Tag Archives: UN

Your Pantry, Your Planet: Extreme Factors Set the Stage for Global Farm and Food Summit

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 Summit has been convened to restructure the regulatory environment for farms and food. That’s a immensely consequential responsibility.

The crescendo of the debate 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.

Political Economy
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.

A Reminder
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.

True Agroecology
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.

A Broken Twig and Our Broken World

One sultry September about four decades ago, after having been prepared for the quest by true and knowledgeable friends, I sat on a New Hampshire mountaintop for four days and four nights.

Setting out on this first, formal quest, I held wild hopes for metaphysical marvels: clouds parting, maybe, angel voices, maybe, messengers arriving from celestial realms to deliver golden scrolls of wisdom, maybe. Make it so! Something spectacular!

But nothing mysterious or majestic happened at all. As far as I could tell, over those four sunsets and sunrises there was not as much as a quirk in the quantum field. Not that first year.

But that first time something key did unfold…

The rest of my blog post is live now at Mother Earth News.

No No Nano: Macro-Objections to Micro-Machinations of Industrial Processed Food

“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” – Wendell Berry

Steadily, stealthily, corporations are driving the goodness of natural life itself from our food, and cleverly – though unwisely – infesting it with dim bits of microscopic material substance that are obscured from human awareness. I object. Wholeheartedly.

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Just as synthetic chemicals, manufactured additives, irradiation, and then genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been corporately imposed upon processed food, now a micro-invasion of nanoparticles is gaining momentum. Patented lab-created nanoparticles are even penetrating the realm of organic food, as the USDA’s organic program chooses to do nothing.

The invisible, insidious micro-mechanistic food interventions being aggressively advanced by industry are now incarnate via nanotechnology. That’s the practice of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale, and then incorporating the synthetic molecules into processed stuff, including our food.

The scale of nanotech is so infinitesimal that it’s a mindstretch for most people. A sheet of newspaper, for example is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

The chemical-food industry has already incorporated nanomaterials into dietary supplements as well as packaging materials and cutting boards. They claim their nano-products make food safer, and they have dozens of direct food applications in development.

A MishMash of Micro-Machinations
Overall, at this early stage of the 21st Century, corporations are churning out a complex mishmash of novel, man-made, synthetic materials to impact the industrial food chain, and eventually our bodies and souls. They are doing it with minimal or no regulation. Consider:

  • The market right now offers more than 300 foods and food packaging materials that likely contain engineered nanomaterials, according to the Center for Food Safety. Nanomaterials can cause damage to ecosystems by transporting toxic contaminants through the environment, potentially causing cancer and organ damage.
  • Researchers are now developing nanocapsules containing synthetic nutrients that can be released in your intestines when nanosensors detect a vitamin deficiency in your body.
  • Nanoproducts already on sale in Europe purport to smuggle fat through your stomach and into your small intestine. This triggers a feeling of satiety and manufacturers claim it can help people cut their food intake.

atomsNano is the latest dimension, but by no means the whole of the manufactured machinations impacting the corporately patented and processed food chain:

  • We are consuming a wholesale eruption of food additives. In the 1950s there were only about 800 food additives. Today there are an estimated 10,000, many of them dubious and provoking a cascade of health complaints. Since the days of the Bush-Quayle Administration in the early 1990s, the FDA has shrugged its regulatory shoulders. It provides no scrutiny of food additives to determine whether they are safe for human consumption. The government allows corporations to monitor themselves.
  • Over 275 chemicals used by 56 companies appear to be marketed as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Secret) and are used in many products based on companies’ safety determinations that, pursuant to current regulations, do not need to be reported to the FDA or the public. This is probably just the tip of an iceberg.
  • The science is just not in on the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their long-term impact on health and the environment. Yet against the explicit recommendation of FDA scientists, the FDA does not test GMOs. The FDA, in fact, does not even have a testing protocol for GMOs. Since the Bush-Quayle era, the federal government has placed faith in the corporations and their dubious dogma of “Substantial Equivalence.”
  • Fake DNA is now worming its way toward our food chain. As Tom Philpott reports in Mother Jones, synthetic biology – synbio for short – is tantamount to “genetic engineering on steroids.” Synthetic biologists generate new DNA sequences for food the way programmers write code for computers. Like nanotech, food additives and GMOs, synbio foods may well also escape government oversight, independent testing, and the requirement of labels so people may know what they are eating.

This foreboding fiesta of micro-mechanistic manipulations to our human food chain is happening in the context of an assault of disinformation being perpetrated through both social and mass media. As reported by Reuters, GMO, chemical and processed food corporations have committed themselves to a multi-year, multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat attempts to require GMO labels.

The campaigns pursue a number of different strategies to manipulate public opinion, including false claims that there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and the oft-echoed meme that we (citizens and consumers) are just too stupid to appreciate corporate scientific brilliance. Meanwhile, well-funded attacks continue in efforts to corrupt or undermine the integrity of organic food.

My Macro Objections
Although in time some innovations may prove worthy, in general I’ve got a skullful of reality-based objections to these micro-materialistic manipulations of the natural world and our food. But for the sake of brevity, here’s a half dozen of my macro-objections:

1. Free Will. First, I object to corporate micromanipulation of our human food supply on the spiritual basis of free will. As consumers of processed food, we are not asked for input or permission. We are not even afforded the basic respect of being informed about the material substances being mechanically ingrained to alter our food. That constitutes a direct violation of free will. That’s unacceptable.

I suspect that – if more widely known – such fundamental transgressions would be unacceptable to the vast majority of human beings. With no corporate or governmental transparency there can exist no trust on the part of citizen consumers. That’s pretty damn basic, despite the info war to convince us that our knowledge is wanting, and that our free will is irrelevant.

Scientific research indicates that when nucleic acids are introduced into our foods – such as through genetic engineering – they can survive digestion and wind up woven into the fabric of our blood and our body organs. Corporate GMOs can become part of our human bodies, and interact with our normal, natural genes in ways not understood or predictable.

Thus, I object to having corporately designed, produced and patented genes intermingling with my natural genes without my informed consent, or my even knowing about it. My genes are a key part of the spiritual, biological recipe for me. They are sacrosanct, and not available against my will for corporate exploitation with their unknowable synthetic entities.

2. Relationship. My second objection is spiritual as well. It has to do with our relationship with the earth and the land and all the animals and plants that are part of our world. These relationships are integral to our health and well-being. The complex relationship of the web of life is identified and appreciated in both leading-edge science and in ancient native knowings concerning The Sacred Hoop.

web-of-lifeWhen corporate science isolates factors such as genes, and studies them short-term for isolated results, it’s examining perhaps half of reality, and ignoring the rest. That is dangerously myopic. We are part of a cosmic web. All of life is related and interconnected whether corporations allow themselves to be aware of it or not. When you pluck a single thread on the web and it vibrates throughout the whole. This basic reality must become a consideration for the entire technological realm.

The establishment of synthetic constructs between human beings and nature – as is the case with the action of many drugs, chemicals, GMOs and other materials concocted in the lab — causes distortions, and tends to incrementally divorce human beings from the natural world and its rhythms.

Many materials used in industrial agriculture have the capacity to enhance plant growth and performance. But at the same time they exterminate or otherwise suppress the billions of life forms found with healthy soil biology. Industrial-chemical agriculture has already diminished vast tracts of the earth into denser, dimmer material substance. This conquering and controlling approach to nature in the food chain tends intensify the material aspect and blunts the animating spiritual life elements. With chemical-mineral fertilizers, and synthetic chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, industrial agriculture systematically snuffs out or reduces life so that a dull monoculture may exist.

zomSoil forms the basis for healthy food, and food forms the building blocks of our bodies and health. Deader, denser soil yields duller, denser food which over time — as I see it — yields denser, duller people. Even our mental health is linked to healthy soil, rich in living microbes. So when the soil is deadened, ultimately the light (biophotons) in our bodies and souls is deadened as well. Metaphorically speaking, zombie soil gives rise to zombie culture.

3. Precaution. I object to the heedless velocity of these synthetic enterprises. As a core value, I embrace thoughtful, independent science and sober progress. I advocate accuracy of perception of the whole, not just a few precise but narrow peeks and pecks at the web of life.

For this reason I stand with the moral community in championing the common sense embodied in the Precautionary Principle. The principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action – in this case that would be the corporations manufacturing micro chemicals, synthetic materials, and GMOs for the human food chain. The fundamental level of conservative common sense expressed in the Precautionary Principle is generally missing from these enterprises.

The probability of major problems underlying this mish mash of mechanistic meddling with nature and our food is exceedingly high. The risks of GMOs are far higher than nuclear energy, and far less well understood. Statistically speaking, GMO risks are extreme, global, unknown, and perpetual.

With a fundamental matter such as human sustenance, we are wise to take a conservative stance and proceed more prudently, honestly appraising both the short and long-term consequences of actions on the web of life. This is the essence of Seventh Generation thinking, a core ethical principle in North America for many thousands of years.

4. Oversight. My fourth macro objection is that these manufactured micro materials are entering the market place, and eventually our bodies, with little if any regulatory oversight.

As established under the Bush-Quayle Administration, the FDA relates to GMO foods as part of a team of federal agencies that includes the EPA and the USDA. Their policies (unchanged since 1992) place responsibility on producers or manufacturers to assure the safety of the food. If a company tells the government their stuff is safe, the government takes their word for it. There’s rarely independent scientific review.

Meanwhile, both corporocrats and bureaucrats are busily striving to establish further hegemony for industrial food through new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA). These 600 pages of proposed rules tend to favor indsutrial-scale operations, and to place onerous burdens on small and moderate-scale organic and agroecological farm operations.

5. Mechanistic Metaphysics. My fifth macro objection is to the widely held corporate-scientific materialist yang notion that mechanistic “fixes” can and will trump nature. The industrial food juggernaut strives for control and domination, and apparently rejects the possibility of working in respectful relationship with nature.

free willWe see this kind of thinking embodied, for example, in many CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The animals, crowded together, are systematically injected with antibiotics and growth hormones at a notoriously high rate according to reports from a Reuters investigative team. Eighty percent of all antibiotics used in America are given not to human beings directly, but rather to the animals that we human beings eat. This practice of food-chain drug abuse is giving rise to superbugs that directly impact human health.

circleoflifmalsWith thousands of pigs, chickens, or beef cattle all crowded together and essentially treated as Units of Production in ruthlessly efficient industrialized settings, the creatures tend to be disregarded as individual, sentient beings, even though they are. Animals are our relatives, part of the Sacred Hoop or Circle of Life. They merit basic respect.

As with the CAFO meat factories, similarly utilitarian and materialistic ethics and procedures hold sway in the realms of micro and nano manipulations of processed food. The subjugation of living interests to the impersonal mechanisms of corporate profit-seeking by the artificial, mechanical “person” or “citizen” that is the modern corporation is establishing a chain of troubling consequences for the environment and human health.

This mechanical material approach of corporately striving to trump nature arises in a realm of abstract thinking. It’s devoid of connection to soul of the world and of human beings. It’s a kind of automatic intelligence, often disguised as science, yet so rigid and narrow as to disregard half or more of whatever it considers. The world is just not a material conglomeration of bits and mechanical processes open to ongoing exploitation. There are consequences.

6. Obsfucation. My sixth macro objection is to the obscured nature of the whole corporate enterprise. Almost all of this stuff that’s happening to our food is lacking in transparency, but is patented to ensure corporate profit and control. Without full-time vigilance – a challenge far beyond the capability of almost every citizen consumer – you cannot know what the chemical, bioscience, agriculture and industrial processing conglomerates are doing to the land and to the material substances they sell us as food.

Integrity of Body, Mind & Soul
I choose to stand on — and to eat from — conservative turf.  I also choose in my own life to buy, or to grow, and to consume what I have come to call “agrarian food.” By that term I mean to suggest food that is clean, that is grown with organic or agroecological techniques. I cultivate a large organic garden and I buy clean, natural food that is grown with sustainable organic, biodynamic, or agroecological techniques from a co-op (Open Harvest), which does business with over 100 local farms, and that I and my fellow townspeople own and manage for the benefit of our community.

Agroecological growing techniques have long, established solid track records for environmental and dietary excellence. Even the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is now declaring definitively that the world must change from  radically polluting, petroleum-based industrial ag practices to sustainable agricultural systems as the heart of our efforts to manage climate chaos. Agroecological approaches have become so sophisticated and dependable in recent decades, that they can supply all the clean food necessary to feed the world. And they can do it while improving soil, air, and water quality, helping to stabilize Earth’s climate, and enhancing human physical and mental health.

There is genuine 21st century wisdom in knowing your farmer, or in knowing where and how your food was grown and processed, or in having some kind of food firewall that gives you information and allows you to make informed choices for yourself and your family. Of this I am certain.

For the moment co-ops, CSAs, Farmers Markets and the burgeoning local food movement are the firewalls, and the clear choice for people who recognize the troubling mish mash of patented mechanical material corporate factors, ethics and practices at work on our daily sustenance, and who choose something that is clean, more natural, more full of life.