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29th Feb 2024

Split on Africa Big-Agri sees boycott at UN food summit

  • A female farm worker, with child, in Sierra Leone (Photo: Annie Spratt)
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The global food system is on the verge of failure: it is contributing in a decisive way to the environmental crisis and is failing in its main goal, to guarantee the right to food for the entire world population.

This is the main conclusion agreed by the over 2,000 participants from 180 countries who took part in the United Nations Food Systems Summit, held in Rome at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) from 24 to 26 July.

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The stakeholders agreed on the urgency of transforming the global food system, but have different ideas about how this transformation should take place: by increasing production through further industrialisation — or by making the system more equitable and sustainable.

"This is a gathering about food systems, but it is essentially about people in it, and the need to fulfil the most basic of human rights, the right to food", said the UN secretary-general António Guterres, creator of the first UN Food Systems Summit, held in New York in 2021.

According to FAO, 735 million people faced hunger in 2022, with a sharp increase of 122 million people compared to 2019.

Meanwhile, unsustainable methods of producing, packaging and consuming food are contributing to almost one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, utilising 70 percent of the world's freshwater, being responsible for 90 percent of tropical deforestation and extensive biodiversity loss.

The idea of increasing production was stressed in a panel about investments in Africa. Despite its wealth of resources, the continent depends on food imports up to $80bn [€73bn] a year.

DR Congo and Ethiopia

Nevertheless, according to FAO, 19.7 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition, while the World Food Program ranks the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia at the top of the list of countries facing food crisis, due to the overlap of climate change, conflicts and rising cost of imported food.

"My country, Somalia, has an abundance of diversified natural resources," said Ahmed Madobe Nunow, minister for agriculture and irrigation of Somalia, referring to 8.9 million hectares of arable land and 3,300km of coastline. "Just like many other African countries, we have huge potential for delivering economic growth."

As a solution to this chronic problem, most panelists evoked a new green revolution: channeling investments to industrialise production, favouring monocultures such as corn and rice, making way for synthetic products and modified seeds.

"As we have agreed in the African Common Position on Food Systems, it is high time to reform and invest in African agro-industrialisation models, by harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation," said Fitsum Assefa, minister of planning and development of Ethiopia.

Ildephonse Musafiri, minister of agriculture and animal resources of Rwanda, said that "we are supporting farmers to access fertilisers and improved climate resilient seeds through our crop intensification programme. Almost 50 percent of the ministry's total annual budget is agreed to this programme."

Also taking part in the panel was Agnes Kalibata, head of the first edition of the summit in New York and president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a lobby group for the industrialisation of agriculture, founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. "We need to take advantage of the current momentum," said Kalibata.

The boycotted summit

The leading role of Kalibata and other corporate bodies in the Food Systems Summit triggered, since 2021, a widespread boycott by dozens of non-governmental organisations and groups adhering to the UN Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples' Mechanism.

The summit "is poised to repeat the failures of the [New York] Food Systems Summit," said during a webinar Deirdre Woods, from the UK based union Landworkers Alliance. "Further advancing industrial food systems and opening the door of the UN to even greater influence by large private companies and their networks, without any corporate accountability framework in place."

Critical positions also emerged within the summit.

A side event organised by the German NGO Welt Hunger Life questioned the theme of participation: "Governments of food systems cannot happen without the people who are at its heart", said moderator Alexander Müller.

Mary Njeri Karanu, from the Kenyan organisation Rural Outreach Africa, said: "As civic society, we bring a grassroots perspective to the table, but this may differ from the priorities of our government", which are "lifting the ban on GMOs" and "lifting a six years ban on logging, which is going to affect our water sources."

According to Li Ailan, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, agricultural production has already outreached the boundaries of sustainability, generating climate, health and biodiversity crises. Ailan thus urged using resources in a more equitable and efficient way, especially with the global population reaching 10 billion in 2050.

"Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, the capacity of people to access healthy diets has deteriorated throughout the world," said Ailan. Quoting FAO figures, she claimed that malnutrition concerns 195 million children suffering insufficient access to food, but also 37 million children under 5 affected by obesity.

"Making the right food choice is difficult, but not impossible," said Ailan. "To promote a healthy population and a healthy Planet, diets must be balanced food from animals and plant sources, and limit access and consumption of red and processed meat."

Lana Weidgenant, representative of youth climate activists, stressed the idea of "sustainable consumption": "We need to make sure that we are talking about reduction of meat, particularly in the global north and high consuming countries."

Different speakers recalled the need for different agricultural approaches, such as regenerative agriculture, based on a better use of soil and resources.

"Talking about my country, which is Lesotho, the agricultural system has always been vulnerable to variable climate change," said Masia Joane, from Lesotho's ministry of agriculture and food security. Joane said that the choice to "promote monocultures" has further increased vulnerability, generating "very few results", so the government is networking with other countries to develop different approaches, based on sustainable agriculture and risk prevention.

The summit was yet another proof that the road to transforming the food system is far from cleared, even though time is running out.

The debate will continue, starting with the next UN Conference on Climate Change in December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates, that will bring "the strongest push ever given to food systems and agriculture," as announced in Rome by the UAE minister for Climate change Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri.

Author bio

Francesco De Augustinis is a freelance journalist and documentarist with 10 years experience, specialising in agrifood and environmental issues. In 2019 he founded the independent project One Earth, through which he took part in different international investigative projects in food and sustainability matters.

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