UN summit stays silent on root causes of our failing food system

by Hans Rudolf Herren*, Founder of Biovision and president of the foundation board

The global forum has wasted the chance to consider real alternatives to our corporate-led, environmentally harmful ways of producing what we eat. 

It should have been a leap forward for the future of the planet, but instead it’s been a textbook example of how not to run a summit. The UN Food Systems Summit was designed to turn the page on our failing food system and point the way towards a climate-resilient, food-secure, and equitable future. Instead, we’re back to square one: a grab bag of good, bad, and ugly ‘solutions,’ yet a deafening silence on the root causes of the problems we face.
  An international summit on food was long overdue. Our food system doesn’t work for humans, animals, or the planet. Food production pumps out vast quantities of greenhouse gases that warm the planet, responsible for 37% of emissions. We’re experiencing rising levels of obesity and malnutrition while progress on hunger has gone into reverse, with a tenth of the world’s population going hungry last year. 

Agriculture is key to change

Transforming the way we produce, process, and consume food is key to addressing all these problems. The summit was a critical opportunity to secure the kind of changes that simply don’t happen outside of these exceptional moments. So, what went wrong?
  Excessive corporate influence over the summit – a sector largely responsible for the dire state of food systems – has caused controversy from the outset.
  The summit formed a close partnership with the World Economic Forum, a private-sector organisation set up to defend business interests, and was co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose private sector connections are no secret.
  This sparked a boycott by groups representing peasant farmers and small-holder producers through to international NGOs
  Their concerns were well-founded. Food and agri-business talked the talk on food system transformation in the build-up to the summit, nodding to climate, livelihoods, nature, transparency and more. But there are no guarantees corporations will walk the walk if governments don’t hold them to account.
  Lack of ambition has been another major obstacle to success. The case for wholesale reform has never been clearer: new figures last week found that 87% of global agricultural subsidies, totalling $540 billion, are damaging to climate, nature, and human health. Yet the Summit failed to chart a clear course towards more sustainable food production.

Agroecology stands ready as a solution

Agroecology has been found to increase crop yields by almost 80%, improve people’s access to food and reduce hunger, boost farmers’ earnings, and build resilience in the face of floods, droughts, and other shocks but it remains severely underfunded. 
  While the summit produced some commitments on subsidy reform, and a handful of governments are starting to take agroecology seriously, most funds will continue to prop up a more-or-less business-as-usual approach.
  For example, the summit has been used as a launchpad for AIM (Aim for climate), a US climate initiative to increase support for ‘climate smart’ agriculture that is largely focused on ameliorating the climate impacts of the current – heavily polluting – approach to food production rather than shifting to genuinely sustainable agricultural systems. 
  The summit has also been used to fundraise for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an initiative bankrolled by the Gates Foundation and headed up by Agnes Kalibata, the summit’s special envoy. More money for AGRA means more top-down solutions designed for Africans, not with them.
  The summit’s final calling card has been a top-down, non-transparent way of working. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ‘Scientific Group,’ which was set up to fast-track advice to policymakers, but which has come under fire over its bias in favour of industry friendly, high-tech solutions. 

No more “Business as usual”

Organisers have been forced to abandon plans to turn this group into a permanent body but attempts to advance this version of science will outlive the summit – threatening to undermine the crucial work done by existing institutions, such as the Committee on World Food Security, whose scientific body brings together a more diverse range of voices including producers and civil society. 
  Together, these failures have delivered a summit that has taken us further away from the real solutions on food and climate.

Where do we go from here? 

Getting back on track means building consensus around ideas, like agroecology, that have been proven to make a difference. To do that, governments must build on, not undermine, existing institutions, such as the Committee on World Food Security, which have the buy-in and genuine participation from people on the frontlines of the food, health, and climate crisis. This is the right forum to take back the agenda of transforming our food systems and take forward the ideas that will deliver it. 
  The climate and biodiversity summits give us another chance to get food system transformation on the table. Governments need to recognise this opportunity and put a fair and sustainable food system at the heart of a deal to cut CO2 and methane emissions, at the heart of a deal to cut deforestation, and at the heart of spending decisions. 
  The Food Systems Summit has served up business as usual dressed as something new. In the face of urgent climate, health, and environmental crises, we can’t afford to make that mistake again. •

Source: https://news.trust.org/item/20210923105350-u68zs/ of 13 October 2021; 
first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation

* Hans Rudolf Herren is a Swiss agriculture and development expert. In 2008, he co-authored and co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) of the World Agricultural Council, commissioned by six UN agencies and the World Bank. Herren was the first Swiss to be awarded the World Food Prize in 1995 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2013. Herren received the latter award together with Biovision – Foundation for Ecological Development, which he founded in 1998.

Global Hunger Index 2021 documents backward steps in the fight against hunger

The global fight against hunger is dangerously off track, and the world is drifting farther away from its binding goal of ending hunger by 2030. The latest UN reports already revealed the alarming news that the number of people living in hunger and poverty is growing again after years of decline. Throughout the world, around 811 million people are going hungry, and 41 million are on the brink of a famine. Circumstances are especially desperate in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Madagascar, and South Sudan. The latest edition of the Global Hunger Index evaluates the nutrition situation in 128 countries and confirms significant setbacks in the fight against hunger. Forty-seven countries will fail to achieve a low level of hunger by 2030, including 28 in Africa South of the Sahara.
  “The past year has unfortunately seen our fears borne out. Famines are back, and multiple crises are causing the number of people going hungry to keep rising. The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the tense nutrition situation in many countries in the Global South, and millions of families have lost their livelihoods. However, hunger continues to be driven primarily by war and climate change. The poorest and weakest are especially hard hit by the effects of climate change despite doing the least to cause it. The climate crisis is a question of justice. This means that at the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow this November, we need to set clear and binding goals for reducing CO2 emissions and financial support to promote climate resilience,” urges Marlehn Thieme, chair of the board of Welthungerhilfe.

Devastating interactions between conflicts and hunger

This year, the Global Hunger Index reveals how dangerous interactions between conflict and hunger can be. The number of violent conflicts has risen in recent years, and in eight out of ten countries with alarming or extremely alarming hunger levels, conflicts significantly contribute to hunger.
  “More than half of all undernourished people live in countries shaped by conflict, violence, and fragility. Where war is raging, harvests, fields, and key infrastructure are destroyed. Having left their villages for fear of assault and armed violence, people are forced to depend on humanitarian aid for survival. When hunger and poverty are prevalent, conflicts increase as well. We need viable political conflict resolutions and the strengthening of the right to food. The use of hunger as a weapon of war must finally be penalised consistently. Furthermore, we need flexible funding models that better account for the reciprocal relationship between food and peace,” underlines Thieme.

Source: Press release of the Welthungerhilfe of 14 October 2021;

* * *

km. What kind of world is it in which 811 million people go hungry and the situation is getting worse rather than better? The press release of Welthungerhilfe writes that the current Global Hunger Index confirms “significant setbacks in the fight against hunger”. Although there have been well-developed programmes for a very long time, the implementation of which could eliminate hunger in the world!
  Welthungerhilfe rightly cites climatic conditions as well as conflicts and wars as two main causes of the hunger catastrophe. Elsewhere, it has drawn attention to the major problem that more and more small farms in hunger-stricken countries are (have to be) abandoned and large (often foreign) investors buy up the land and abuse it for their profit and power interests. Added to this are trade conditions that powerfully favour the rich countries of the North. All at the expense of the poorest people in the world!
  Current Concerns has repeatedly pointed out alternatives to this unjust and people-killing world economic and world agricultural order. The “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” (IAASTD) and the initiatives that have become active with it, especially in the poor countries of the world, are outstanding – but they often must feel like Sisyphus, who rolls the stone upwards, only to see it roll down again when he reaches the top.
  Deceived by the ideology of market radicalism, many people in our countries believe that the world’s possibilities are limited to a zero-sum game. Fighting poverty and hunger would have to be at our expense. That is absolutely wrong. But this is the way to keep the world divided and to disrupt human solidarity. We must not agree with this. •

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