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Much ado about business as usual

The United Nations’ upcoming 2021 Food Systems Summit has been gaining traction since it was announced in the 46th Session of the UN last November 2019. Supposedly, it will “awaken” the world to the necessity of “transforming” how food is produced and distributed at all levels. In several related summits, conferences, and public forums it has so far conducted in almost all global regions, the UN FSS has brandished concepts of “sustainability,” “inclusivity,” “resilience,” “biodiversity,” “equitability,” and more boldly, has claimed to be a “people’s summit” - “for everyone everywhere.” Surely, it promises a lot of good things.


In the Philippines, Malacanang has announced a similar Food Security Summit set in May as a response to a spate of increase in food prices at the beginning of the year.


Yet, the littlest scrutiny past the UN’s platitudes reveals the same old neoliberal framework, the same framework which put the global food system in the quagmire it is currently in. The same old corporate culprits are also still in charge. Beneath layers of repackaging, it is business as usual.



Business pitch


The problems of global poverty, hunger, inequality, and conflict persist, if not worsening. The UN admits as much. It more or less squarely presents the conditions of the world’s poor and marginalized, at moments giving focus on underdeveloped nations, rural areas, small-scale producers, and marginalized groups. It presents statistics to back up what is obvious to the majority: the UN’s development goals which it vowed to address and eradicate since 2000, are as distant as ever.


The first and foremost folly of the UN FSS is in its problematic presentation of the problem. The UN quite literally absolves from any culpability the neoliberal policy regime imposed over food systems for the past three decades and is still in fact dominant today. It conveniently left out properly taking history into account, as if poverty and hunger exist in a bubble.


The UN FSS promotes the following Action Tracks (AT): 1) Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all, 2) Shift to sustainable consumption patterns, 3) Boost nature-positive production, 4) Advance equitable livelihoods, and 5) Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. Each serves as “spaces“ for various stakeholders to exchange ideas, towards achieving the Summit’s corresponding five goals. The “discussion starters” prepared by the UN FSS for each track revealed early its biases.


AT 1 roots hunger and malnutrition as the scarcity of a somewhat special commodity. Its track leaders still fail to completely treat food as a fundamental right. Their proposal of increasing and innovating new ways of food production ignores the actual abundance generated by the currently overproductive global food system.


AT 2 blames poor health and environmental destruction on the consumption patterns of people. It then proposes that these individual behaviors be transformed - no holding into account environmentally destructive modes of production which flooded markets with unsustainable commodities in the first place.


AT 3 likewise ignores the Green Revolution’s role in increasing the global carbon footprint of agriculture with its promotion of various chemical inputs. It also paid lip service to “bottom-up” policymaking but failed to acknowledge social injustice and state terror.


Meanwhile, AT 4 rooted socio-economic inequalities to “social norms” at the community and household levels. Hence, it also pushes behavioral changes.


Lastly, AT 5 treats pandemics and similar crises as mere disruptions and not symptomatic of fundamental issues in the global food system. Hence it asserts that these are solvable, again, by technical innovation supported by increased investments.


There was no mention of the exacerbation of land grabbing undertaken by local tycoons, national governments, and transnational corporations as part of market-oriented agrarian reform programs and deceptive agricultural venture arrangements for various plantations and other contract grower schemes.


It was silent on the corporate capture of the entire agricultural process from seed varieties, to chemical inputs, to post-harvest facilities, by a decreasing number of mega-mergers.


It left out the wreckage of the capacity of underdeveloped nations to make its own food, pressed to produce for-export cash crops (such as oil palm, pineapple, and banana) to satiate the needs of the “global market;” as their local markets were dumped with subsidized imports from advanced capitalist countries - all part of agricultural trade liberalization pushed by the World Trade Organization.


It spent no word about deregulation and privatization drives which crumbled peoples’ sovereignty in crafting its own developmental paths.


Instead, the UN FSS roots poverty, hunger, and social unrest to mere problems of scarcity, of consumer behavior, of lack in innovation and investments, of disconnection from the much-touted “global value chain” (GVC), and of enforcing law and order. In short, the problem, once again, is insufficient adherence to neoliberal doctrines.



Culprits as saviors


The UN FSS fails to properly present, much more resolve, the root of the problems. Inevitably, it leads back to neoliberalism, from which the problems it proclaims it aims to address, actually begins. This can be seen from the people and organizations the UN has chosen to lead the Summit.


The World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization of big corporations, has figured in the UN FSS ever since its announcement. In December 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Agnes Kalibata as Special Envoy for the 2021 FSS. Who is Kalibata?


Kalibata became the President of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2014, following her stint as Rwandan agriculture minister. AGRA has advanced the interests of huge agro-chemical transnationals, such as Syngenta and Monsanto since 2006. It has pushed the entry of seed monopolies, genetically modified organisms, and hazardous chemical inputs in African agriculture. This has caused Kalibata to be dubbed, deservedly, as a “corporate puppet.” Her appointment as envoy exposed early on the direction of the UN’s FSS.


Faithful to the Summit’s general pro-corporate character, each track is led by representatives of global finance capital, particularly of international financial institutions such as the World Bank (WB), philanthrocapitalists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and several official developmental aid agencies from Western economies. These institutions are the same old directors of the global developmental agenda since the 1980s. They are responsible for the crafting and imposition of neoliberal policies over the global food system, which has led it to its grave condition today. They have actively subverted the development of the people’s own food systems independent from the global corporate “value chain” wherein they extract superprofits from.


In the Philippines, it is the WB and the BMGF which primarily funded the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the primary promoter of the Green Revolution in the country. For decades, IRRI has succeeded in replacing free heirloom and other indigenous seeds with chemical-dependent high-yielding varieties which depletes soil nutrients. It has propagated a way of farming reliant upon hazardous and costly chemical inputs imported from agro-chemical transnationals. For the past decade, it has pushed for the intrusion of genetically modified organisms into the local food system.


Department of Agriculture Secretary William Dar was nominated as Philippines’ National Dialogues Convenor for the UN FSS. Dar is notoriously neoliberal. He implemented the Rice Liberalization Law which allowed the entry of unlimited rice imports in the country. It saw rice farmers lose incomes of at least P90 billion in three years. More recently, Dar is under fire for persistently pushing for the increased entry of pork imports in blind hopes of tempering skyrocketing prices.


His recomendations to increase Minimum Access Volume and lower tariffs threaten the livelihood of millions in the domestic pork and its allied industries, as it suffers the government’s bangled response to the African Swine Flu. Dar’s contributions to the UN FSS will, unsurprsingly, be antithetical to the interest of small Filipino farmers and food producers.


Way back September 2020, Kalibata also announced an initial list of UNFSS “Champions” who “will lead the call for a new movement to transform food systems.” The list is likewise composed of names closely tied with the WEF, WB, and the BMGF. The “Champions” from the Philippines, for example, are WEF “Expert Network Member” Cherrie Atilano, and Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio.


Atilano represents AGREA Philippines, an agri-corporation she founded and serves as its CEO. She was included as a board member of the Swiss-based organization Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) last July 2020. Funded by BMGF, GAIN advances public-private partnerships and biofortification. Including Atilano, six of GAIN’s members are also UNFSS “Champions.” Its executive director also leads Action Track 1. On the other hand, Dr. Gregorio is the director of Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study in Agriculture (SEARCA). He was deputy head of Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology Division at BMGF-funded IRRI, where he worked for 29 years. He was also part of the Dutch-founded and Thailand-based East-West Seed Company, Inc., a global vegetable seeds company and one of the largest transnational agro-corporations in the Philippines.


As agro-corporate champions are heralded, warnings from hundreds of people’s organizations from hundreds of countries against the corporate hijack of the UN FSS have been essentially ignored. Even usual mechanisms and communications between the UN and civil society organizations previously in place were practically closed.



Neoliberal scam


Ultimately, the UN FSS is set to promote as cure the same poisons killing food systems then and now. Using new terms, it is set to advocate the old principles of techno-fixing socio-economic problems and of market-assisted reforms. First, it was high-yielding varieties, then genetically modified organisms, today it is digitalization. First, it was free and fair trade, today it is “integration” into the GVC.


Concretely, the WB has more recently financed, through loans, the Support to Parcelization of Land to Individual Title (SPLIT) project, worth USD 370 million, and the Philippine Rural Development Project (PRDP), worth USD 678.25 million. SPLIT is set to fragmentize 1.4 million hectares of farm lots, individualize collective titles, and transform the titles into collateralizable assets. This will make farmers more vulnerable to indebtedness and bankruptcy. PRDP on the other hand aims to further deepen the reach of transnational corporations in local food systems through “value chain integration.” Its lobbyists have also pushed the legislation of the Coconut Trust Fund Act, which further deprives the Php 200 billion-worth Coconut Levy Funds from its rightful coconut farmer-owners, putting it again under the control of hand-picked bureaucrats and capitalists. This must be connected with the recent adoption of an international “Sustainable Coconut Charter'' pushed by food transnationals, aiming to access new coconut sources and markets. A repackaging of the failed market-assisted land reform program Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) is also proposed in Congress. There are also several proposed laws on a National Land Use Plan aiming to expedite the conversion of agricultural lands into other uses.


The UN FSS has many consequences on the Philippines’ food systems. Concretely, it must at the very least include substantial representation from peoples’ movements, lest it is just another business meeting.


Undoubtedly, there is a necessity for peasants, fisherfolks, agricultural workers, local food processors, small retailers, consumers, and all food stakeholders to unite to keep vigilant of and continually engage the UN FSS. Principally, the wreckage of Filipino food systems caused by the continued imposition of neoliberal policies must be exposed. Its proponents and enablers should be held accountable. On the other hand, positive experiences and successes in developing genuinely people-centered food systems through the adoption of the principles of food sovereignty and agroecology should be celebrated, promoted, and developed. #

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