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The world needs a food movement based on agroecology and equity (commentary)

  • The idea of a Food Systems Summit seemed timely when it was announced in 2019 by the World Economic Forum and the UN Secretary-General’s Office.
  • But while the need was widely appreciated, the unorthodox proposal by Davos to expand “stakeholder capitalism” to encompass the United Nations alarmed some involved in the food movement.
  • Neither the upcoming climate conference nor the Kunming biodiversity COP can succeed without fundamental changes to our food systems, argues Pat Mooney.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

If the inequities made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t already grotesque reminders of humanity’s failings, then the assault on our planetary boundaries is downright dangerous. It’s 2021, and four out of nine of these boundaries have been crossed. A viable response by governments and industry isn’t in sight. So as fate would have it, COVID-19 has amplified the urgency of three “game-changing” UN meetings later this year – gatherings that may, or may not, tip the balance in our favor.

Glasgow’s COP26 climate conference (November) will determine how governments, the economy, and human civilization confront this existential threat. In October in Kunming, the UN’s Biodiversity Convention will decide a 10-year plan to arrest the collapse of species – every bit as perilous as the climate crisis. And in October in New York, a lesser known – but equally critical – summit will determine future food security.

The climate and biodiversity conferences follow a predictable crescendo. But the call for a food summit popped out of nowhere: in a deal struck between the World Economic Forum and the UN Secretary-General’s Office only in mid-2019.

When the announcement was made, a Food Systems Summit felt timely. My colleagues and I had just begun assessing food systems preparedness for the climate and biodiversity crises. Taking the long view to mid century, we called this the ‘Long Food Movement’. But while the need for a Summit was widely appreciated, the unorthodox proposal by Davos to the United Nations set alarm bells ringing.

Agroforestry is a resilient farming method where annual crops are grown sustainably in combination with woody perennials like trees. Image by Feria de Productores, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In calling for a summit focusing on food systems, Davos is expanding “stakeholder capitalism” to encompass the United Nations. The organizers seek a mandate for some configuration of G20 states, the private sector (agribusiness and big data platform companies, to be precise), and a handful of philanthro-capitalist funders (to guide a “climate-smart” agricultural strategy).

The problem is that their solution plainly ignores the existing UN Committee on World Food Security that has brought all states, relevant multilateral agencies, civil society and the private sector into active negotiations on an annual basis. Everyone participates an governments decide, but unhappy that civil society is so prominent in this committee, the biggest corporations and governments wanted something a little cozier.

Fast forward to 2021, the organizers of the Food Systems Summit are acutely aware that many government negotiators and civil society organizations are grinding their teeth over the Davos proposals. So they’ve opted for what can only be described as a kind of Disney World Food Systems Summit.

Everybody is welcome. Individuals and organizations can be self-declared “champions” or “heroes” and governments, industry and civil society are all invited to join one of five theme groups: Adventureland, Never Never Land, Fantasyland, etc. Farmers, diplomats and the food insecure can get on board, enjoy a fun ride and get off exactly where they started.

When it’s over, the organizers will applaud the spectacle, admire the participation, and cherry-pick their conclusions. There will be no final negotiated text of substance.

For our part, the Long Food Movement team found that there’s broad agreement on the problems food systems face:

  1. Between a third and a half of the $8 trillion in global food retail expenditure is lost or wasted somewhere along the food chain.
  2. Between fertilizer runoff at one end of the food chain and plastics pollution at the other end, the $8 trillion food chain comes with another $4 trillion in subsidized damages.
  3. Despite these expenditures, at least 2.5 billion people are inadequately nourished and/or don’t have sufficient access to safe water.
  4. The industrial food chain is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a major cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss.

See related: Mongabay has launched a new series on agroecology, view here.

Vegetables produced via agroecology. Photo by Elina Mark, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

So neither the Glasgow climate conference nor the Kunming biodiversity conference can hope to succeed without fundamental changes to our food systems.

But if the problem is agreed, Davos and the Long Food Movement part ways on the remedy. Industry’s solutions depend on theoretical or untested technological platforms that suck up trillions in state subsidies, and surrender the world’s food supply to a handful of extraordinarily powerful corporations.

The Long Food Movement rejects this “agribusiness as usual” future and opts – cautiously – for a “civil society as unusual” scenario: where those in food, health, human rights, trade, and local and national food systems collaborate like never before. Over the next quarter century, this means:

  1. expanding agroecology in local and territorial markets;
  2. restructuring national, regional and global governance mechanisms;
  3. shifting more than $4 trillion in annual financial flows from its current agribusiness focus to decentralized initiatives, and;
  4. new arrangements among organizations and funders that strengthen civil society’s preparedness for the political and environmental challenges of the next 25 years.

Not only can $4 trillion a year be moved from the negative to the positive column, but greenhouse gas emissions can be cut by at least 75% and humanity may be healthy and food secure.

These are food systems that confront the climate crisis, defend biodiversity, and ensure the primacy of people and their governments. Not the dream stuff of a Disneyland theme park, but the stuff that feeds us.

Pat Mooney is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and is co-founder of the ETC Group.

Related listening: Mongabay’s podcast asks, can agroecology feed the world? Listen here:

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