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Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) did not attend the UNFSS pre-summit in Rome. Instead, the aid organisation took part in a counter-summit. The following conversation with Francisco Marí touched on the reasons for this, the course of events and the outlook for the future.
Mr Marí, your organisation attended the counter-summit to the UNFSS pre-summit. Do you feel that the event went well?
It was a difficult situation. It was no easy decision to counter an initiative of the UN Secretary-General with an alternative summit. After all, we not only support the UN in principle – we are also part of their civic process. We are represented in New York by our church network and for decades we have held most of the same positions as the UN in the debate around nutrition policy. We deeply regretted having to make this decision regarding this summit on food systems and the way in which it was planned and arranged.
Did you take a long time to arrive at your decision not to attend?
We had a lengthy dialogue about it, particularly with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), as well as Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata. We tried very hard to reach an agreement, but sadly our objections fell on deaf ears. As a result, it was a very late decision to give airtime to our, and our partners’, stances and reveal our counterproposals with a parallel event. I am very pleased with how this went, and I’m surprised at how quickly we were able to organise it. There were also a great many scientists in attendance who put forward their suggestions. We engaged in intense discussion. We were unable to reach a complete consensus, of course, but that is not our aim. There are numerous food systems, which can be improved in numerous ways. Nevertheless, everyone at the alternative summit shared a commitment to making decisions on the basis of our human rights obligations, not only regarding the people suffering from hunger, but also regarding the rights of food producers, as adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018.
What are some things you didn’t agree on?
In discussions about organic farming, there were some parties calling for agroecology certificates, while others insisted that we cannot currently turn to these. There was also a lot of debate about seed, specifically how well producers’ own, locally cultivated seed can cope with challenges like climate change, how much research is needed in this area and to what extent this research should remain the remit of the state, while also considering how farmers’ rights can be bolstered. Incidentally, a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) project funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) revealed the promise of this kind of approach. Brot für die Welt wants to see more projects like this.
How many people attended the summit?
We had a bit of trouble with the virtual format. For the conferences of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the leading platform for global nutrition, the civil society’s representatives elected at the FAO regional conferences usually travel to Rome a week before the conferences start in order to prepare together. Face-to-face contact and interaction are very important for us, and sadly this wasn’t possible this year. This made it harder for indigenous groups and smallholders to play a significant part in proceedings. These virtual formats pushed by the UNFSS during the Covid-19 pandemic are another point of contention for us. Many partners are hindered in their participation not only by time differences, but also unreliable and expensive internet connections. However, considering these challenges, we were very pleased that the individual events were attended by anywhere from 600 to 1,500 people. The livestream received over 9,000 views over the course of the three days.
What insights and conclusions were taken from the counter-summit?
That the agricultural industry as an actor should not be treated the same way as those affected by hunger. The alternative summit campaigned for a variety of approaches, but these were based on rights, rather than commercial interests. This is why it was repeatedly argued that we should give those affected a voice and the ability to partake in decision-making, as takes place at the CFS, in order to ensure the future preservation of smallholder production.
So why are you not attending the summit in Rome?
This is ultimately down to the approach being unviable.
We simply cannot accept corporate interests being equated with human rights, which we have been fighting for for years in our attempts to tackle poverty. Ending world hunger is not just an idea – it’s an obligation, grounded in the human right to food.
But that’s what the summit was dedicated to.
No, this is where the disagreement lies. To me, the pre-summit seemed more like an initiative, where everyone can put forward their ideas, without proper heed being given to who has rights and who has obligations. Starving people have a human right to receive nutrition, whereas the private sector is duty-bound to adhere to laws and pay taxes. Jeffrey Sachs made this clear at the pre-summit, but the event did not reflect this. Meanwhile, the CFS has established exemplary structures for the development and adoption of political decisions that contribute to the fulfilment of the right to food. The UNFSS has not considered these structures at any point.
After all the criticism directed at the processes and structures of the UNFSS since 2019, I get the impression that they were consciously and deliberately disregarded.
The right to food was never at the heart of the UNFSS. You needn’t look further than the various critical statements made by UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri.
Did the agricultural industry have a large presence in Rome?
It didn’t have much direct representation at the official summit events, but it has well-established support at the heart of the UNFSS structures, from the Special Envoy to the Scientific Board. It also dominated the side events: I was shocked at the lack of involvement from NGOs. And of course there were nation states present who have strong ties to the agricultural industry, such as Argentina and the USA.
Even at the decisive “main events”, I got the impression that economic actors were a clear minority.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), the stooge for the summit, withdrew when it was no longer necessary for it to present ideas. These ideas were taken on and, as I said previously, many decisive positions for the UNFSS are held by people who have shared interests with the WEF, as well as other trade associations led by the World Business Council – the UN lobbying tool of the world’s largest corporations. And criticism of the agricultural industry’s involvement also led to changes, especially in the summit’s action tracks. Some indigenous groups and NGOs decided to attend – at least those who tend to be active within this construct of the multi-stakeholder approach. A specific section of the scientific community was also present at the summit: one that assists the industry in the development of technocratic proposals and solutions built around new genetic-engineering technologies.
Agroecology was another heavily discussed topic at the summit.
To start with, we were very pleased to learn that Senegal wants to lead the agroecology coalition. However, we had already engaged very thoroughly in these debates at the FAO and the CFS together with the producers. So this begs the question: isn’t this coalition merely a copy, or a weakened version, of the FAO’s “Scaling-up Agroecology Initiative” put in place several years ago? We have been calling on the BMZ to boost their support for this initiative for some time. We don’t need a new UNFSS coalition for that! In fact, the UNFSS process has actively damaged agroecology. For example, just a few weeks ago, CFS policy recommendations on agroecology were subordinated to the UNFSS. In addition, negotiations were supposed to have concluded before the pre-summit. Now we have policy recommendations on agroecology that no longer correspond to those of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), and as such do not receive backing from the civil society. One of the reasons for this was that the section on pesticides actually fell short of existing UN agreements. Who benefits from this dilution? The agrochemical sector, of course!
So why not attend the pre-summit in Rome and the summit in New York to advocate for the fulfilment of human rights obligations and agroecology?
Because the UNFSS construct is not inclusive and still doesn’t even have clear rules and structures for co-determination. You get invited to take part, but not in any meaningful way. I know that from marine policy: in the FAO’s Committee on Fisheries, there are no civic mechanisms like those in the CFS. We sit on the sidelines and then, once everyone else has spoken, we get to say our piece. There was a similar structure at the UN Ocean Conference in 2017, with Sustainable Development Goal 14, and we attended because we have no other forum where we could appear alongside the small-scale fishing industry. But even the UNFSS is failing to meet these targets. Were negotiations held even at a single event? Did they work towards a common goal? I saw nothing of the sort in the extensive video portal.
There was a colourful tapestry of anxious speeches and presentations of ideas and solutions, but there was no process put forward to unite and organise them, or even identify conflicts of interest between them.
In the area of food assistance, we, along with the German federal government, have been campaigning for years for the introduction of an inclusive global structure for nutritional matters, which is based on the right to food and inspired by, but independent of, the FAO – in other words, the aforementioned Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The UNFSS has completely cast this inclusive panel aside. It took immense pressure for the CFS Secretary to be accepted into the UNFSS preparatory panel, but only belatedly and along with many others. The CFS doesn’t have its own exclusive place in the UNFSS, which it deserves as the main body of world food architecture with its human rights approach. It is merely one of many approaches. In downgrading the CFS to an arbitrary platform to achieve the “Zero Hunger” Sustainable Development Goal, the UNFSS has shown itself to be unviable.
The process of implementing Sustainable Development Goals is already underway. There are good resolutions, and we are seeing willingness within an increasing number of nations to put the recommendations of the CFS into action. But now a Food Systems Summit wants to get in the way of this and reinvent the wheel in a process which is already underway, with solutions that we have long since moved beyond.
But there were many solutions discussed at the pre-summit. The issue of tackling global hunger might not be that simple. So why not debate every proposed solution and bring them together in these coalitions?
Again, there are no resolutions. These have been avoided since the beginning. In contrast, at the CFS, we grapple with guideline recommendations for nights on end. They are voluntary, but subject to monitoring. This creates pressure which can be leveraged to good effect. On the other hand, this summit completely forgoes this process, and as I’ve said more than once: our core principle of a human-rights-based approach is of utmost importance to us, and therefore non-negotiable. Coalitions will reach agreements about who does what, which they hope will be productive. These are completely arbitrary, and miles away from what was achieved in the last ten years at the committee in Rome. Decisions have to be made there, whereas the UNFSS forums conceal conflicts of interest. This means that the coalitions are very likely to contradict each other.
The food industry is a major player, so it should be involved in decision-making as well. A message of the pre-summit was that the food corporations are part of the problem, but they need to become part of the solution. Does that not mean that you should be working with them to find solutions?
Yes, absolutely As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out, it would already be a huge victory if the major agricultural corporations followed the existing laws and paid their taxes. If they follow these rules, then it will be possible to sit down and talk to them. We have been doing exactly this for ten years at the CFS, even with corporations that we know do not always follow the rules, or work with rule-breakers like Monsanto. We have been talking to Bayer for years in Germany. The CFS does also have a commercial mechanism. Initially, they didn’t really take it seriously, but that’s changed. Now we are able to have it out and negotiate our way through the unavoidable conflicts.
It’s a matter of balancing the industry’s valid interest in maximising its profits with the rights of those affected by these problems. This should be up to the nation states, smallholders and farmers,
but all suggestions are treated equally at the summit. This results in the conflicts of interest being covered up, and the aggregate of these voluntary commitments is treated as the solution.
Maybe it’s as Aristotle said: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Yes, if you’re talking about products, such as spokes in a wheel: alone, they’re useless, but when combined with other parts, they help form a bicycle. But in this scenario, it’s like you have spokes that don’t fit the wheel. Conflicts of interest need to be resolved – and the industry isn’t capable of that.
So your fear is that the set-up of this summit will produce a bicycle that can’t be ridden?
Exactly, sometimes it just doesn’t work. For example, you can’t support smallholder production, which has been called for a lot at the summit, while also planning massive acreages for the agricultural industry that require land to be taken from these smallholders.
Maybe we need to do both? European agriculture wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t rethought its historical devotion to small-scale farming.
You’ve got the cart before the horse here. We’ve lost millions of family operations. This doesn’t mean that we’re starving here in Europe, but we have lost these sources of income as well as the nutritional diversity that we now put great effort into designing with chemical additives, or by releasing gluten- and lactose-free versions of products. And now we want to stop that, because it’s not economically viable in other regions of the world. Even in Germany, there is more consensus as a result of the Commission on the Future of Agriculture held by the BMEL, where it was agreed that we need more family operations in agriculture. So if an agricultural nation like Germany is rethinking its course, why can’t this happen globally? This is taking place despite all of our criticism at the CFS in Rome.
So what is the purpose of the food system summit in your opinion? To disempower the CFS?
That’s exactly it! Ideally, they want the CFS to become more submissive to the goals of the agricultural industry and export nations. Furthermore, the UNFSS Academic Advisory Council, led by Joachim von Braun, is effectively trying to abolish, or at least financially drain, the scientific panel of the CFS (the HLPE) by calling for billions of dollars of investment in a UNFSS “scientific panel” for industry-affiliated research. It’s just as important for academia, industry and certain nation states to reduce the voice and influence of civil-society groups and smallholders by cherry-picking research questions, methods and results.
Industry-affiliated science is greatly inconvenienced by the fact that the HLPE’s scientific recommendations, such as focussing on agroecology, do not reach those they are meant to reach, and thus do little to secure profits for agricultural corporations.
Meanwhile, the HLPE has released 15 well-substantiated reports with recommendations for nation states’ agricultural programmes, which cover numerous areas, from fishing and animal husbandry to dietary recommendations. These favour local markets, small-scale producers and rich, location-based food diversity with the aim of creating sustainable, disaster-proof food systems that reduce poverty and contribute to ending world hunger. There is a global trend towards agroecology, largely as a result of the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which 800 scientists signed off on with the backing of the World Bank and the UN. That was a new experience for everyone, us included; we were at an earlier stage of our organic-farming journey back then. We recognised that this is too small-scale and thus cannot realistically replace industrial agriculture as a global food system. We recognised the need for an open system to make location-specific decisions for sustainable production. This is a holistic principle that spans beyond agriculture and includes education and social issues.
The word “holism” was bandied around a lot at the summit. Do you think that also involves the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in Africa?
Agroecology means ceasing, or not commencing, use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Use of these products is incompatible with sustainability and a holistic approach to biodiversity, and directly contradicts the One Health approach promoted by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). As regards the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, we have published two comprehensive studies on the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) over the last two years, both of which clearly demonstrated that this approach to fighting hunger has been unsuccessful. The fact that AGRA officials hold prominent positions in the UNFSS is one of the fundamental problems of the UNFSS.
Now it seems that the Rome-based agencies will be solely responsible for the further processes emerging from the Food Systems Summit. Is the CFS involved in that?
That was our hope, but the closer we get to the summit, the more effort is being made to establish a follow-up process designed to compete with the CFS. The BMZ is clearly acting in accordance with the wishes of the UN Special Envoy and the Chair of the Academic Advisory Council, and is expressing support for the continued work of this UNFSS Secretariat. I cannot understand why the BMZ is allowing the CFS and its humanitarian approach to be hamstrung by competition from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, which represents Germany at the CFS, just so that it can have a seat at the table in New York. That’s an absolute affront compared to the comparatively inclusive approach we’ve seen for the past eight years in the BMZ’s One World – No Hunger initiative. Since it’s already clear after the pre-summit that this mishmash of ideas won’t lead to a new approach, this BMZ-backed resumption of proceedings is a disappointment that only serves to counteract the positive experiences from the last few years at the One World – No Hunger initiative. The UNFSS Academic Advisory Board continues to ignore the existence of any blind spots in issues of food production and the environment, when the reality is that we have very little idea of what the future holds and need to make projections.
Hunger isn’t an agricultural issue, and it’s not an issue of insufficient production, because we already produce far more than we need.
We could feed 10 to 11 billion people 4,000 calories per day with the food that we currently produce.
But these calories aren’t going where they need to. And people aren’t getting calories from the right sources.
Exactly, it’s an issue of poverty and distribution.
And it’s an agricultural issue, too.
No, if you live in a city – let’s say Lagos for example – where many people are starving despite the supermarket shelves being full, then there is enough food, but it’s unaffordable for too many people. When a smallholder doesn’t have any means of transport and half of their crop perishes, this isn’t a production issue, it’s a transport issue. Add to that largescale industrial production of livestock feed, agrofuels and bioplastics, which yield greater profit than food for people. This means an ever-increasing proportion of global harvests is not being used to feed hungry people, but instead ending up in animals’ stomachs, fuel tanks or production lines for packaging of convenience foods. We don’t need any new scientific discoveries in order to identify and tackle these problems, we just need to finally act on existing findings and stop engaging in obviously harmful behaviours. But the summit avoids regulations by making everything voluntary.
What will happen in the future? Will you not attend the summit in New York?
Probably not. It remains unclear what the results of the pre-summit have been, and how the recommendations from the action tracks will be considered in New York. We are not explicitly calling for a boycott, but the less that comes out of it, the less of a harmful influence it will have.
For us, it’s important that the CFS is not just there to make up the numbers.
It should be granted more influence in its role. We remain hopeful that the BMZ will eventually make the right decision and end its involvement with this masquerade known as the UNFSS. And of course we’re approaching the German federal elections, which will see both ministries undergo a change of leadership. We will make the case for the new federal government to scrutinise and bring to an end the current course of action both in parliament and coalition talks. We are confident, because every party has advocated for an agroecological orientation to development cooperation in the run-up to this election. The BMZ can no longer take a back seat on this issue.
Isn’t it also possible for the summit to strengthen the CFS?
First of all, any resolutions that result from the summit should not be binding for the CFS, which will hold its own conference three weeks later with many of the same people in attendance. Of course, we’d welcome and sign off on a lot of proposals tabled at the summit, for example on issues surrounding the significance of small-scale fishing for global nutrition. If these issues are incorporated into the remit of the Committee, it can be strengthened. However, there are many issues that the CFS doesn’t deal with appropriately due to its institutional weaknesses and underfunding, especially when it comes to the Academic Advisory Council. I’m hopeful the CFS will receive a boost, because until now its development has been hindered by national governments. Maybe they will recognise that the structure being strived for already exists, including in Germany.