Corporate interests calling the shots at UN Food Systems Summit

By Marc Wegerif, Ruth Hall, Nkanyiso Gumede and Ayanda Madlala.

The UN Food Systems Summit opening on Thursday, 23 September, has been captured. Why does it matter and what’s to be done – globally, in Africa and in South Africa?

Dr Marc Wegerif is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Development Studies Programme in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at University of Pretoria. He does research on food systems and land issues. Ruth Hall is a professor and holds the South African Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. Nkanyiso Gumede is a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape. Ayanda Madlala, Fieldworker at Association for Rural Advancement (Afra).

What is a “food system”?

The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition declared that a “food system gathers all the elements [environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc] and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes”. The most important outputs of a food system are people enjoying their right to food (or food and nutrition security) and improving livelihoods, especially for those in the food system.

This holistic approach is a move in the right direction; it takes us beyond the common focus on value chains that by their nature – rooted in corporate supply chain management aimed at cutting costs and increasing profits – focus narrowly on the economic relations and improving returns to investors. A food system approach should foreground social and ecological issues alongside the economic concerns.

The key question, then, that is not getting enough attention is who should the food system be for? 

In an increasingly unequal world, with entrenched interests in the food system, it is not good enough to say “for all”. The reality is that there are some who gain and some who lose, and choices need to be made about this. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed even more starkly how the default position is a food system working best for the wealthiest and most powerful and leaving others hungry.

At the centre of this is the question of how to address hunger in the world’s most food-insecure continent: Africa. 

What we see is that the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has made a clear choice in favour of the elite and a corporate-dominated industrial food system. This is a food system that is increasingly owned by investment funds based in the capitals of the richest nations; it is the food system of the elite who meet every year in Davos. What should have been a crucial turning point to democratise food systems globally has been handed over to multinational corporations – and the organisations representing most of the world’s farmers and fishers are boycotting it.

The draft African Common Position to the first UN Food Systems Summit was leaked on 7 July 2021. Instead of embracing a new direction, the position of the African Union will take Africa backwards. Here it is. This has been denounced by African civil society organisations that will boycott the event. Here is the response by the African civil society organisations.

The AU should be leading the charge for the African family farmers and fishers, most of whom are women, who produce food for their families, communities and countries – and for export. They contribute 70% of the food on the continent, a proportion that is shrinking as they lose land and market share to investment funds and agri-food corporations.

Africa’s conservatively-estimated 33 million family farms and the huge number of people on them, the fisherfolk, pastoralists and the countless millions more who process and trade food: these are the food system actors who face mounting crises of climate change, land grabbing by governments and companies, and the long-term devastation of policies that have stripped them of state support and exposed them to global competition and dumping of surplus foods from rich countries. They have also been hit hard by Covid-19 regulations that disrupted markets and dealt a blow that hit small-scale producers and traders hardest.

This is the moment to “turn the wheel” back from neoliberal policies that have shaped food governance since the 1980s.

The leaked AU position raises red flags about both undemocratic processes and substantively about African states’ capitulation to global corporate agenda. We are concerned that this position:

  1. Was pre-emptive as consultations were ongoing in member states, inadequately inclusive and widely condemned as designed with predetermined outcomes;
  2. Dismally fails to address the real causes of the food crisis; and
  3. Presents false solutions.

It is narrowly focused on agricultural policies rather than presenting a holistic understanding of food systems and their social, economic and ecological outcomes – including the right to food and livelihoods.

The leaked AU position is a draft and we hope that the final position that our governments present to the world tomorrow will differ. But from what we see, the AU’s mind seems to be made up: that biotechnologies and genomics that are patented and owned by a shrinking number of multinational companies are the answer.

The African draft position makes no mention of agroecology or other ecologically sustainable or socially just production systems. It also overlooks the dynamic food markets that are central to African food systems, instead referring to SMEs and overstating the spread of supermarkets. This is not surprising as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which the Gates Foundation funds, occupies a privileged space in the UN Summit. Its solutions of increasing use of genetically modified seed, chemical pesticide and fertilisers, and industrial monocropping, are clearly finding traction – in spite of the evidence that these concentrate profits among corporations, extract value from smallholders, and are environmentally damaging.

The summit, the first of its kind, shines a light on what kind of food system we need in the world and in South Africa.

The UNFSS is a gathering of all member states, convened by the UN secretary general and the mandated agency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, as a multilateral forum. In other words: this is meant to be a global democracy writ large. 

But it was flawed from the start: rather than building on the inclusion of people’s organisations through the civil society mechanism at the FAO which is the democratic engagement with the UN, it was framed by the World Economic Forum – which represents a convergence of corporate interests and governments. In this sense, it is a betrayal of the multilateral system.

Further, consultations by African governments have mostly been hastily convened and inadequate. In the case of South Africa, our government convened a few online meetings. These were not broadly representative or inclusive of food systems actors. They were dominated by commercial farmers and by companies, and the dialogues were framed as being about placing the private sector at the centre through “public-private partnerships”, with “private” being equated to corporate.

We did not hear the voices of street traders, bakkie traders, farmworkers – nor were their priorities and experiences reflected in the national synthesis report. There were few small-scale farmers and no small-scale fishers. These events did not provide a mandate such as that reflected in the draft AU position.

South Africa’s food systems

South Africa’s food and agricultural systems were established under apartheid to serve a minority. Left untransformed, this system can only continue to serve a minority, whatever their race. Far from being made more equitable since the end of apartheid, the opposite has happened: government policies of liberalisation and integration into the global economy have facilitated an even greater concentration of ownership in the hands of those that apartheid left best positioned, along with a few of their new allies. Now this concentration is increasingly driven by international corporations and investment funds. The losers are among the 34.4% officially unemployed and the 44% of the population who were already moderately or severely food insecure before Covid-19.

Most people across South African society – and across the political spectrum – agree that the food system should ensure food security and also create decent livelihoods. But our government steadfastly focuses on food production rather than food distribution.

The policy debates, as seen in the recent national food systems dialogues convened by Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza – often overlook the real problems of our food system. Firstly, the focus tends to still be on increasing agricultural productivity and integrating farmers into corporate-controlled value chains regardless of who benefits and regardless of whether this actually makes food accessible to the majority. Increases in productivity are enthusiastically discussed with no reference to the job-shedding and squeeze on wages that this normally involves.

Policymakers and some academics push for the incorporation of small-scale black farmers into corporate value chains, even when their own data shows that farmers earn less from these chains.

Farmers are encouraged to stop selling to their local communities and to lock themselves into highly unequal relations with large corporations supplying distant markets.

Street and bakkie traders didn’t feature in the discussions, yet these are hundreds of thousands of people who create livelihoods in their own enterprises and sell food more cheaply in their often low-income neighbourhoods.

Also overlooked were workers in the corporate value chains, who from the farmworkers to the supermarket cashiers, remain in precarious jobs with low pay.

Secondly, there is a profound difference of opinion about how improved food security and livelihood outcomes will best be achieved – a disagreement that centres on whether large corporations are the solution or the problem. Large corporations have appropriated the language of “feeding the world” and argue vociferously, in policy forums and through their advertising campaigns, that they, with their capital and technology, are the solution.

But, commenting on their August 2021 report on food prices in South Africa, the Competition Commission’s chief economist, James Hodge, said that corporations are able to “immunise” themselves from the pressures that have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Thanks to the concentration of ownership in the food system, these corporations are able to put pressure on farmers to keep prices low and at the same time pass any increased costs onto the consumers, he explained. The majority of workers in the corporate value chains, from the farmworkers to the supermarket cashiers, remain in precarious jobs with low pay.

This is clearly seen in how corporations managed to increase their prices, margins, profits and returns to shareholders during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The largest food company, Tiger Brands, increased grain prices by 14% during Covid-19. In this way it managed to increase profits in the grain business even as its volume of sales dropped. The largest supermarket group, Shoprite, also increased prices and margins, to achieve a 17.2% increase in profits in its South African supermarket operation for the year to end June 2021.

Food prices have risen faster than core inflation every month since the outbreak of Covid-19. This really matters to people in poverty as they spend a larger proportion of their money on food. The increasing food prices come as millions have lost incomes, the inevitable result is increasing food insecurity, the full effects of which will only be seen in the coming years in outcomes such as even more children (currently almost one in four) being stunted due to poor nutrition.

If Covid-19 has taught us one thing about the food system, it is this: increased production and profits in the food system are entirely consistent with worsening food security and hunger.

Companies do what companies do: try to make money and ensure the best returns for their owners and investors. That is to be expected. But we need a food system that works not for shareholders but for citizens. That is why we need an interventionist state that will regulate markets, rein in agribusinesses, food processors and supermarkets.

Why is better regulation of food markets needed? 

  1. A locally owned enterprise keeps and circulates more of any profit in that locality;
  2. We can’t leave the fulfillment of the constitutional right to sufficient food in the hands of companies that have a different priority; and
  3. The state has to regulate to ensure better food security and other essential social and environmental outcomes.

State regulation has mostly favoured the rich and powerful. This was glaringly clear when the initial Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020 stopped all street traders from selling food, despite food being an essential service. After some weeks they were allowed to operate again, but many have still not fully recovered from the losses suffered at that time.

It continues with authorities taking pride in issuing fines and confiscating food from street traders who are selling it at low prices, trying to earn a living to support themselves and their families. In contrast, nothing is done to prevent corporations increasing food prices at rates three and even four times higher than the core inflation rate, even during a National State of Disaster.

Corporations are indeed “immunised” while those in poverty are “criminalised”.

Our food system needs far-reaching change and the Covid-19 crisis has both increased the need and the justification for decisive intervention. The UNFSS will not provide any useful direction as it is dominated by corporations and the elite and it will favour approaches that serve their interests. This can be seen, in among other things, the influential involvement of the World Economic Forum and the approaches pushed in the government-led consultations in South Africa. A holistic food system approach is needed, but it must focus on meeting the needs of the majority and those in poverty and to do that it must address power relations and processes of accumulation.

There is no blueprint for success, a diverse range of context specific solutions need to be experimented with. The ongoing research of PLAAS in a multi-country study on how Covid-19 regulations affected power and inequality in the food system, and the impacts on women in the informal food system, adds to existing knowledge about what measures are needed.

  1. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and the need for systemic change.The old refrain that “South Africa is food secure at a national level” is meaningless. It is people that need to eat. The country is not food-secure until all its people enjoy their right to food. Systemic change means that we need to stop trying to include more people in the dominant corporate and industrial agri-food sector that provides profits for a few, but leaves far more in poverty and food insecure.
  1. In the absence of equitable international trade, we need to protect our agri-food sector from international competition in order to meet our needs. In dairy, poultry, maize and other grains, trade protection is needed and justifiable.
  2. Small-scale and owner-operated farms and micro-enterprises can deliver, create more jobs, more business ownership opportunities (in a society that desperately needs a far broader ownership of the economy), and contribute more to local economic development. These are, therefore, the primary enterprise model that need to be replicated. The existing activities of street traders and other micro enterprises in the food system, along with the small-scale black farmers that are succeeding, are a nucleus that should be built on to do this.
  3. Agricultural production, and the research and development to support it, needs to shift to low-external input agroecological approaches that regenerate our environment, create jobs, and build greater economic autonomy for farmers; that is autonomy from corporate supply and marketing chains.
  4. Local government policies, practices and bylaws need to stop creating space for malls owned by investment firms. Start creating public markets where people who don’t have large amounts of capital can set up enterprises and sell and buy food.

We call on Didiza, our Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, to use her position as chair of the AU’s Specialised Technical Committee (STC) on Agriculture, Rural Development, Water and Environment to open up the space for genuine democratic dialogue in South Africa and elsewhere to drive new food systems thinking – which confronts who holds power in the food system. As both national minister, and chair of this crucial AU forum, she occupies the most significant position in Africa to influence the outcomes of the summit and the processes that follow.

This is the call from #FoodSystems4People, a broad alliance of civil society, farmer, fisher, trader, human rights and food justice organisations which rejects the corporate capture of the UN Food Systems Summit. These organisations and their global equivalents will be boycotting the summit and have set out ways to bring the urgent work of fixing food systems back into democratic and multilateral spaces.

Let’s get going on a more democratic and inclusive national dialogue on how to democratise and relocalise our food system in the hands of ordinary people. DM/MC

First published in the Daily Maverick on  22 September 2021.


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