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UN Food Systems Summit: Implications for India and Why Civil Societies are Boycotting it

'The WEF’s multi-stakeholder platforms lack democratic legitimacy and focus instead on harnessing the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the benefit of transnational corporations (TNCs) and global financial capital...'
UN Food Summit

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The People's Health Movement’s (PHM’s) Food and Nutrition thematic circle has called for a boycott of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 because of corporate influence and the marginalisation of civil society voices. Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the UN Committee has also called for mobilisation to challenge the Summit and reclaim people’s sovereignty over food systems.

In 2019, the Secretary General of the UN, following a suggestion by the World Economic Forum (WEF), called for a Food Systems Summit in 2021. The Summit will be held in September this year while the pre-Summit will be held in a hybrid format in Rome from July 26 to 28; it will be decisive about the final direction and outcomes of the Summit. PHM, through its thematic group on Food and Nutrition, along with hundreds of other Public Interest Civil Society Organisations (PICSOs) and social movements, have, since December 2019, raised concerns about the summit involving alliances that promote the interests of agribusiness.

One of the most important concerns raised by the PICSOs was the involvement of the WEF, and the appointment of Agnes Kalibata, the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), as the Special Envoy for the summit, given AGRA is also an alliance that promotes the interests of agribusiness. “The WEF’s multi-stakeholder platforms lack democratic legitimacy and focus instead on harnessing the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the benefit of transnational corporations (TNCs) and global financial capital,” they said in a statement.

The CSM wrote a letter to the Secretary General of the UN in March 2020. It was signed by over 550 protesting organisations and raised grave concerns, which went answered. “The role of agribusiness in shaping food systems has been challenged by large sectors of the population across the world and in a steadily increasing body of research: TNCs and investors profiting from industrial agriculture, fishing and livestock-keeping are responsible for destroying ecosystems; grabbing lands; water and natural resources; undermining the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples, rural communities; perpetuating exploitative working conditions; creating health problems; and a significant proportion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” it said.

It further pointed out that agribusinesses focus primarily on productivity and yields, whereas the notion of food systems should make visible the multi-dimensionality of food, much of which is related to public purpose objectives that cannot be met through corporate interests. It added that family farmers produce more than 80% of the world’s food in value terms, and they should be at the centre of the Summit.

In a November 2020 statement, the CSM said: “...the human rights approach remains extremely weak throughout the preparatory process so far. Especially the centrality of the main actors, the rights-holders, has been continuously denied: pastoralists, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, youth, workers, fisherfolk, consumers, landless people and people affected by food insecurity in the cities, and their own international organizations and platforms have been marginalized from the beginning.”
 

On February 9, 2021, CSM wrote to the Chair of UN Committee on World Food Security, expressing its worries about “undue corporate influence in the Summit preparation; the missing human rights grounding; the lack of emphasis on the true extent of the transformation that the corporate food systems need to undergo to re-align with the utmost imperatives of people, peoples and planet; the threat of democratic public institutions and inclusive multilateralism being undermined by multistakeholderism”.

Given the Summit secretariat’s failure to listen to PICSOs, CSM has called for a parallel pre-summit on the same date. Regional committees have been set up in all geographical regions and a communications campaign has been set up. All CSM members will not participate in FSS and will disseminate its own vision on food systems, and each region will agitate to denounce the real intentions of the FSS that follow corporate interests.

POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS ON INDIA

Agriculture forms the largest source of livelihoods in India. The promotion of the interests of agribusiness will have a significant impact on a major portion of the population in the country, given that the Indian government is already quite keen on corporatisation of the agricultural sector. Concerns about the controversial Farm Laws increasing the stranglehold of agribusiness over the country’s food system have repeatedly been raised. However, the Summit may have several other grave implications in India, according to experts.

There is a fear that this Summit could dismantle years of efforts in India for better nutrition, and bring in the corporate-driven vegan or plant-based dietary food guidelines. One of the Summit’s Action Tracks is “Shift to Sustainable Consumption Patterns with a wide mandate to build a broad, multistakeholder coalition around this key challenge and opportunity, and leveraging the EAT platform to the full.” The EAT-Lancet Commission was created to reach a scientific consensus by defining targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.

The Commission quantitatively describes a universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains) that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, according to experts, in countries like India, that call could become a tool to aggravate an already fraught political situation and stress already undernourished populations. In the EAT-Lancet Commission Report 2019, India was praised for being a good model for plant-based diets. It feeds into the false premise that “traditional diets” in countries like India include little red meat, which might be consumed only on special occasions or as minor ingredients in mixed dishes. EAT-Lancet Commission’s representative, Brent Loken, during the launch event of the report in New Delhi in 2019, said that “India has got such a great example” in sourcing protein from plants.

However, one look at India’s nutrition statistics shows that the heavily-praised vegetarianism is not working so well for the country. In the 2020 Global Hunger Index (GHI), India ranked 94 out of the 107 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2020 GHI scores. With a score of 27.2, GHI categorised the level of hunger in India as ‘Serious’. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) between 2016 and 2018 revealed severe levels of malnutrition across the country. It also pointed out that only 6.4% of children under the age of two years get a minimum acceptable diet in India.

About 38% of Indian children under the age of five are stunted. About one in five women and men are underweight, with a similar proportion being either overweight or obese, especially in urban settings. Anemia affects almost 60% of children aged six to 59 months, more than half of women between 15 to 49 years old, and almost one in four men in that same age group. Sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency in preschool children is 62% and is closely associated with malnutrition and poor protein consumption. According to a 2019 UNICEF report, 50% of Indian adolescents (about 6.3 lakh girls and 8.1 lakh boys) in the age group of 10 to 19 years are malnourished.

A critique of the EAT-Lancet Commission report labelled the diet recommended by it as one directed at the affluent West, and said that the Commission failed to recognise that “in low-income countries undernourished children are known to benefit from the consumption of milk and other animal source foods, improving anthropometric indexes and cognitive functions, while reducing the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies as well as morbidity and mortality”. It added that in India, bone fracture and shorter heights have been associated with lower milk consumption. “What is conveniently being ignored are the environmental and economic cost of shifting metric tons of micronutrients from Western countries on a permanent basis while at the same time destroying local food systems. It’s a model fraught with danger for future generations.” it added.

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