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UN under fire over choice of ‘corporate puppet’ as envoy at key food summit


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Organisation accused of kowtowing to big business by appointing former Rwandan agriculture minister with links to agro-industry



A letter signed by 176 organisations has condemned Agnes Kalibata’s appointment as a ‘deliberate attempt to silence the farmers of the world’. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP


A global summit on food security is at risk of being dominated by big business at the expense of farmers and social movements, according to the UN’s former food expert.


Olivier De Schutter, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said food security groups around the world had expressed misgivings about the UN food systems summit, which is due to take place in 2021 and could be crucial to making agriculture more sustainable.


“There’s a big risk that the summit will be captured by corporate actors who see it as an opportunity to promote their own solutions,” said De Schutter, who criticised the opaque evolution of plans to hold the meeting, which he said emerged from “closed-door agreements” at the World Economic Forum in Davos.


His comments followed protests last month over the announcement that Agnes Kalibata, the former Rwandan minister for agriculture, would lead the event, despite her role as president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), which has been accused of promoting damaging, business-focused practices. De Schutter emphasised that his comments were not directed at Kalibata personally.


In February, 176 organisations from 83 countries signed a letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, saying Kalibata’s appointment was “a deliberate attempt to silence the farmers of the world” and signalled the “direction the summit would take”.


Kalibata was appointed by Guterres to serve as his envoy to the summit.


Last year, the US national academy of sciences awarded Kalibata the public welfare medal for her work in improving livelihoods. The UN pointed to her accomplishments as an agricultural scientist and policymaker and said her time as minister had driven “programmes that moved her country to food security, helping to lift more than a million Rwandans out of poverty”.


But signatories to the letter, published on the website of the Oakland Institute, accused Agra of being “puppets of agro-industrial corporations and their shareholders”.


Agra was established in 2006 as an African-led, Africa-based institution. According to its website, it “puts smallholder farmers at the centre of the continent’s growing economy by transforming agriculture from a solitary struggle to survive into farming as a business that thrives”. Over the past decade Agra has been funded by the UK, as well as Canadian and US government agencies.


De Schutter, who is now co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, said the opinions of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) committee on world food security (CFS) risked being drowned out during the summit. The CFS was formed in 2009 with the aim of giving farmers and communities an equal say with big businesses.


“If anything, [CFS] has been more successful than anticipated,” said De Schutter. “The reality is the private sector has felt, whether correctly or not, it was marginalised in the CFS and thus it was tempting for them to establish other forums where they might feel more comfortable and set the tone for discussions.”


He called for the summit to be built around the CFS and to highlight and support sustainable systems that worked for small-scale farmers.


The letter to Guterres said: “With 820 million people hungry and an escalating climate crisis, the need for significant global action is urgent to deliver on the sustainable development goals by 2030”. However, Agra’s involvement would “result in another forum that advances the interests of agribusiness at the expense of farmers and our planet”, said the signatories.


The letter also accused Agra of “diverting public resources to benefit large corporate interests”.


Since 2006, Agra has worked to open up Africa – seen as an untapped market for corporate monopolies controlling commercial seeds, genetically modified crops, fossil fuel-heavy synthetic fertilisers and polluting pesticides.


“This is an ill-conceived approach focused on monocultural commodity production by large agribusiness at the expense of sustainable livelihoods, human development, and poverty eradication,” the letter said.


The UN said Kalibata’s role was to work with governments and stakeholders “to galvanise action and leadership” for the summit, speeding up efforts “to make food systems inclusive, climate adapted and resilient, and support sustainable peace”.


Waiganjo Njoroge, Agra’s interim head of communications, said Kalibata was “committed to enabling an inclusive process that will draw upon the thoughts, evidence, and commitments from stakeholders all around the world”. He defended her record of “delivering an agricultural transformation that pulled millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty in her home country” and said she was “now driving a similar transformation across the continent”.


In an article published by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Kalibata wrote: “We need to harness all innovative ideas and develop deeper partnerships to make this happen. As the summit’s special envoy, I will steward a global conversation to define the food systems we want for our future. This will be done by learning from each other, particularly smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples, and those who deal with food systems every day.”



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