The first-of-its-kind United Nations Food Systems Summit last week was billed as a “people’s summit” that would help to transform the world’s food systems.

But it was panned by many organizations who felt disenfranchised during the process.

The summit in New York, conceived two years ago, aimed to address countless issues within the world’s food systems — climate change, development, health, politics and food security, among others. It was initiated by both the U.N. and World Economic Forum when it became apparent that many of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals were unlikely to be achieved by 2030.

The summit focused on issues such as healthy foods for school children, soil health and resilient food systems to deal with a changing climate.

UH Waimanalo farming class where budding farmers learn how to pick green onions.
The summit was panned by organizations representing small-holdings farmers and indigenous groups for its inclusion of corporate representative groups. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

One result is that the Pacific nations Fiji and Palau will take part in the implementation of The Alliance for Blue Foods to elevate the profile of aquatic foods — fish, shellfish, aquatic plants and algae. Food policy often neglects such products, despite their importance to diets and culture and their prominent place in the wider food system. Fiji was also part of the “Coalition 4 Action on Soil Health.” Robust soils are paramount for sustainable crops — especially true in Pacific nations, many of which consist of atolls and islands with low soil quality.

For Karen Mapausua, who sits on the board of The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, the focus on aquatic food systems was somewhat heartening — though just how the goals of the summit will be achieved remains to be seen.

“There was nothing really surprising that was said from a Pacific perspective,” said Mapusua. Nonetheless, she said, “This summit really brought [blue foods] to the fore.”

Mapusua also works for Pacific Community, which led pre-summit engagements throughout the Pacific.

Because of the nuanced nature of food systems, and how different countries are experiencing problems, it will take awhile to gauge the effectiveness of the promises made at the summit, she said.

“I think the key to the summit will be what happens now and how the architecture is actually able to be introduced to support the countries and their national pathways,” she said.

The summit will probably have little effect in Hawaii, said University of Hawaii associate professor Albie Miles. But it may have offered hope to Pacific nations that experience seasonal disasters associated with climate change.

At the summit, nations and philanthropic groups pledged money to support its goals. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, committed $922 million. The U.S promised $10 billion, half of which would be used to “ensure access to healthy diets for all Americans” and to make food systems more equitable and efficient.

“We need to rely on our own state/regional food system planning processes to achieve the broad goals outlined for the UNFSS,” UH’s Miles wrote in an email.

Not All Voices Heard, Critics Say

The involvement of groups such as the Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum drew criticism ahead of the summit. More than 600 people and organizations signed a declaration boycotting it, arguing that it failed to recognize that the food system needs a more radical transformation from the globalized, corporate model.

“Public food policy and governance must put peasants, indigenous peoples, fishers, pastoralists, workers, landless, forest-dwellers, consumers, urban and rural poor, and among these women and youth, at the center of governance and policy-making tables,” the boycott-organizing group Food Systems 4 People declaration stated. “We reject any empty dialogue process which ignores human rights and fails to explicitly and meaningfully elevate the agency of these food systems actors.”

Advocates consider the inclusion of organizations that represent corporate interests an affront to small farmers, who produce 70% of the world’s food. They also questioned the inclusion of philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation because they are considered a strong proponent of technological solutions instead of supporting local, indigenous and agro-ecological solutions.

Miles was involved in some of the pre-summit discussions. He said they revealed a “structural imbalance of power” by asking small and indigenous farmers to spend an unreasonable amount of time on the process, considering the fact they were also working full-time.

The process was “entirely overwhelming,” he said.

If the summit had been truly interested in overhauling the food system, it would have created a more equitable platform, he said.

“When Nestle and Pepsico get involved, it should be a pretty clear indicator that there’s a particular agenda,” added Miles.

Among the announced actions at the summit was the formation of a group dedicated to fortifying staple crops to ensure better nutrition — a solution that humanitarian organizations have supported through various global endeavors.

“Fortifying staple foods is a technological fix for a systems problem of historic dispossession, inequity, poverty and lack of support for the principle of the human right to food and food sovereignty,” Miles said.

Pacific Leaders Weigh In

Meanwhile, at the summit, Pacific leaders made an urgent plea for resilient food systems that could sustain their populations.

Kiribati President Taneti Maamau emphasized the need for healthy foods for the success of Kiribati’s first long-term plan, 20-Year Vision, implemented in 2016. But recent history has left Kiribati with unsustainable and unhealthy diets, reliant on imported and often highly-processed foods, Maamau said.

“This people-centric vision relies on [a] healthy population that needs to be powered by good, nutritious food,” said Maamau.

But some progress is being made, according to Republic of Marshall Islands President David Kabua. Despite his atoll nation facing difficulties in growing crops, it could increase sustainable production, he said. Palau President Surengel Whipps, Jr. noted his country’s dependence on imported foods during his address to the 76th U.N. General Assembly. He also cited the acute climate crisis posed to his country and region, and the need to cooperate internationally, underscoring the importance of “people, planet and prosperity.”

“The future is uncertain, no doubt. Amidst threat and degradation is opportunity; opportunity for us to join together to shift the power balance and define the terms on which we will protect and steward our resources for the benefit of our people,” Whipps said.

The summit was held alongside the 76th U.N. General Assembly, and followed the fourth Alliance of Small Island States summit, where climate change was at the forefront of discussions.

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