by Steven McFadden – (published 2.17.21 – updated 3.4.21)
You may imagine that your involvement with the food system begins and ends with your refrigerator, your pantry, your local supermarket, and your backyard garden, if you are lucky enough to have one. But that fantasy would be tragically misleading.
The inescapable facts: at this passionate, volatile, hotly contested moment of history, your breakfast, lunch, and dinner are in almost all cases intimately, irrevocably enmeshed in the matrix of the global food system. Outside of radical self-sufficiency, which is not what most people are capable of, there’s no escaping that matrix.
As it happens there’s a great debate underway about that system—about the people, values, politics, and profits that influence our farms, our people in the fields and packing houses, our farm animals, and ultimately our food and our health. That debate will reach a crescendo this coming October at the UN’s global Food Systems Summit 2021.
The crescendo will arrive in the context of at least three extreme factors: the global pandemic, global climate change, and widespread social discontent with the status quo. Those factors are at work forcefully on our one and only planet, and consequently on most everyone’s plate. Like it or not, your pantry is in play.
Zooming Toward the Summit
Thanks to Zoom, I had the chance on February 11 to sit before my computer screen in Nebraska, and to watch a pre-summit debate on food systems among a host of learned observers from around the world. The online session—really more a discussion than a debate—was presented in partnership by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, the Agroecology Fund, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), the Dominican Republic, the UN Committee on World Food Security, and the SDG2 Advocacy Hub.
The discussion was one of many official, online pre-summit events. On this particular panel, participants discussed what they see as necessary for resilient, renewable, equitable, climate-stabilizing, healthy, and diverse food systems. That’s the vision of agroecology, a vision devoutly to be wished. And when that vision is inspirited, it’s deep agroecology.
As the Zoom panelists explained, a key element for the upcoming global Food Systems Summit was established five years ago when the UN unanimously approved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With a deadline of 2030—just nine quick years from now—the SDGs address a range of critical global/local issues from hunger to climate chaos, poverty, education, vanishing ecosystems, and more.
The basic idea of the October summit is to choose and to empower ways and means to help meet the SDGs through farm and food systems. Collectively, the existing systems have a colossal impact on the natural environment, and on human health.
This summit will mark not just a moment in time, but also a turning point. Our local, national, and global food systems require tremendous changes. That’s evident in the pervasive chemical pollution, the dead zones in our seas, the vast animal misery of our factory farms (CAFOs), the starkly unjust circumstances of our essential farm and food workers, the persistent widespread hunger around the world, in epidemics of chronic, diet-related diseases, and in many other facets of the ways we draw sustenance from our finite planet.
This constellation of massive, systemic predicaments serves as a marker of the old order. That order is flailing forward in the pits of depleted resources, and wallowing in its own foul waste lagoons. The dreadful facts of the matter signal that existing global, mechanical, industrial chemical food systems are not in integrity with nature, and consequently out of integrity with the directions humanity must pursue to reckon with current extremes, and to evolve forward to living in respect of the circle of life, and the next Seven Generations.
Farm and food systems are the foundation of just about everything else in the modern world. Now that the necessity of change is inevitable, what will the changes be? Who will decide? Who will benefit? There are 7.8 billion people with an essential stake in the decisions.
Over the last many decades the mechanisms of governance for farm and food systems have been increasingly influenced and dominated by corporations with primary allegiance to investor profit. Pre-summit panel member Sofia Monsalve, Secretary General of FIAN International, made explicit note of this.
She said that marginalized participants in the food systems are in fact marginalized as well in the upcoming global summit. She also made note of the ongoing “corporate capture” of food systems, a controlling reality that plays out not just in farm and food enterprises, but also around the world in many corporately captured government regulatory agencies.
The central drive for efficiency and profit in farm and food systems has, perhaps inevitably, implicated the industrial-chemical models in a torrent of critical issues: human rights, land rights, water depletion, chronic disease, climate chaos, pollution, and more. Unrelenting “efficiency” and “cheap food” have extreme costs.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, has noted alarmingly (article) that human rights have been dropped from the Summit’s agenda in favor of corporate-friendly language. Fakhri wrote to the head of the summit, Agnes Kalibata, in January stating that the global food crisis was “chronic, urgent, and set to intensify” and yet the summit is focused on science and technology, money and markets, and does not address “fundamental questions of inequality, accountability, and governance.”
Participants in this pre-summit debate were well aware of these realities. In making a relevant point about the situation, Olivier De Schutter—co-chair of IPES-Food, and also the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights—used the term political economy. “Issues of power and accountability,” De Schutter said, “must be at the heart of the UN summit.”
Billions of Voices
Political economy refers to the reality of how a country—or in this case the world—is managed or governed, taking into account political, economic, and (at least ideally) social, and ethical factors.
As outlined in a conversation between professors Philip H. Howard and Mary Hendrickson, the phenomenon of corporate capture, or concentration, is a clear, present, and aggressive factor for our farms and food, and ultimately for our pantries.
“In our view,” the professors said, “a resilient food system that feeds everyone can be achieved only through a more equitable distribution of power. This in turn will require action in areas ranging from contract law and antitrust policy to workers’ rights and economic development. Farmers, workers, elected officials and communities will have to work together to fashion alternatives and change policies.”
Broadly speaking—and in distinction from the structures of governments and corporations—farmers, smallholders, peasants, food workers, non-profit organizations, co-ops, consumers, and communities constitute civil society. In one sense civil society strives to speak for the global community of human beings, all 7.8 billion of us, especially those human beings who historically have not had a voice.
In this case civil society refers in particular to the billions of voices, and thousands upon thousands of local, community-based food initiatives in the USA, Canada, Mexico, and around the world, certainly including the transnational agrarian movement, La Via Campesina (LVC).
After building global webs of relationship over recent decades, the many peoples and organizations of civil society have generally recognized that the trajectory of the global Food Systems Summit is heading in a direction they cannot support.
About month after watching the February 11 pre-summit debate online, I was reminded via an email from Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau of ActionAid USA that civil society organizations are definitely not on board with the developing spirit and form of the upcoming Food Systems Summit.
In 2020 over 500 civil society organizations sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General outlining their alarm about corporate capture of the summit, and the likelihood that the summit will serve as a forum for advancement of corporate aims and greenwashing, meanwhile glossing over the essential earth-and-justice respecting ways and means of true agroecology.
After sending their letter to the Secretary General, and seeing that their principal concerns were going to remain unaddressed, many of the civil society organizations publicly expressed disappointment in the summit’s plan, and declined to be involved. Of note, LVC—the largest social movement in the world—denounced the Food Systems Summit, and declared that it would not participate.
An LVC position paper on the Summit states that the governance of the event is utterly undemocratic, and that it remains firmly in control of “a handful of large international corporations…The current trajectory of the Summit’s build-up process allows the global power elites, and especially the private sector, to once again legitimize themselves as architects of the future of our food system, using its transnational corporate arms to continue to accumulate capital and destroy the planet.”
LVC holds another vision, one of food sovereignty: comprehensive, democratic local food systems that are diverse, agroecological, informed by indigenous knowledge, and developed and managed justly by people with full respect for human rights.
As several the pre-summit panelists expressed, the true ideals of agroecology—farm and food systems that are clean, sustainable, socially just, and respectfully inclusive of indigenous knowings—are often given lip service, but at present the vision they represent is not really on the agenda.
Unlike the mechanistic approaches of corporate oligarchies with their technocratic chemical industrial approaches to farms and animals, in the vision of agroecology people around the world recognize an umbrella concept that—via farms and food—synthesizes the needs of human beings with the needs of the natural world. In beauty, with wisdom, this can be done.
Agroecological approaches to farms and food follow not one fixed model, but rather are diverse according to the basic nature of their circumstances, and right relationship with the circle of life. They are clean, sustainable, climate-stabilizing through the sequestration of carbon and the building of topsoil, socially just, animal humane, and egalitarian.
Agroecology encompasses systems such as organics, biodynamics, regenerative, permaculture, cooperative, and so forth, and thereby represents an inspirational and pragmatic vision of what is necessary and possible as we strive to re-organize the food web. In response to the pandemic, to pollution, to climate breakdown, to social injustice, and the intensifying hegemony of multinational chemical, drug, and ag corporations.
Agroecology represents practical, purposeful, and realistic hope. It’s a global vision that has been dreamed and then acted upon by millions of people around the world—civil society. Corporations and governments have often resisted agroecology, or tried to co-opt the concept and related language, seeing agroecology as a threat to their entrenched, industrialized operations, to their market shares, and to their profits.
Zoom Globally, Act Locally
In a multitude of places and ways around the globe—and in the context of extreme factors such climate chaos, COVID, and environmental deterioration—millions of people are working toward the fundamental, democratic, egalitarian, and healing impulses of agroecology.
Even though you are likely far removed from the UN’s Global Food Systems Summit and its critical discussions and decisions, you can observe what is happening. As I did, you can Zoom into pre-summit meetings and other events. Find out what is going on. Information is power. Ignorance is folly.
The “global food system” is in fact a system of systems. And a basic tenet of systems theory is that changing one part of a system affects the entire system. With all that’s going on globally, you still have your own pantry as your principal point of influence in the food system. I encourage you: do not underestimate the power of your pantry.
This time-worn saying holds true: every dollar you spend on food is a vote for the kind of food system you have and will have. Your investment in clean, local, just farm and food initiatives adds energy and momentum for agroecology on a petite scale. But networked together in a web of action with the millions of initiatives around the planet, it’s agroecology on a grand scale: the scale we need to reckon with the extremes.
Your pantry—and consequently your breakfast, lunch dinner, and planet—have a date with destiny at the Global Food Systems Summit later this year.