UN Food Systems Summit Resistance: Part Two, Elizabeth Mpofu, Alejandro Argumedo, and Anuradha Mittal
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: The week of the UN Food System Summit is finally here. I'm your host, Andy Currier for the second part of our two part series exploring resistance to the summit. Very excited and honored with our guests today. So let's jump right in.
Alejandro Argumedo: I'm Alejandro Argumedo, speaking from Cusco, Peru in the Andes. I am the Program Director and Amazon Lead at the Swift Foundation.
Elizabeth Mpofu: My name is Elizabeth Mpofu, a small-scale farmer based in Masvingo in Zimbabwe. I'm the General Coordinator of La Via Campesina and also founding member of the African Women Collaborative for healthy food systems. I'm staying in my rural area, doing my farming practices, practicing agroecology, producing a diversity of crops to feed my family. And also the surplus I can share with the other communities, because it's not all of us who are able to produce enough to feed their family due to different challenges we face as farmers.
Andy Currier: Well, thank you for joining us today. We can get right to the questions now. So while there is broad consensus on the urgent need to address hunger in the world today, disagreements abound over the underlying causes, as you just said, we also know it's often the farmers who face hunger. What do you think are the major issues facing farmers across the Global South today?
Alejandro Argumedo: I think the first big issue for farmers is land, who owns the land, but also who is stealing the ground, who is grabbing the land? And this is key in our region, that is very culturally and biologically diverse, and where people have very strong ties to the land beyond just being a means of production, it is an entity. It's a living thing that we, you know, considered sacred. Most of our own understanding of food systems cannot be realized without thinking about the land. So it's a fundamental issue, I would say. Secondly, seeds — while most of the small-scale farming is done with farmer [saved] seeds, there is an increased dependence on commercial seed systems. And you know, how the patenting of seeds, the patenting of life, remains a big issue. This is something that in the region, where I'm coming from, it is becoming more and more of a limiting factor for doing agriculture. So, we need to see this in the context of the relationship of seeds as a key element of food and its connection to the land.
While we in the region have for instance, have a large diversity of seeds and the cropping systems are also diverse, and adapted to the different ecological conditions that we have, that modern commercial systems do not consider those nuances and only see profit as the main objective. Thirdly, I think corporate personhood continues to be an issue. Corporations are deciding policy according to economic metrics, agricultural subsidies in the North, and that also affects, you know, how food systems operate in the South.
Elizabeth Mpofu: Thank you, Andy, for your question. Some of the major issues facing farmers across the Global South include the issue of obtaining food system resilience, and equality in the context of global environmental change. It is difficult due to high climatic conditions, because we know very well that the weather is changing. There's some patterns such as drought, sometimes lower rainfall patterns and cyclones. This destroys our land, water systems and destroys our crops. For instance, I can give you an example of what has happened in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, where we had droughts over the years and in 2019 to 2020 we experienced the cyclone Idai that destroyed our soils, roads, the water systems, crops and killed thousands of people, these are some of the challenges. And also, we also lack support to some of our own initiatives, especially on local seed systems and the biodiversity across the Eastern Southern Africa region, we are experiencing seed laws such as the ARIPO convention, the Arusha protocol, the harmonized COMSESA seed laws, which are criminalizing the farmers, the small scale farmers for their own initiatives in the production of local seeds. Even though we want to multiply[seeds] this is prohibited, because these laws are not really supporting the farmers' initiatives. The other challenge is that the loss of land, which is in the hands of the big multinational companies, and is also displacing the farmers from their source of livelihoods.
Alejandro Argumedo: Also, with a global pandemic, we have seen how this system has failed, you know, the global value chains have shown its vulnerabilities while local food systems have shown how strong and important they are. For instance in Peru, small-scale farmers have reached people, despite the limitations of the pandemic and the lock downs. They have ensured that the food continues to reach most of the other population. So, and the control of seeds locally under control of how to how to plant, what to plant, and how to use the land becomes very important. And so, food sovereignty becomes important as a response to the dependency on the corporate industrial system.
Andy Currier: Together you've overviewed some very serious challenges facing farmers in the Global South today, not only from climate change, but also from the erosion of traditional food systems that have been so crucial for resiliency. I want to turn now to some of the solutions being proposed. You have many corporations and some large foundations such as the Gates Foundation, emphasize the role technology must play in modernizing agriculture. What are your thoughts on relying on technological advances as a solution?
Elizabeth Mpofu: Yeah, telling the truth, the issue of modernizing agriculture, with the support of these foundations as AGRA has totally failed over the years. Why I say that they failed is because the Green Revolution or industrial forms of agriculture, have already destroyed our soils, the water systems and the environment, due to intensive usage of agrochemicals. AGRA has launched in several African countries. And it has failed in many countries, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, and many other African countries. And also we have some studies, which show that it has totally failed. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and other civil society organizations have produced studies showing this. Another study titled: False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, produced by Timothy Wise and civil society groups in September 2020 showed AGRA has failed to increase yield by promoting subsidized mono crops, such as maize. Farmer's incomes are still low and they are facing poverty and malnutrition. So, you will find out that this is why we say we are saying it's totally a failure.
According to the United Nations, one third of the world's land is now highly degraded. We know very well that more than 1.3 billion people rely on food produced on degraded agricultural land. And also it shows how capitalist agriculture is incompatible with our own food systems. So we know the hazardous technologies, the GMO crops, understanding that they have an impact on the health environment, food and agricultural systems. Condemnation of our own traditional and local varieties and also the impact on traditional knowledge system.
Andy Currier: You know, despite the failures of AGRA, you still see and the industrial approach generally, you still see that being given the most amount of money and being given power over these international summits, which brings us to the stakes of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit. Now, the UN claims that this will be a summit for everyone, everywhere — a "people's summit." However, so far, the summit has been met with widespread backlash and boycotts from farmers, civil society and peasant farmers. So why is this the case?
Alejandro Argumedo: I think there's at least four problems that I see with the Food Systems Summit, which has created this reaction from farmers, civil society organizations, many academics and scientists. One of the first, the most important for me is that it's not grounded in people's rights, but in corporate rights. And it doesn't look actually for system change but for maintaining this system, in a way that extends the control of the corporate power. The recent drafts coming out from the Secretariat to the food system, the right to food, which isn't one of the Action Tracks, continues to be, you know, treated marginally. If you see the rights of Indigenous Peoples particularly, while there is mentioned to it, it's really in the sense of being stakeholders and all rights holders. Similarly happens with rights for peasants, pastoralists, there is very little mention of landless, and women, etc. The Urban population, that's right now with a COVID pandemic become more food insecure, you know, clearly not mentioned in a way that they should be. I think the issue of conflating human rights, or Indigenous People rights, with stakeholders, which tried to put everybody on the same level, without considering the different nature of the rights, and the different roles they have. It's a big problem.
Secondly, I think, as we all know, this is driven by corporations, and the association with the Gates Foundation, the Green Revolution in Africa. We know, who is leading the summit, and the relationship of Agnes Kalibata with Gates, the role of the World Economic Forum, it's also very, you know, notorious, so, the participation of large corporations and the corporate initiatives, I think, you know, tell the whole history and, in my view. This only is looking at how to capture the UN spaces and replace public institutions with this new type of stakeholder platforms.
And thirdly, I think that, you know, we have here a situation where the narrative of food system change has been co-opted by corporations. They are using these different types of stakeholder platforms to neutralize the role and the voices that are coming from the South from Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Elizabeth Mpofu: Yeah, it's very interesting. And I am really happy to respond to this question. Why has the summit has been met with backlash and the boycott from farmers, civil society organizations and seasoned farmers? The reasons behind this are the strong links with the big multinational corporations, and agribusinesses that focus on industrial forms of agriculture, at the expense of farmers. Because we know very well that we have our initiatives, such as agroecology, and fighting for food sovereignty. The summit itself is also focusing on agribusiness instead of on the ecology and our environment. The other reason, I might say is that we are aware to some certain point, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, wrote to Kalibata, saying the global food crisis was chronic, urgent and set to intensify, but this summit appeared focused on science and technology, money and markets and did not address fundamental questions of inequality, accountability, and governance. The UN Food Systems Summit is focused on commercial food systems at the expense of local consumption, and also Indigenous food patterns that our rural farmers are focusing on. The other reason why the boycott is very, very intensive is the appointment of the former AGRA President, Agnes Kalibata to lead the event, who is not welcomed by the civil society and farmers. This is because of the failures by AGRA to transform African agricultural systems. Because they have their emphasis on industrial forms of agriculture and technologies that do not meet our needs as local farmers. We know very well. We had limited access to information about the summit. The farmers and civil society organizations we were not consulted when the summit was being organized and is not inclusive, but only focused on the big agribusiness players. So, I think that is why that is why the boycott has been so intensive across the globe.
Andy Currier: So as you just described, the summit is designed in a way that it will not be able to promote solutions that people and farmers need. So how can we ensure that true solutions — you've mentioned agroecology — gain the necessary support in order to feed the planet and help ensure food sovereignty for everyone?
Alejandro Argumedo: I think there's hundreds of alternatives and you know, very rich solutions coming from below from people's visions, and which are not only focused on the food crisis that we were are facing, but the multiple crisis: the health crisis, the economic crisis, the political crisis. So, I can tell you, for instance, how local markets in this region have became stronger, where communities that live in higher elevation, so in the in the mountain range, exchange different types of food crops, with communities that live in the middle range, and other communities that live in the lower elevation. And if you look more closely these type of exchanges, you will see that the cropping system in the upper side is mostly root crops, which had carbohydrates, in the middle ground you will see grains and other types of crops that have a high protein content, and then in the lower part, in the warmer areas, you will have fruits and crops and medicinal plants, and all those are exchanged between these communities in a way that they all have access to a large portfolio of food sources.
And this system, you know, does not need money, it is not dependent on value chains that are dominated by corporations and the market. Instead, it's embedded in the culture, it's embedded in the spirit, a spiritual relationship that people have with land, with crops, with the whole environment. And they see these types of systems as not just things of the past, but how we can create alternative economies, where you can combine monetary and non-monetary systems in a way that benefits not just people but also the land and all relations. So, this is not just an isolated case. There are many other cases around the region where communities have tight control of their food system and became not just independent, but sovereign in their decisions, as this is, you know, an exercise of the customary rights that they have had for a long time. Also, for instance, communities just right here around the Potato Park. Just last week, I attended a meeting with them in relation to the summit where they came up with a declaration they have been producing or will be applying seeds that have high content on iron and different types of antioxidants because they know that this type of varieties of potatoes and other Andean crops fortify you know, or make stronger people’s resistance to different types of health problems for a long time. They have produced around like 12 tons of seeds and distributed it to other communities so that communities can also have those types of varieties of food crops and multiply and keep distributing as a reciprocity to other communities. So, while this is happening on the ground, you know, the food system is still discussing way up in the clouds, you know, issues that will further consolidate the corporate power in the United Nations. I think these types of examples tell of how democratizing you know the science and local knowledge or food produced in processes, by the use of, you know, traditions, local ways of doing thing is, is giving a strong response to the summit.
Elizabeth Mpofu: So for solutions to gain the necessary support, we must resist the summit in totality, and even resist its recommendations. We really need to mobilize the rural farmers, Indigenous farmers, women led agriculture, the feminist movement, as well as other civil society organizations to continue engaging in promoting agroecology and food sovereignty movements. This platform might include rallies, you know how we do it, some might do some demonstrations, assemblies, marches, and many others. And also, the other solution is to engage our national government at local level to ensure that they support our own initiatives. The big events are always hijacked by the big agribusiness players. And one of the solutions is also the need on participation in our own national policymaking processes. Handing over to our petitions and position papers. Also ensuring the collaboration and solidarity among the farmers and other groups to be had because there's a big voice when we are in numbers. And ensuring that you also participate in the agroecology and food sovereignty movement through the use of social media platforms. Community discussions, public forums, workshops, community meetings, trainings are very, very important to solve some of these issues, and also mass distribution of information materials, putting up banners, posters, and also the social media campaign, which we see very well, that at some certain point, it brings some change and some results. Thank you Andy.
Andy Currier: Thank you both Elizabeth and Alejandro for joining us today. Now to conclude, since we started recording this series, the final format for the summit has taken shape. It will be a one-day event on September 23rd, held virtually. Joining me now we have Oakland Institute Executive Director Anuradha Mittal to take a step back and look at the legacy of this event.
Anuradha thanks for taking the time — We are now on the eve of the UNFSS. From when it was first announced to its final format, what do you make of the final form the summit has taken?
Anuradha Mittal: Well, the summit had no credibility from the very start. Now we find it has been greatly reduced in both length, scope, and impact. This is the direct result of the sustained resistance from farmers, civil society, social movements and activists from around the world. The summit was hijacked by corporate interests to once again promote industrial agriculture to pillage the earth and livelihoods of smallholder farmers. It is very exciting that the civil society has won in defeating this effort. The legacy of this event will be bringing together such a wide range of organizations that were able to mobilize and take a stand together. The summit has been made moot and muted — and we have the mass organization and action of farmers across the globe to thank for this.
Andy Currier: While the extent of the continued green and poor washing done at global summits such as the UNFSS is frustrating, it is uplifting to see how quickly it was exposed in this case. Moving forward what role do you see for global summits to spur transformative change?
Anuradha Mittal: Well, if a summit can actually empower the interests and elevate the voices of farmers, Indigenous and pastoralists over corporate actors we might see some real strong policy shifts take place. However, we don’t have the time to sit around and wait for this to happen and for the powers to be in Washington, D.C, Brussels, or Rome to act. Fortunately, as we’ve heard from these interviews, the solutions on the ground are already here.
Andy Currier: Thank you for that insight and placing the legacy of this event in context as we conclude this series. Thanks to all the listeners who tuned in, for those interested in learning more see: