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Farmers and Rights Groups Boycott Food Summit over Big Business Links

March 4, 2021
The Guardian

John Vidal

Focus on agro-business rather than ecology has split groups invited to planned UN conference on hunger

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.

Josephine Ganye working in her maize fields in Zimbabwe, with the crop wilting and stunted by drought. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty

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”.

The summit’s organiser, Agnes Kalibata, a former Rwandan minister of agriculture. Photograph: AFP/Getty

“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.