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Newsletter no 45 - Food sovereignty – resisting corporate capture of our food systems


Friday 24 September 2021, by Manu

Box 1 - Multistakeholderism: the new corporate weapon

Multistakeholderism is an evolving model of governance that brings together diverse actors that have a potential ‘stake’ in an issue, in order for them to arrive at a collaboratively formulated agreement or solution. For example, stakeholders in a proposed coal mine could include project affected communities, government officials responsible for approvals, investing companies, project financiers, environmental NGOs, etc. A completely misleading assumption here is that all stakeholders are equal in rights, obligations, liabilities, power, and capacities. But although the rights of affected peoples to their lands far outweigh the rights of external investors to acquire them, their capacities to prevent land-grabbing are often undermined by the financial/political power of investors. At a global level, multistakeholderism contradicts multilateralism, where governments (duty bearers) take decisions on global issues on behalf of their citizens (rights holders) which translate to obligations and commitments that states and international organisations are expected to implement. This includes regulating business activities and holding enterprises accountable when they cause harm.

The rise of multistakeholderism coincides with the mainstreaming of neoliberalism from the 1980-s onwards, increased corporate involvement in various sectors through public-private partnerships, erosion of legitimacy of the multilateral system, reduction of development finance at national and international levels, and rise of venture philanthropy where corporate investors finance social-environmental goals. Over the last 20 years, multistakeholderism has spread into approaches to address extractive industry, industrial agriculture, climate change, land and environmental governance, food and nutrition, internet, and the Sustainable Development Goals, and been boosted through the Global Redesign Initiative and other platforms of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Multistakeholderism blurs the distinctions between public interest and private profit, and human rights and corporate interests. It enables corporations to dominate decision making on critical development issues and evade legal-material accountability for their operations. It presents a direct threat to participatory democracy and just, human rights-based governance.

Box 2 - The Nature fraud

“Boost Nature positive food” is one of the UNFSS Action Tracks and the term nature positive has become almost synonymous with the “nature-based solutions” for food production being promoted by the FAO and others. Analyses of proposals being made in the UNFSS, FAO and other spaces show that nature positive is the latest concept being used to co-opt and undermine agroecology. It strongly promotes sustainable intensification as a solution rather than real transformation and prioritises yield and stability, but does not address social, cultural and political dimensions of transitions to sustainability, including power dynamics and governance. By this metric, more intensive production systems that produce less carbon emissions per unit of yield are considered better than diverse, low input systems. Nature positive repackages several false solutions such as conservation agriculture, nutrient optimization and improved plantation management without addressing the corporate drivers of the industrial model, and its social and environmental impacts.

An even more dangerous side to nature positive framing in the UNFSS is its links with the push for “nature-based solutions” to climate change, in which agriculture and sustainable intensification techniques can be brought into carbon offset and market schemes by highly polluting corporations such as fossil fuel companies and agribusinesses. Sustainable intensification techniques lend themselves well to carbon offsets since they can focus on single practices designed primarily to generate carbon credits. Nature positive framing threatens to co-opt and corrupt genuine solutions such as agroecology and community forest management by lumping them together with dubious and destructive practices and linking them to opaque market-based schemes. “Nature-based solutions” to climate change are already being co-opted by fossil fuel and agribusiness corporations. They claim to be investing in sustainable intensification as a nature-based solution while expanding their massive land grabs and failing to cut actual carbon emissions.

Box 3 - For a different food system without smoke and mirrors

In just a few years, the design of food systems has become an area where the most valued attributes are a large scale, totality, entrepreneurship, monoculture, innovation, and technology. These are important attributes from a capitalist perspective, which are only concerned with a production model and consumption to be achieved in a fantasy that does not view people as interdependent or eco-dependent beings. This model rewards extraction-based formulas that destroy territories without even achieving what should be the main objective: to provide food and nourishment for all. It is clearly a failed model, but it is one that is maintained because it can sustain and reinforce multiple interests. It is a model that has turned a right – to adequate food and nutrition – into a commodity to be used in speculation, with the complicity of various agents and public policies at multiple levels. It is a failed model, but it is one that is sustained through an illusion that renders those who truly sustain and feed the world invisible.

These policies and narratives intended to define a food model on the basis of power imbalances and the interests of a select few are the smoke and mirrors of illusionists who, on the one hand present a completely unequal development model as the only option, while on the other hand hide the numerous inequalities it creates in various territories, the precarious realities of many agricultural workers without whom this model would not work, and the reality that it is, in fact, now possible to feed the world in a sustainable and equitable manner.

In this invisible reality, it is small-scale production, a community outlook, agro-environmental initiatives and unequally distributed care work that falls to women and keeps the world turning, as well as the hands of agricultural workers. This year, the pandemic has changed the view of this scenario; it has shaken its foundations and revealed the secrets of the illusion, while showing that the underpinnings it tries to conceal are strong and adaptable and that there are no tricks that can predict or avoid a response from nature. As a result, those who are closer to Mother Earth, those who know her, care for her, respect her and interact with her, are those who are able to listen to her response and adapt to it, although not without paying a high price; even though they are the ones who are cooling the planet, they are also those who are most affected when it rebels.

The transformation needed in the food system requires us to be aware of illusory tricks, confront the realities that are made invisible, and take care of the environment to maintain stability and ensure that we do not become unbalanced. The struggle for this involves sowing seeds and beginning interactions, remaining in territories and preserving communities and their knowledge, for each harvest, for the knowledge that we are interdependent and eco-dependent beings, for each farmers’ market left, for each group of peasant women raising awareness and for each space where we have an impact so that public policies stop playing illusory games and work instead to protect peasant realities and preserve their future.

Box 4 - UN Food Systems Summit: Are we transitioning to a corporate-environmental food regime?

We have heard all those fairy tales before - how we can turn nature into a financial asset to save the planet from further environmental destruction But it is not a question of providing the right financial incentives. We need radical approaches that heal eco-systems and not compensate corporations for continuing their dirty practices while taking part in “greenwashing”. Hijacked by the interests of big corporations, the organizers of the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) happily picked up these old stories of carbon markets and REDD+, despite their proven failure. Food systems should now be financialized and become targets of speculative investments, because that seems to be the only way to finance the “costly” transformation towards sustainable food systems. Using the umbrella term “nature-positive production”, another label was added to the many corporate-led solution proposals of the summit, based on digital innovation, techno-fixes, bio-economic and market-oriented approaches, such as climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification. People-centered, cost-effective and socially and ecologically just solutions such as agroecology are already on the table. But these ideas are drowned out in the big corporate solution pot without taking into account the actual differences.

The European Green Deal is already full of this “climate-smart” narrative. With the “carbon farming initiative”, for instance, a new business model was created to reward farmers who sequester and store carbon. The UNFSS jumped onto this “green capitalist” bandwagon of the EU, promoting carbon capturing approaches to create “sustainable” food systems by improving soil health. Manifested in the nature of neoliberal capitalism, this pathway is likely to enable a transition towards a “corporate-environmental food regime” (Friedmann, 2005). This new, third food regime is reflected in the UNFSS’ multi-stakeholder framework that provides corporations legitimacy in shaping global food governance. Friedmann (2005: 259) argues that this regime induces a struggle over the “weight of private, public and self-organized institutions”. In such a process, food is no longer a public concern but a private investment.

The current trajectory of the UNFSS allows financial investment companies to buy shares in large agribusiness corporations who control the proposed “nature-positive solution” models. But we cannot allow the finance sector to gamble with people’s livelihoods. In the name of environmental sustainability, the whole meaning of food is changed from an edible good to a financial commodity. Thinking back at the devastating consequences of the food crisis in 2008 that made millions of people go hungry, it should be clear that food must be excluded from financial speculation. Certainly, if this corporate-environmental food regime consolidates, it will “deepen longstanding processes of dispossession and marginalization of peasants and agrarian communities” (Friedmann, 2005: 257). In the end, small-scale producers might be even excluded from the whole agricultural food production process as the world starts “farming without farmers”.

Friedmann, H. (2005): From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and Emergence of Food Regimes. In: Buttel, F.H. and McMichael, P. (eds.): New directions in the sociology of global development. Research in rural sociology and development, Vol. 11. Oxford: Elsvier, 229-67.

Box 5 - Digitalisation in Indian agriculture

Agriculture in India is rife with precarity, leaving vulnerable, marginalised populations (e.g., women and landless workers) historically excluded from land ownership. Large-scale digitalisation in agricultural value chains will deepen indebtedness and power asymmetries. [1]

Broadly, digitalisation in agriculture comprises of three categories: robotics, crop and soil monitoring, and predictive analysis. [2] All of these rely on one crucial ingredient: data.

The economic value of data rests with its ability to show patterns in aggregated big data, and in providing individualised, targeted advertising which is used by large corporations as a profit-making opportunity.

The uses of data in agriculture are far-reaching. Information on sales and prices of commodities can assist in agricultural marketing. Conditions are also ripe for automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in warehouse operations. [3] More threateningly, farmers’ data can be used in credit-scoring algorithms which determine their access to financial services, excluding historically vulnerable groups.

Digitalisation predates COVID-19, with private sector involvement entrenched in policy approaches such as Doubling Farmers Income by 2022 and NITI Aayog’s National AI Strategy. However, the decimation of agricultural supply chains during the initial months of the pandemic accelerated the pace and reach of digitalisation. E-commerce platforms, for example, capitalised on the moment: Ninjacart’s B2B demand went up by 300% during the initial months of the pandemic. [4]

The pandemic has also spurred policy and legislative steps. Agricultural reform legislations passed in the middle of the pandemic with little parliamentary debate, encouraging digitalisation in a private sector led financialised model at the cost of farmers and small-scale producers. [5] This is already visible in partnerships signed between the government and Big Tech companies, such as the MoU for building the Agristack platform, signed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Microsoft in April 2021.

These trends can lead to end-to-end consolidation of agricultural value chains by platform and agricultural corporations. Pushing ahead with digitalisation in the absence of appropriate data, AI and platform governance will leave this sector ripe for corporate harvesting, resulting in market consolidation among a few large players.

Instead, the role of the private sector must be carefully negotiated, to ensure that data resources are geared towards the basic needs of farmers and their self-determined empowerment. [6] Digitalisation in agriculture also requires decentralised and federated architectures that preserve the constitutional authority of state governments to regulate this sector [7] towards ensuring public interest.

Lastly, engagement with the legacy problems in Indian agriculture, such as usurious lending and power asymmetries, by prioritising the interests of farmers and marginalised populations is a crucial pillar of responsible and development-oriented digitalisation.