An international food summit to address growing hunger and diet-related disease is in disarray as hundreds of farmers’ and human rights groups are planning a boycott.
The head of the food systems summit, due to take place in September, has made an emotional appeal for unity and the UN’s own advisers are urging a rethink of the way it is run.
Called by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, the summit was welcomed for recognising that farming has been mostly ignored in climate talks. Its brief was to examine ways to reduce hunger and improve global food systems as the climate crisis intensifies and biodiversity is threatened.
The UN estimates that more than 820 million people are undernourished, a jump of 60 million in five years. Nearly a quarter of all children under five are stunted and 1.9 billion adults are overweight, according to the World Health Organization.
But the planned summit is already embroiled in arguments over who is to blame for the growth of hunger and disease, and whether the meeting is biased in favour of corporate, hi-tech intensive farming.
The meeting got off to a controversial start when Guterres appointed Agnes Kalibata to head the event. The former Rwandan agriculture minister is president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), set up in 2006 to open the continent up to genetically modified crops, high-yield commercial seed varieties and intensive farming.
Further suspicions that big business was dominating the agenda came when the summit’s concept paper mentioned precision agriculture, data collection and genetic engineering as important for addressing food security – initiatives supported by big technology companies and philanthropists – but made no mention of ecological farming or civil society involvement.
The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, wrote to Kalibata in January saying the global food crisis was “chronic, urgent and set to intensify” but the summit appeared focused on science and technology, money and markets, and did not address “fundamental questions of inequality, accountability and governance”.
“It [appears] heavily skewed in favour of one type of approach to food systems, namely market-based solutions … it leaves out experimental/traditional knowledge that has the acute effect of excluding indigenous peoples and their knowledge,” wrote Fakhri.
“The business sector has been part of the problem of food systems and has not been held accountable.”
Support for ecological initiatives has also come from Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on food, and Olivia Yambi, a nutrition expert and former Unicef official.
They have argued that the summit should be broadened into a more inclusive world food congress, and that initiatives such as agro-ecology, endorsed by scientists, civil society and farmers, and food sovereignty be put firmly on the agenda.
This week 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.
“We cannot jump on a train that is heading in the wrong direction. We are questioning the summit’s legitimacy. We sent a letter last year to the secretary general about our concerns. It was not answered. We sent another last month, which has also not been answered,” said Sofía Monsalve Suárez, head of Fian International, a group working for the right to nutrition.
“The summit appears extremely biased in favour of the same actors who have been responsible for the food crisis. ”
In a separate initiative, 148 grassroots groups from 28 countries, which make up the People’s Coalition on Food Security, wrote to the UN to urge it to sever the “strategic partnership” with the World Economic Forum, the organisation that hosts the annual Davos economic summit for the global elite.
“The WEF will exploit the summit to streamline neoliberal globalisation. It will mean that global inequality and corporate monopoly would be sidetracked rather than confronted as the root cause of hunger and extreme poverty,” said the coalition.
Timothy Wise, senior adviser at the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said the UN has missed a trick by not giving a wider hearing to farmer-led groups, whose initiatives are successful and important.
“A growing number of farmers, scientists and development experts now advocate a shift from high-input chemical-intensive agriculture to low-input ecological farming. They are supported by an array of new research documenting both the risks of continuing to follow our current practices and the potential benefits of a transition to more sustainable farming,” said Wise.
In a statement to the Guardian, Kalibata denied there was any preconceived ideology. “Starting my life as a refugee and a daughter of a small farmer, I have never lost my drive to ensure opportunity. Human rights and equity are at the heart of everything I work to accomplish,” she said.
“I’ve lived through food insecurity, I’ve gone hungry. I have seen the smiles on people’s faces when their lives start to change. This is personal. I know those among the world’s most vulnerable and I am determined that this summit will not let them down.”
She added: “We have designed the summit to ensure every voice is heard. We do not expect everyone to agree on everything from the outset.
“Debate and dialogue is the only way we will make progress and we must lean into courageous conversations rather than avoid them. Those choosing not to engage are self-excluding.”
She was backed by Gerda Verburg, coordinator of the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition movement, which works with more than 60 governments.
“We are urging civil society to come to the table. You need to step down from your strong convictions.
“But if you want to [talk about] agro-ecology, be my guest. We need agro-ecology. We need food sovereignty. We need sustainable intensification and we need vegetarianism. We need all the solutions.”
Speaking for the WEF, Sean de Cleene, a former director of Agra, said the organisation had not played a central role in planning the summit. “We were brought in relatively late in a supportive role. We have no preferential access to anyone. We are working with the UN and others,” he said.