The corporate capture of the UN food summit
When I visited my parents in Bogota last month, I witnessed how people in their neighbourhood went up and down the streets begging for help to survive. Since the end of April, Colombia has experienced one of its biggest waves of social unrest in recent times—and hunger is at the core of the protests. South Africa experienced similar turmoil in July.
Growing hunger is creating volatility in many countries, compounding the devastating social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. According to recent United Nations figures, the pandemic has increased the number of hungry people by as many as 161 million—to 811 million. Nearly one in three people—almost 2.4 billion—lack access to adequate nutrition.
Given the lack of progress towards ending global hunger and malnutrition by 2030, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene the Food Systems Summit in New York today. The meeting has been billed as an opportunity to discuss bold new measures that will transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food.
But the summit has been marred by controversy from the outset, largely owing to the influence of corporate interests in framing the agenda in what critics have described as an attempt to privatise decision-making. The UN set the pre-summit agenda in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF), placing key corporate players in leading roles. For example, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a Swiss-based foundation, leads the summit's work on eradicating hunger. One of GAIN's donors is the pesticide producer BASF, which seeks to portray itself as a "Food Systems Hero."
UN human rights experts have been damning in their criticism of the process, which has sidelined the UN's Committee on World Food Security (CFS). Discussions at the CFS include hundreds of representatives of smallholder farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, and civil society groups. Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, has echoed the complaints of grassroots farming groups—more than 500 of which are boycotting the summit—likening the corporations' excessive influence over the gathering to "inviting the fox right into the henhouse."
Smallholder farmers, peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, and indigenous people feed most of the world's population with little or no access to corporate supply chains. About 80 percent of farms are smaller than two hectares, and cover about 12 percent of the world's farmland, while the largest one percent of agribusiness farms control more than 70 percent of farmland.
Transnational corporations have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to preventing land grabbing, malnutrition, tax avoidance, and pesticide overuse. The same is true of addressing demands for a move away from intensive farming and towards more socially equitable, resilient, and sustainable agroecology. Because these firms are accountable to their shareholders, profit is a more important interest than protection of the common good. But food is a common good, and access to it is a fundamental human right. That is where discussions should begin.
The increasing corporate capture of food should concern us all. If left unchecked, we will face a grim future where a handful of large firms will control what we eat and how it is produced. The increased consumption of ultra-processed edible products—a major contributor to the pandemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and related diseases—exemplifies the danger.
This corporate takeover reflects the belief that large agribusinesses are essential for providing food, have interests aligned with those of the public, and are better equipped than governments and civil society to set the rules and policies that shape our food systems. It allows corporations to expand their control of land, water, and fisheries, quasi-monopolise commercial seeds, and use pesticides and chemical fertilisers intensively, while failing to recognise—much less address—the attendant harms. Permitting this outlook to dominate major international forums like the UN Food Systems Summit will further undermine democracy and self-determination.
Consider pesticides. Despite the harm they cause—including the poisoning of agricultural workers and rural communities, increased pollution, and decreased soil biodiversity—their use has soared in recent decades. Manufacturers market these products aggressively and deny the extent of the damage they cause, insisting that they are safe if used properly. The industry also claims that pesticides are necessary to meet the food needs of a growing population, especially in the context of climate change.
Brazil is a case in point. Between March 2020 and May 2021, the government extended tax exemptions on commercial pesticides and approved 613 new products—even though the country was already a world leader in pesticide use. President Jair Bolsonaro wants to increase industrial production of agricultural commodities for export, despite the lethal consequences this will have for Brazil's ecosystems and people.
Likewise, transnational corporations will not save Colombians protesting about hunger or malnutrition. These people need a government capable of taxing large firms properly in order to generate enough revenue to sustain a robust social safety net. And they need a government determined to reverse the extreme inequality in access to land that disadvantages peasants, afro-descendants, and indigenous people.
Instead of looking to global corporations to solve the growing hunger and malnutrition crisis, the UN and national governments must end the corporate capture of food and promote a transition to agroecology. They should start by ensuring that multinational firms pay their fair share of taxes, and are held accountable for the environmental and human rights consequences of their activities.
In 1948, the UN recognised that food is a human right. Sadly, the UN summit is more likely to feed corporate profits than provide hope to hundreds of millions of hungry people.
Sofia Monsalve, secretary-general of FIAN International, is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)