International Unitarian Universalism

Questions of Justice and Inclusion in Preparing for the UN Food Systems Summit

Overhead view of several bowls of fresh vegetables, including carrots, hot peppers, and cucumbers

By Andrew Mickle

Food security is a pressing issue around the globe, and it’s on the rise. The United Nations estimated that nearly 9% of the world’s population suffered from chronic hunger in 2019. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing surges in food prices, impacting availability of high-nutrient food, and especially harming people in poorer and less powerful communities, the past year has greatly exacerbated the problem.

Additionally, we must recognize and reconcile the unsustainability and inequality that surrounds current practices of our agricultural and other food systems. For reference, the food system and its processes account for about 30% of global energy consumption, including heavy reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. This was the topic of this year’s Intergenerational Spring Seminar, where important discussions were held on the intersections of food, climate change, the economy, and social inequities.

This precarious combination is also what necessitates the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit, set to take place in September, and the accompanying pre-summit this July. These events will bring together scientists and experts in governance, agro-business, civil society, and others, to discuss the best path forward out of our current global food crisis. Many, however, have expressed reasoned concerns that the summit will fail to truly achieve this goal.

A group of 550 civil society organizations co-signed a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres (PDF), calling on the United Nations to reconsider several components of the Summit that could threaten its potential to give due consideration to all valuable perspectives on improving global food practices. One of the most significant concerns is the fact that the Summit’s agenda was set at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a forum that is far-removed from those involved in the actual work of equitable and sustainable agriculture. It was feared that the invaluable and unique knowledge of indigenous and agrarian communities would be ignored.

“Family Farmers produce more than 80% of the world’s food in value terms,” the civil society organizations' letter states. “They should be at the center of the UN Food Systems Summit, particularly during this UN Decade on Family Farming.”

An issue that compounds this, also mentioned in the letter, is the appointment of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) President Agnes Kalibata as the Summit’s special envoy. Since its foundation in 2006, not only has that agribusiness organization (funded in large part by the Gates Foundation) failed to achieve its goals in the 13 countries in which it operates, but undernourishment has actually increased in these countries by an average of 30%, according to the findings of Tufts University Senior Research Fellow Timothy Wise (PDF). (A letter in support of Ms. Kalibata’s appointment garnered 12 co-signatories - 11 of whom had financial ties to the Gates Foundation (PDF).)

These civil society organizations are not the only expression of these or similar concerns. Another article, written by three UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food (the current and two former) explains how allowing groups outside of high-tech agribusiness to come in later and in a limited capacity is not a meaningful substitution for giving these groups real seats at the table. The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security will be holding a “counter event to the Pre-Summit” during the same weekend, due to the near if not total exclusion of indigenous communities from the formation of the Summit.

An agenda that excludes the communities that will be most hurt by the continued destruction of the environment, such as indigenous peoples, rural farmers, and those living in areas with limited access to protective infrastructure, will limit the solutions and approaches most needed to counteract this destruction. However, this is not a call to feel discouraged or disillusioned. It is more crucial now than ever that engaged, conscientious actors advocate for a Food Systems Summit that reflects the full reality and understanding that a small group of wealthy speakers, largely detached from the worst of these consequences, cannot provide.

With that said, through concerted pressure in the last several months, activists have ensured that there is discussion of indegenous land management at the Summit. The tug of war between corporate, capitalist interests, and indigenous and grassroots communities is not new at the United Nations. Corporate agribusiness influence is evident in the summit plans, and increasingly, so is the influence of indigenous and grassroots communities. Undoubtedly, one side has more resources than the other. It is our job and that of NGOs like the UU@UN to bring perspective and equity to these discussions. The Center for Earth Ethics and their interfaith partners have done an incredible job giving a platform to these important perspectives through their series of Faith + Food dialogues held in May and June, recordings of which can be found on their YouTube channel.

This is why our UUA Office at the United Nations will monitor the pre-Summit held virtually from July 26 – 28, and why we encourage all those who are able to remain engaged and informed. We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to help the world move towards a fairer, more just approach to our relationship with our food systems, and it is a blessing that we are able to do so.

Unitarian Universalists who wish to engage with food justice issues through their congregations have an opportunity to do so through United Nations Sunday. This year’s UN Sunday theme is “All In for Climate Justice: Food Equity and Sustainability,” and we encourage congregations to participate by hosting a special UN Sunday worship service on UN Day, Sunday, October 24. More information can be found on the UN Sunday webpage, which will be updated with additional resources soon pertaining to this year’s theme. In the meantime, we recommend checking out the Food Equity and Sustainability resources from this year’s Spring Seminar for ideas on how you and your congregation can help realize a better relationship to our food systems, both globally and in our local communities.

About the Author

Andrew Mickle

Andrew Mickle is an intern with the UUA Office at the UN during Summer 2021. He is a second-year Master of Public Policy student at Penn State University, having graduated from the Political Science Bachelor of Arts program in Spring 2021. In addition to serving as a Summer intern, Andrew is the...

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