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Maungdaw, Myanmar - Farm laborers and livestocks in a paddy field. Image: FAO / Hkun La

UN Food Systems Summit Resistance: Part One ft. Nnimmo Bassey and Kristen Lyons

For Land & Life

“The major issues are many, of course, and we do realize that a majority of those who go to bed hungry every day in the Global South are actually farmers. So the question is, how does this happen? How can farmers go to bed hungry?”

Nnimmo Bassey

The first episode in a two part series exploring resistance to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit and mapping out sustainable, bottom-up approaches to food sovereignty. Featuring Nnimmo Bassey (Health of Mother Earth Foundation) and Kristen Lyons (Professor of Environment and Development Sociology, U Queensland), with an introduction by Chivy Sok.



Chivy Sok: With close to 800 million people suffering from hunger and an escalating climate crisis, the need for global action is urgent. While there is consensus surrounding the need to address hunger, the underlying drivers and proposed solutions have ignited debates.

In September 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. According to the UN: “the Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.” The UN further states that this “is a summit for everyone everywhere — a people’s summit… a solutions summit that will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems.”

However, hundreds of organizations from around the world have raised concerns about the Summit. It all began with the appointment of Dr. Kalibata — President of AGRA — the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa — to lead, prepare, and design the Summit.

Founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, AGRA has worked since its inception in 2006 to open up Africa — seen as an untapped market for corporations controlling commercial seeds, genetically modified crops, fossil fuel-based fertilizers, and polluting pesticides. Willfully ignoring the past failures of the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture, AGRA orients farmers into global value chains for the export of cash crop commodities. Its finance-intensive and high input agricultural model is dependent on constant subsidy, which is drawn from increasingly scarce public resources. AGRA's model of fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture is laying waste to the environment and contributing to climate change. As industrial monoculture plantations spread, family farmers, pastoralists, and Indigenous communities, who are the stewards of the land and guardians of agricultural biodiversity, are marginalized and forced off their land.

These are just some of the serious reasons to be concerned by AGRA leading the UN Summit. In this series, we will be speaking to leading farmers and activists from around the globe to dive deeper into resistance to the upcoming Food Systems Summit and map out alternative courses of action to address the systemic issues driving hunger in the world today.

Andy Currier: Thank you for tuning in to the first part of a two part series on resistance to the upcoming UN Food System Summit. My name is Andy Currier, and I'm your host today. I am very excited about our guests today, let's begin.

Nnimmo Bassey: I am Nnimmo Bassey. I'm the Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, based in Nigeria.

Kristen Lyons: I'm Kristen Lyons and I'm a senior research fellow with the Oakland Institute and also sit at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia as a professor of Environment and Development Sociology.

Andy Currier: Thank you both for joining us today. Let's jump right in. Now while there is broad consensus on the urgent need to address hunger in the world today, disagreements abound over the underlying causes. What do you think are the major issues facing farmers across the Global South today?

“But these farmers are experiencing phenomenal pressures not just from national governments, but from international structural processes, which are orienting especially smallholder farmers towards participation in the market…”

Kristen Lyons

Nnimmo Bassey: The major issues are many, of course, and we do realize that a majority of those who go to bed hungry every day in the Global South are actually farmers. So the question is, how does this happen? How can farmers go to bed hungry? The factors include land grabbing, where family farmers are losing land because they're squeezed out of the lots that they use to cultivate crops for food for selling, we have in the predominant system of investment of governments in the Global South a cash cropping what they call cash cropping, which is actually another name for colonial agriculture, which is kind of plantation kind of agriculture. This promotes mono cropping. And all this means that farmers who would actually produce food for the people who live for food for the people are forced to become farmhands — rather than cultivating the crops that they would normally like to cultivate. Another factor that is bringing pressure on farmers includes the use of banned chemicals, chemicals that are banned elsewhere in the Global North, being sold to farmers in the Global South. And this is creating health issues for the farmers and damaging soils and biodiversity. We have a lot of pressure on local foods that are being replaced by junk foods of doubtful nutrition. This is a big problem for the food systems also. And then we have a shortage of extension officers. These are officers who would usually go to small-scale farms, go to the villages and support farmers with how best to cultivate the crops, the best seasons, the best timing, and the quality of support system that they would have. Now this has over the years been eroded and reduced because of structural adjustment programs of international financial institutions. All these add up to create real problems for farmers.

Kristen Lyons: The research and work that I'll draw upon is primarily in Uganda, and also in Ghana, I guess that they're the two country contexts that I feel most comfortable to speak about. I might also make reference to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific where I've worked over the last decade or so as well. So I'm doing specifically in terms of those localities. So starting with the African continent. You know, the majority of farmers in both these country locations are smallholder farmers and rely upon access to land, access to water, access to healthy ecosystems and not just access rights, rights, continued rights to have continued unfettered sovereignty over those places in order to procure food, to grow food, to cultivate crops, and to plan over the long term into including to plan in the context of a changing climate and the particular perils that the climate crisis presents for smallholder farmers. But these farmers are experiencing phenomenal pressures not just from national governments, but from international structural processes, which are orienting especially smallholder farmers towards participation in the market, integration within agri food input arrangements. So this dominant narrative that agriculture must modernize that has been translated through policy processes, and the creation of an enabling environment for corporate actors, whether they be seed suppliers, agricultural chemical suppliers, and so on, means that it's the rights the sovereignty of farmers to do what it is that they have done over millennia, has been phenomenally curtailed. And so what we see really clearly in all of those country locations, is farmers with phenomenal knowledge, including indigenous knowledge about how to grow food, including how to grow food in a changing climate, which of course, has been driven by, you know, not just human induced climate change. But, changes that are driven by colonial conquest and an extractivist agenda. And so in the face of those pressures, smallholder farmers have solutions. They have ways of knowing, being and doing to grow food and to feed themselves and their communities and to feed broader communities as well.

But these structural processes and I suppose to talk at some detail, take the Ghanian case, for example, we've seen really clearly since the 1960s, in particular in a so called post colonial context. Agricultural policies are increasingly co-opted by corporate philanthro-capitalist interests. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in particular has been especially influential, they have directly funded the development of agricultural policies in Ghana. And not surprisingly, the outcome of that is a set of policy arrangements that drive industrialized, modernized agriculture, that make claims that the pathway to so called food security is through increasing production and participation in markets. But of course, these markets, both national and international are stacked against the rights and interests of smallholder farmers. So we see these policy settings that very closely match up with the interests of corporate and philanthro-capitalist interests, and not in the interest of smallholder farmers. And this is absolutely driving food insecurity in the country locations that I've worked, and we can see it very clearly in Ghana and in the Brong-Ahafo region, which is widely referred to as the food basket of Ghana, in terms of not just local food provisioning within communities, but feeding the rapidly growing urban population of Ghana. But the disruptions that are being leveled through those landscapes because of a set of modernizing agricultural policies is disavowing the rights and interests of smallholder farmers to actually make autonomous choices about what they want to do on their land. And of course, they are also being pushed off land and having access to land is absolutely vital to shoring up food sovereignty.

And if we take to contrast, if we take the case of the small island of the Pacific nation, the Solomon Islands in a low lying, you know, cluster of nearly 1,000 Islands, incredibly low lying to the north east of Australia, where I sit. And so the Solomon Islands is one of a number of nations on the frontlines of climate change impacts rising sea levels, salination and the disappearance of lands that were vital for the food provisioning. So, in this context, we can see really profoundly the challenges of climate change in terms of eroding the capacity of communities to feed themselves. But, of course, we can see really clearly that also communities are on the front foot in terms of leading both mitigation and adaptation that are centering Indigenous and local knowledge is to manage in the face of climate change. But I think, you know, to your question about what are the causes of the challenges facing smallholder farmers in small island states such as the Solomon Islands, absolutely it is climate change. In terms of its biophysical manifestations it is really clearly a challenge. But climate change is a result of a set of socio political forces tied to as I said earlier, the extractivist, colonizing agenda. Until we grapple with those power relations and seek to disavow those sets of power relations, we find communities in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere incredibly vulnerable in the face of a global politics, which is still reticent to take the urgent action that's required to decarbonize so as to curb the worst effects of a changing climate.

Andy Currier: Thank you both for that comprehensive look at the forces driving hunger, especially for farmers in the Global South today. And one thing you both noted was technology, often the misuse of technology. And so, many corporations and some large foundations such as Gates emphasize the role of technology must play in modernizing agriculture. What are your thoughts on relying on technological advances as the solution?

“Techno fixes are a big threat to having agriculture that is really suitable for the environmental for the people…”

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey: Well, you know, techno fixes are a big threat to having agriculture that is really suitable for the environment, for the people. But the problem is that people are people make a fetish of technologies. And they believe that anything that is technical, anything that is made in the laboratory is actually better than other forms of production. This is the meat that will be sustained over the years by big industry as a colonizer of food systems. Now, there's a place for appropriate technology developed for local needs by local research institutions. But the kind of technical fixes that have been promoted by the likes of the Gates Foundation, there's a place for appropriate technology in agriculture, but this has to be agriculture developed for the lives of local farmers to disrupt the context and to enhance productivity but not the kind of technologies being proposed and promoted by big great industry, including things like genetic engineering, is becoming a big problem in Africa.

For example, in Nigeria, specifically, we have a government that is approving almost any application that comes to it. And the industry is doing all they can to, to open the door to make the country or the continent a dumping ground for junk technologies. Of course, sometimes when people think about farming, they believe "well, the farmers have to go industrial.” But you know, this is a wrong notion, a notion that doesn't recognize the fact that mono cropping which is what industrial agriculture promotes, is not what people need, it doesn't fit into the system of production. In a continent, for example, where farming is a way of life of the people, people don't consider it basically our business. But when you look at agriculture as nothing but business, then you are completely changing everything. We have a situation where an agency like Bill Gates, Rockefeller Foundations, AGRA [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa], professes to work in the interests of small-scale farmers. But meanwhile, they're busy promoting biotechnology or modern agriculture, about technology, even extreme biotechnology, promoting seed laws that criminalize the savings, and forcing farmers to be dependent on seed companies. You know, we find all these kinds of kinds of technologies may have to for colonization of our systems, and things that don't help at all.

Kristen Lyons: Well, I mean, I like to take a kind of agnostic approach to technology, technology in and of itself, is neither necessarily good nor bad. It's the agendas and the politics that sit behind it. And so I think that's where our attention needs to turn and where the scrutiny needs to take place. And so we can see, in particular, if we turn back to Ghana's so called Green Revolution, turbocharged by the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, it's very clear that there is an alliance of interests that we have philanthro-capital, but we also have them aligning up alongside large agricultural chemical companies, large seed providers, and so on. So it's quite clear that there is an economic imperative to this agenda. And so the problem for me lies through a kind of political economic analysis, that when the agenda is one of profit motive, and profit motive that largely flows offshore, far away from those nation states where these technological interventions are heavily promoted, then it's so far disconnected from the local needs and aspirations that people have. And so the idea that we can rely upon technology, when we know that, particularly in the last couple of decades with this, this neoliberal turn, which has seen increasing public and private partnerships, and where private sector actors and in particular global corporations have such a heavy influence in terms of shaping public conversations in shaping policy processes.

And in the case of Ghana, and many other countries as well, literally funding those policy processes. You know, the democratic process in which decision making takes place that the capacity for deliberative dialogues where all voices can be not only equally heard, but actually equally weighted in terms of decision making, is absolutely distorted. And so we have particular sets of power relations, who stack interest, you know, in decision making in their favor. And that's very much what we see in terms of technological drivers. So we can see that really clearly in terms of not genetically engineered seeds, of course, and other genetically engineered interventions across food and farming, but agricultural seeds, other agricultural farming innovations, the huge turn towards so called digital agriculture and the suite of new forms of technological surveillance and other interventions across agricultural landscapes, but also at the science of the super small nanotechnologies in all of these domains. It's been the phenomenal injection of funds through private sector actors that is driving these technological interventions and driving the way in which it's talked about and attempts to regulate or in many instances attempt to limit any regulation at all.

Andy Currier: I think that's very important what you mentioned about the scrutiny on the agenda and politics behind certain technologies. And when that agenda is, is being set by profit motives, and not the well being of farmers, you see the current situation that we have today, unfortunately. Now let's turn to the stakes of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit. The UN claims this will be a Summit for everyone everywhere a "peoples summit." However, so far that the Summit has been met with widespread backlash and boycotts from farmers, civil society and peasant farmers. So why is this the case?

Kristen Lyons: I think it's really wise to not turn up to processes where you may simply be legitimizing a set of decisions that have almost already been made and a set of interests that have already stepped behind particular agendas, particular ways in which issues will be talked about. And so the mass opposition to this event, I think, demonstrates really clearly the acute concerns that those that have most at stake in these issues, their interests are not intended to be heard in ways that are meaningful, and that will meaningfully affect the outcomes of this. And so, you know, we can see this, for example, in the way in which the, the appointment of the President of AGRA as the Special Envoy for the Summit was made. And this was made without public transparent dialogue and discussion, this was an appointment that appeared to fall from the sky. And this speaks to, I think, a couple of things, it speaks to the lack of transparency and the opaque way in which processes related to the Summit play out, which of course, for people who are being asked people in organizations that have been asked to invest huge amounts of time in a process, they need to know that it's actually going to amount to something that it won't actually distract them from doing other things that might deliver more effective change. And so that is about one example. And of course, there are many examples of the way in which we have to have serious questions about the democratic procedural nature of this Summit and how it will happen. But also this clear convergence of interests between the Summit, and the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa is rendered bare here. And so we can see again, very clearly that there are already vested interests at work and in really obvious ways. And so serious questions have to be asked about how will those sets of interests continue to shape what is able to be talked about? Who's invited to the table? And so I think it's a very clear opposite of endorsement. Dis-endorsement of the both the Summit and its processes, that that so many civil society, farmer organizations, food sovereignty, Indigenous rights groups are saying, this is not the platform for us. And in fact, I think, you know, we've seen this time and again, in, in global governance discourses in various examples around the world where communities walk away from processes, and in so doing, expose, furthermore, the limits of those processes.

“But what has turned out is that the food system is corporate-led, either directly led by corporate interests, or led by philantro-capitalists…”

Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey: Civil society, peasant farmers, and many other groups are boycotting or opposed to the United Nations Food Systems Summit. Because when it was first announced, many of us thought that this would be a great opportunity to bring about the food systems transformation agenda. But what has turned out is that the food system is corporate-led, either directly led by corporate interests, or led by philantro-capitalists. And so that driving produces a very huge question mark on the usefulness of whatever may be the outcome of the process. Civil societies and peasant farmers very clearly see they see the link between fossil fuel driven industrial agriculture, deforestation and climate change. But we do know that industrial farmers are in denial of this link. In fact, when, when the blame is put in agriculture, for global warming, you hardly find in the same breath, a condition to the fact that that kind of agriculture that is harmful to the climate, is actually fossil fuel driven agriculture and not all kinds of agriculture. Peasant farmers were engaged in other forms, such as agriculture actually cooling the planet. It is also believed that the United Nations Food Systems Summit has a very constricted space for Indigenous knowledge. And so the knowledge that we have enriched the transformation agenda, a transformation agenda is not given the pride of place. And so it's believed that the Summit will be promoting the status quo, rather than bringing about a rethink of a system that marginalizes the people, impoverishes soils, and brings food of very suspect quality. We, when I say we, I mean, those who are opposed to the way this Summit is being planned and hosted, believe that this space is not what is really needed. It's not the kind of space where you see people sit down, to listen to the farmers, those who are actually breaking their back producing food, and to find what they need, but rather its going to be a top down process where the needs of big seed companies would be used as a framework to drive whatever is going to come out at the end, and is suspected, that the outcome may be such that would not the outcome that does not fit into this agenda may not eventually get implemented. We've seen that before. So it's not the first time that this will happen.

Andy Currier: So given these concerns, and how it appears that the Summit as it's designed is not going to promote solutions that people in farmers actually need. How can we ensure that true solutions gain necessary support?

Nnimmo Bassey: This a great job, great task for everyone who is really desirous that we should have healthy, safe and accessible food in the world today. We do know that people are not hungry for because there's no food on the market shelves. People are not hungry because farmers are not productive. People are hungry today because of structural deficiencies into political system, which affects the agricultural system. And there is this need for, for peasant farmers to come together for the food movement to come together in Africa, we have the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is made of member groups with over 250 million peasant farmers across the continent. With this kind of alliances or movement, really talking about food sovereignty, talk about food as appropriate to the culture. So the food is appropriate to the needs of the people — the food that people really build their life around, if I may use that, that phrase is what is needed. We need to liberate the food system, decolonize the food system, we need to promote agriculture that works in line in line with our ecological systems.

Kristen Lyons: It's a great question. So for me, I think we really have to focus on the urgent challenge that is before us. How do we ensure that we are able to democratically feed ourselves into the future in the context of the climate crisis, which is bearing down upon our lives now and will continue so over the years to come? How do we design for resilient food systems socially, ecologically just food systems? How do we grapple with and seek to uphold our international Indigenous rights obligations in so doing? And so to me, we have to center those priorities, not the priorities of corporations. And this convergence of public private sector actors that think that they can techno-fix our way out of the kind of profound challenges that we face. But if we actually flip the focus to the fundamental challenges that we face, then how can democratic governance processes guide us in this direction, and so that's where we can see community organizations, indigenous farmer based, movements and so on directing their energies, because these are where the solutions not only are but are already present. We already see the proliferation of pathways for viable food systems in existence. What we need is structures that support those to flourish, not structures that seek to disavow the rights and interests of those communities in groups that are on the front lines of imagining that future that we so desperately need.

Andy Currier: Thank you both for that insightful discussion. For listeners who want to learn more a link to the Oakland Institute webpage covering the UN Food System Summit has been included in the episode description where you can find articles and more information. Stay tuned for the next part in this series. As always, thank you for listening. Until next time.