Competing food summits hike to alternative visions
The food system in Africa is under extreme stress. 282 million Africans are undernourished and food insecure, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Long-term trends such as climate change and increasing urbanisation are forcing a rethink of the nature and relationship between all the actors in the food production sphere, from smallholder farmers to national governments and regional initiatives.
In late September 2021, two competing visions for the future of the global food system were put forward. The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UN FSS), held in New York, highlighted a vision where industrial agriculture and technology were at the forefront of solving the food crisis. By contrast, a counter-summit, hosted by a range of Indigenous groups and civil society organisations, decried the perceived ‘corporate capture’ of the UN summit. The Global People’s Summit (GPS) on Food Systems promoted a food system based on food sovereignty and agroecology, opposing the capitalist nature of the current food system.
At the heart of the issue related to sub-Saharan Africa is the continued support from major actors for a ‘Green Revolution’ in Africa. The first ‘Green Revolution’, across the 1960s and 70s in Latin America and Asia, resulted in the mass production of a few crops through technological innovations such as the development of high-yielding variety seeds, intensive pesticide usage, and mechanised farming. The attempt at an African Green Revolution neatly displays the division between the two camps.
The UN FSS was the sixth UN summit on food since 1943 and the first one to be organised by the UN itself, as opposed to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The UN FSS had four broad aims, mainly centred around creating solutions to achieve important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as zero hunger and malnutrition. This would be achieved through working groups on five ‘Action Tracks’, where access to sustainably-produced food with low impact on the environment, and with an emphasis on food production which gives due respect to Indigenous groups.
According to the UN FSS, the summit was a great success. The press release stated that over 100 countries made commitments to 'transform their food systems.' With the summit inclusive of a range of stakeholders, new initiatives worth hundreds of millions of dollars were launched by civil society, financial entities, Indigenous groups, and philanthropic organisations. The recommendations of the UN FSS were backed up by the support from the established independent Scientific Group, which engaged with a broad network of experts during the process. The UN FSS emphasised the critical importance of relying on ‘evidence-based and scientific approaches’, which would therefore ensure the validity of the summit outcomes.
In the leadup to the UN FSS, the African Union (AU), through consultation and dialogue with member states, and other relevant parties and institutions, developed the African Common Position to the UN FSS 2021. Recognising the challenge faced by climate change, the Position noted that the African continent is lagging behind in the uptake of agricultural modernising instruments, such as ‘improved seeds, feeds, irrigation and mechanisation.’ There is great perceived benefit in promoting the ‘digital and biotechnologies’ that will transform the food system.
The incorporation of such technology in agriculture is exactly what the GPS was positioned against. Composed of smallholder farmers and Indigenous groups predominantly from the Global South, the GPS attacked the UN FSS, arguing that it was dominated by agricultural oligopolies, and the solutions to the food crisis were merely an exercise in profit. While the UN FSS claimed that it was sensitive to the voices of smallholder farmers and Indigenous groups, the proclaimed inclusivity of the summit has been dismissed as an ‘illusion’.
The GPS claimed that the UN FSS had been a victim of ‘corporate capture’, where multinational agri-business corporations carry significant clout in negotiations and can shift the narrative in their favour. One proof of this ‘corporate capture’ was the alliance between the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and CropLife International. The FAO is the main UN body that deals with global food issues and CropLife International is a global network of agricultural producers, agro-tech businesses, and major pesticide producers. The primary purpose of these corporations is to profit, which is often done at the expense of smaller food producers. This partnership has been criticised by voices belonging to the GPS, pointing out the 385 million cases of pesticide poisoning of farmers every year.
A corporate-friendly agenda was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, undermining the supposed balance of the UN FSS multi-stakeholder process. The Scientific Group of the UN FSS was also criticised by members of the GPS as ignoring traditional knowledge and practices, and reinforcing support for agriculture that is heavily reliant on pesticides.
The main representative African group at the GPS was the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). For AFSA, the solution to the current crisis is not one of technological innovations, which tend to reward the wealthy multinational corporations and large landowners. Rather, AFSA promotes agroecology.
Agroecology is a form of farming that focuses on working with local ecosystems, in conjunction with traditional knowledge and practice. It returns power to farmers, and develops food production in a climate-friendly and sustainable way. This is a major difference with industrial agriculture, which produces significant environmental impacts such as high carbon emissions, soil erosion, and pollution.
The African Green Revolution
The conflict between the two competing visions is laid bare in the perceptions of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and its partner organisation, the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF).
AGRA and AGRF are supported by regional institutions, multinational corporations, and philanthropic organisations. The president of AGRA, Agnes Kalibata, was appointed as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the UN FSS. The AGRF Summit, held in early September, aimed to elevate the ‘single coordinated African voice’ on food systems at the UN FSS. Consequently, AGRA and the AGRF hosted various panels and events at the UN FSS, which promoted their perception on the challenges and solutions to the African food system.
AGRA aims to increase agricultural productivity through technical packaging, pairing genetically modified seeds with crop-specific fertilizer and pesticides. It has been running across 13 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since 2006. However, this input-intensive agriculture has not managed to achieve AGRA’s goals, as under-nourishment in the 13 countries increased from 2006 to 2018.
This failure reinforces those sceptical against further industrialisation in agriculture in SSA. AFSA, which claims to represent 200 million small-scale food producers, has called for the cessation of funding for AGRA, along with a push towards agroecology.
The divisions in the future food system in Sub-Saharan Africa will have profound consequences. Given the institutional and financial backing behind AGRA, it is unlikely to be abandoned. With climate change already affecting crop production, the proffered solution of a return to traditional farming may be untenable.
Ezekiel Dobelsky completed his Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne in 2020, to go with his undergraduate double degree of Arts & Economics from Monash University. He previously interned at EcoPeace Middle East, a regional NGO focused on environmental peacebuilding in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He is currently an editorial assistant at E-IR, an intern at Circular Economy Victoria and teaches chess on the side.