Will the UN Food Systems Summit Bring Change?

Food is highly political. This is evident from the criticism that has been raised in the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit on September 23. A report by the NGO China Dialogue, one of our partners within the topic of climate change.

Mike Shanahan | September 2021
Markt in Ecuador
Kseniya Ragozina/Alamy

On the face of it, it is good news that the UN will host a Food Systems Summit on 23 September. The meeting aims to accelerate the transformation of the global food system so that it provides nutritious food for all, is good for people and nature, fights climate change, and boosts resilience to environmental and economic shocks.

But there are grave concerns about this summit.

Critics are legion

Indeed, the summit got off to a rocky start. The UN upset many civil society and farmers’ groups by partnering with corporate powerhouse, the World Economic Forum. Moreover, the UN named as special envoy the person of Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a promoter of high-tech commercial seeds.

Critics are legion. They include hundreds of NGOs, academics, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and many scientists. They say the summit’s process marginalises human rights and fails to acknowledge that corporate domination of food systems and weak governance are root causes of the problems the summit wants to address. They argue that its various modes of participation are a smokescreen that will enable corporations to exert greater control over food systems and the UN itself.

The UN rejects this. It has stressed that the summit’s formal leadership structures include no companies, only business networks. Representatives of smallholders, indigenous peoples, youth and women have all been involved in the summit action tracks, generating a greater share of ideas for improving food systems than private sector participants. These groups also had prominent roles in a pre-summit in July. But a seat at the table does not mean equal power.

Science versus systems

The summit’s content is also contested. There is a strong focus on increasing production and resilience by boosting the uptake of technologies – from biotech crops and precision farming to nanoparticle coverings that extend the shelf-life of produce.

There has, unfortunately, been less attention to fundamentally redesigning food systems by addressing structural barriers, such as access to finance, legal recognition of land tenure, and corporate policies that lock poor farmers into problematic modes of food production. Western science holds sway while traditional knowledge developed over millennia remains at the margins, despite growing calls for its integration into policy advice.

Critics say the focus on science and innovation over systemic change promotes the corporate agenda of high-input intensive agriculture for export markets, rather than diverse and resilient local food systems.

Summit outcomes

Climate change in particular has featured strongly in the ideas emerging from the summit’s action tracks and dialogues. There was less of a focus on reducing fossil fuel use and more on increasing carbon storage through agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, reducing methane emissions from rice-fields and livestock, and increasing farmers’ resilience.

There is, however, no formal mechanism linking the summit to the UN negotiations on climate change and biodiversity – which have both tended to overlook food and agriculture.

Nevertheless, the  summit will kickstart a process, in which member states – with support from UN agencies – will refine and implement their strategies for transforming food systems, individually and through coalitions. For the summit to succeed, these pathways must be truly transformative. This means changing not only the parts of the food system that involve food itself, but also the regulatory, financial, and administrative systems that underpin it.

As the summit process shifts from generating ideas to implementing actions, its leaders should refocus on one of the principles they identified at the outset: “build trust”.