A United Nations (UN) report released on July 12 showed a sharp increase in the number of undernourished people around the world.
It was the first comprehensive assessment of hunger since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The report noted that hunger and malnutrition have been worsening for over a decade due to conflicts, economic recessions and climate extremes.
According to the report, nearly 10 percent or an estimated 768 million people across the globe were undernourished in 2020 as the pandemic disrupted economies, job markets and supply chains and inflated food prices. That represented an additional 118 million from 2019, when 8.4 percent of the world’s population was undernourished.
Africa was hit the hardest as hunger and malnourishment increased dramatically during the pandemic. More than a third of the continent’s nearly 1.4 billion people were suffering from undernourishment.
UN leaders said that the pandemic “continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems” and that we are at a “critical juncture” to transform food systems. (Related: “Famine of biblical proportions” headed our way due to COVID-19, warns UN food chief.)
They pointed to the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September, the COP26 on climate change in November and Nutrition for Growth Summit in December as crucial events that will shape how food systems develop in the years ahead.
The Food Systems Pre-Summit kicks off in Rome on July 26.
UNFSS sparks criticisms, protests and calls for boycott
For over a year, the UNFSS has sparked criticisms, protests and calls for a boycott from food security experts, UN insiders and hundreds of organizations from Africa and other countries. They were concerned about the dominant role of large corporations and private donors, including the Gates Foundation, that were pushing a narrow set of approaches for profit-driven agricultural development.
Many African groups think that the current market-based agricultural development models driven by external actors are worsening the situation. “The same false solutions are being recycled, with the same narrow benefits accruing to a limited number of actors,” said the African Center for Biodiversity, an advocacy group working towards food sovereignty and agroecology in Africa.
Those models were “business-as-usual, quick-technofix policy prescriptions of the agribusiness agendas,” the African groups said. They were instead pushing for a “radical shift from fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture and corporate monopolies of food and agriculture to food sovereignty and agroecology.”
In March, hundreds of faith groups and people of faith from Africa asked the Gates Foundation to stop promoting “a model of industrial monoculture farming and food processing that is not sustaining our people.” The groups wrote their letter “out of grave concern that the Gates Foundation’s support for the expansion of intensive industrial-scale agriculture is deepening the humanitarian crisis.”
Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, described the criticisms of the UNFSS in a July 14 blog post at FoodPolitics.com.
“The criticisms are so severe that the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN is organizing counter events July 25-27,” she wrote.
According to Nestle, the UNFSS has been heavily criticized for “setting agenda themes determined by corporate entities; favoring corporate technological solutions to food system problems; ignoring agroecology, organic farming and indigenous knowledge; excluding meaningful representation from people most affected by food system transformation; promoting corporate control of food systems; ignoring the conflicted interests of its organizers; and being fundamentally undemocratic.”
Billions at stake in battle over food systems
Michael Fahkri, the UN rapporteur on the right to food, said that billions of dollars in public and private investments to improve food systems are at stake through the food summit negotiations.
Fahkri and other UN insiders have criticized the summit’s leaders, saying that they are ignoring human rights, marginalizing civil society and restructuring the process to shift power away from the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) into the hands of a small set of private sector actors.
The High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on food security and nutrition, which advises the CFS, has earlier called for a paradigm shift away from industrial agriculture and toward agroecological approaches and policies that address social needs and inequality.
But instead of following the direction of its expert panel, the UN has allowed an agribusiness takeover of food system negotiations.
The 2021 UNFSS was announced alongside a new partnership agreement between the UN and World Economic Forum (WEF). UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Agnes Kalibata, president of the Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), to lead the food summit.
These moves sparked outrage from hundreds of groups who called for the termination of the WEF agreement and asked for Kalibata’s appointment to be revoked over concerns that AGRA “promotes a high input agricultural model that is not sustainable beyond constant subsidy, which is drawn from increasingly scarce public resources.”
In a new report published recently, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) described a problematic new science-policy framework and governance structure that is being proposed through the food summit.
If adopted, the plan could marginalize the CFS, its expert panel and civil society groups even further, effectively excluding them from UN decision-making processes. IPES-Food described the situation as “a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems.”
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