolution was hence successful in significantly reducing the number of hungry people by increasing agricultural output during the 1960s and 70s. In 1970, its pioneer, agronomist Norman Borlaug, was therefore awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to world peace by increasing food access for millions of people. On the other hand, this revolution is responsible for the loss of biodiversity and cultural diversity and has resulted in urbanization, land grabbing, and the extinction of small farms. The introduction of efficient seeds, which however only thrived with increasing use of pesticides and insecticides, tied farmers to manufacturing companies. Monocultures replaced the traditional diversity of seeds and cultivated landscapes, destroying entire ecosystems. It is evident that agriculture has been transformed from a largely family-driven subsistence economy to an „economy of scale”, as only large farms can afford the necessary irrigation systems and machinery in the long run. These had to be financed largely on credit, increasing dependence on private capital. Land was consequently given by governments to large landowners to increase the efficiency of the newly introduced system, turning millions of people into wage laborers on the land they previously owned. Once a national farming system was converted to the new varieties, peasant farms were often left with no choice but to either go along or go under (or sometimes both). At the same time, as the necessary mechanization replaced physical labor, rural unemployment rose rapidly, leading to mass migration to the cities, which in turn often caused displacement and impoverishment.
This development is closely related to the way the UN and its subsidiary organizations have conceptualized food security. The first World Food Summit, held in 1996, stated that food security „exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” It had a strong focus on supply, ramping up production and calculating food security based on calory intake on national scales. In recent years, research has highlighted the need to focus instead on the means of food production and distribution, as well as on the cultural and environmental consequences of all these parts of the food chain. Increasingly, food systems scientists highlight that food production needs to be localized and re-naturalized rather than globalized even further. While technology-based solutions and sustainability-oriented local production are not necessarily contradictions, food studies experts stress the urgency of a radical recalibration of food production. The UN Food Summit, however, with its strong private sector participation seems more like the continuation of the current system with a new design.
What’s on the Table?
Yet, in a letter to the Guardian, Kalibata writes that this food summit will be different: “Agro-ecology, indigenous knowledge and human rights are central to the summit’s work”. Furthermore, she highlights the inclusivity of the summit: “[A]round a third [of the participants] are farmer and civil society organisations, the rest are comprised of academia, researchers, government representatives and youth organisations”, concluding that “everyone has a seat at the table”. Like the tall plant scientist, she seems baffled in the face of strong external criticism. Is she not part of a project that seeks to feed the world’s poor, to establish food security? Why the outrage?
But Kalibata herself has been the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which was set up to spur the development of high-tech crops, high-yield commercial seed varieties and intensive farming, all of that funded by the who is who of neoliberal globalization, the World Bank, Shell and the Gates Foundation amongst others. The actors, in short, who have driven the original Green Revolution which is – in the eyes of those who promote Agro-ecology, indigenous knowledge and human rights – the origin of the current misery.
And this is by no means a position only held by die-hard activists. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, wrote to Kalibata, arguing that the global food crisis was “chronic, urgent and set to intensify” but that the summit appeared to be focused on science and technology, money and markets, and did not address “fundamental questions of inequality, accountability and governance”. He further writes that the agenda of the summit appears skewed in favor of market-based solutions to food systems and ignores traditional and indigenous knowledges that would offer alternatives to this system. Nevertheless, Fakhri will attend the summit, just as his predecessor Oliver de Schutter, both of them however arguing that “the table must be re-set”.
Boycott by Scientists
Others are less patient. As a reaction to the skewed setup of the summit, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism – a group of more than 500 civil society groups with more than 300 million members – said they would boycott the summit and set up a parallel meeting. More surprisingly, a number of prominent scientists have announced to stay away, too. They say that the summit’s concept shows an “impoverished view of whose food system knowledge matters”.
The boycott is significant, because it shows that agricultural research and agricultural policy are increasingly at odds. While the former is concluding that the international system high-yielding monocultures connected through global supply chains is one of the core drivers of climate change, unhealthy urbanization, and the slow death of the countryside, the latter is still very much organized alongside these terms. Even though policymakers have come to understand that the current system is unsustainable, and have therefore added buzzwords like Agro-ecology, and “indigenous knowledge” to their repertoire, those scientists who have been following the UN World Food Summits for the last 25 years fail to trust these slow changes. They argue that the agricultural system needs a rapid transformation. A transformation that remains unlikely when the major companies profiting from the current system prominently sit at the table and partly sponsor the summit.