UN summit seeks to fix food's many problems, but draws fire

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A member of the FDNY passes outside the United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool)

CAMEROON – Nations, companies and foundations pledged billions of dollars to feed the world in connection with an ambitious United Nations food summit Thursday, while some grassroots anti-hunger groups and food experts blasted the event as too corporate, tech-focused and top-down.

Held as part of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting of world leaders, the “food systems summit” aimed to tackle the life-and-death puzzle of hunger, nutrition, environmental sustainability and inequality. Worldwide, more than 2 billion people don’t have enough to eat, while 2 billion are overweight or obese, and nearly a third of the food that gets produced ends up discarded, according to the U.N.

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Meanwhile, a changing climate is posing new problems for agriculture, even as producing, processing, packaging and distributing food accounts for one-third of the manmade heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted.

“Food systems can and must play a leading role in addressing all of these challenges,” he said in a video speech to the summit. It was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, which itself led to what the U.N. has called a “dramatic worsening" of hunger last year.

Examining topics from school meals to food waste to financing to wages, the summit drew speeches from more than 85 presidents and prime ministers and garnered some big-ticket financial commitments. Among them: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $900 million, and the United States announced it would spend $10 billion, half domestically and half overseas, over five years.

“We’re focused on ending hunger and food insecurity at home and building back better our food systems here and abroad, so that they are more sustainable, that they are more resilient and more inclusive and more equitable,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said by video at a news briefing.

The U.N. billed the summit as a worldwide, exhaustive endeavor to involve people in every part of society and corner of the world, saying that more than 2,500 ideas were submitted and more than 20,000 people from 190 countries participated — mostly virtually — in a preparatory meeting in Rome in July.

But more than 500 academics and advocacy groups for food sustainability, small farms, Indigenous people and other causes disavowed the summit, issuing a declaration saying the event was too cozy with corporate interests, focused too much on big money and technology as potential solutions and disregarded "the urgent need to address the gross power imbalances that corporations hold over food systems."

The U.N. Human Rights Committee, a group of independent experts, echoed those concerns and complained that the summit — planned since 2019 — didn't “substantively address” the effects of the pandemic.

“The food systems summit has categorically failed,” committee member Michael Fakhri declared in a video he tweeted Wednesday. The University of Oregon law professor is the U.N.'s special rapporteur, or outside expert, on the right to food.

“The summit’s organizers have ignored people’s daily struggles. And who’s benefited from this agenda? Corporations,” he said.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said at a news briefing that the world body strove to include “as many constituencies and experiences and representation as possible” in the conference. There were discussions in the lead-up for Indigenous people, young people, and advocacy groups, she noted.

“I’ve heard that this is a 'colonial capture,’” she acknowledged. Then the former Nigerian environment minister pointed to her background and that of the U.N.'s special envoy to the summit, Agnes Kalibata. A former agriculture minister in Rwanda, Kalibata was born to a small-farm family there and grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda.

“There ain't no colonial capture there,” Mohammed said. She added that there was good reason to include business interests in the gathering: “They have to be part of the solution, given that they’ve been part of a large part of the problem in many countries.”

Ibrahim Mayaki, a former prime minister of Niger and now heads of the African Union's development agency, said his continent needs to double food production and get more financing and insurance to small and medium-sized food enterprises, among other steps to take.

And, he said, “commitments that are made need to be met by actions, not speeches.”

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