Mega-corporations are all set to walk away with the keys to global governance of food and agriculture at the UN Food Systems Summit later this year. Pat Mooney talks about what is at stake and The Long Food Movement counterstrategy.
LYNN FRIES: Hello & welcome I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. Today’s guest is Pat Mooney. At the end of this year 2021 a meeting is being held to rubber stamp a corporate strategic maneuver to takeover global governance of the entire world food system; effectively food production, research and finance.
Pat Mooney will be talking about all this in the context of The Long Food Movement and its report Transforming Food Systems by 2045. The report shows the stakes are high because food systems are being rapidly transformed as food and agriculture go digital. This is the last chance to change course. Pat Mooney is lead author of that report produced by IPES-Food in collaboration with ETC Group.
Pat Mooney is leading IPES-Food’s ‘Long Food Movement’ project. He is the co-founder and executive director of ETC Group that has monitored corporate power in commercial food, farming and health for over four decades. He is an expert on agricultural diversity, biotechnology, corporate concentration and global governance. Pat Mooney was awarded the Pearson Peace Prize in Canada and received the Alternative Nobel Prize, The Right Livelihood Award. Welcome Pat. Thank you for joining us.
PAT MOONEY: Thank you for having me.
FRIES: Pat, from farmers and fishers groups, to cooperatives and unions, the Long Food Movement calls on civil society and social movements to unite and collaborate. This as a forceful counter position to an agribusiness-led transformation of the food systems. Your report Transforming Food Systems by 2045 maps out what this kind of ground up collaboration could achieve. So, as the title suggests you are looking decades ahead. What was the impetus behind that?
MOONEY: Well we back in 2016, in fact, we began to talk about the need for a strategy that was not so short-term as it has always been. That it can’t just be are two or three years of thinking. We need to be thinking further down the road. And we were expressing our general frustration, many of us in civil society, that we’re always trapped into these cycles of funding which is so short that we really can’t do the horizon scanning that’s important. So we talked about, well, let’s build something different.
Let’s try to see if we can imagine not just what we would like to have down the road but how we would get to it. We all have the same kind of dreams of the way we’d like to see the world be. But can we really get there? Can we politically practically do it? So the exercise of the Long Food Movement was to not just dream of what we want but really do the politics of it. You know, what’s really viable in terms of moving institutions, moving money around to get where we want to be.
FRIES: The Long Food Movement is for decentralizing control and democratizing food systems as the key to feeding the world as well as (re)generating ecological and other systems vital to people and planet. You say achieving that will require policy frameworks at every level of governance – from local law to international agreements –that support and empower small holder and peasant farmers all over the world. Talk about policy frameworks that have moved in the opposite direction by supporting and empowering agribusiness. And the role of agribusiness in getting governments to make those policy choices. For example, what did agribusiness want and get from government say back in the days when biotechnology was the then new technology?
MOONEY: Back in the even the late seventies and the eighties agribusiness was saying, we have a technology here biotechnology, genetically modified crops, which will feed the 500 million, at that time there are 500 million malnourished people in the world. That would solve that problem. They would take care of that and that they had the only tools that would actually be able to do it. They said that they needed some help to do it though.
They needed three things basically. They needed government regulators to get out of the way; give them the freedom to act as they wanted to. Secondly, they needed to be able to be given regulation, a certain kind of regulation, intellectual property rights over life, over plants and livestock so that they would own it. And so no bad regulations but the regulations they wanted which give them more corporate power. And then thirdly, they needed to turn the public sector researchers in agriculture into basically servants for the private sector. So do the basic work for us and we’ll do the rest.
FRIES: Just to clarify the third point about what agribusiness wanted was to turn public sector agricultural researchers into servants for the private sector, so this was to get the sort of research they wanted. In other words, research that advanced the interests of high-input, chemical intensive agriculture and that eventually will feed into profits for the main agribusiness players. So, pro-GMO research.
MOONEY: The Green Revolution sort of research we’ve been hearing about for ever. And all the developments coming out of universities and government research stations around the world for agriculture as well. The research money in the public sector goes into again support services for the private sector, basic research for the private sector.
FRIES: What were some real world consequences of this policy framework that agribusiness wanted and got? Take one example, I am thinking here of corporate concentration in food systems. What happened there?
MOONEY: Well, we went from roughly 7,000 private sector seed companies in the world when I first got into this work in the seventies, to where we now have really what, five or six at the most. In many ways, it’s really only three or four companies that really control all of commercial production of seeds and pesticides together. So it’s vastly concentrated compared to what it was.
FRIES: So there’s been a lot of corporate takeover and buyout activity.
MOONEY: Yeah. On a massive scale. I mean, it’s been a huge convergence. Really it started in the seventies and it’s kept on going. It hasn’t stopped. It’s transforming itself. Who’s doing the converging has been changing over time. When I was first dealing with this, the biggest seed company in the world was Royal Dutch Shell. They bought more than a hundred seed companies and they thought they were going to be big in the market. They decided they couldn’t do it after awhile. Then they got out of it and more conventional crop chemical companies took over and bought the seed companies. Now, of course, we’re seeing a new development where it’s the big data companies that are moving in and taking over large sectors of the food system.
FRIES: And you think there is more to come. That this trend shows no signs of slowing down.
MOONEY: It’s coming because again the industrial food chain is changing. It’s no longer the chain with all the links in it that we used to have. Seeds used to be sold and owned separately from pesticides and from fertilizers. And farm machinery companies were stuck in the business of producing tractors. The traders and the Cargills of the world and the processors and the retailers were all different folks. With big data management and the ability to manipulate, not just digital information but also to manipulate digital DNA to actually adjust, technologically computer-wise adjust living materials makes it possible for the biggest companies with the biggest computers to step in and really try to govern the large chunks of the food chain.
So seeds and pesticides have become one basically with the farm machinery companies and the fertilizer companies. They could actually just become one big input sector. The grain trading companies are kind of lost in this whole exercise. They’re not quite sure that they’ve got anything that anyone else wants anymore. The processors and the retailers are coming together more. And the big data managers behind all of that, the Amazons and the Alibabas of the world, the Googles and Tencents of the world, whether it’s China or Germany or the United States are saying: well, we can actually manage that better than anybody else can. So you get Alibaba advising peasant producers in China on how to grow pigs and gardens as well as how to market their products, as well as setting them up for retail sales in the stores.
I’ve been emphasizing the big data managers as the ones who are really at the front of this now and calling the shots and deciding what to do with the food system. But behind them again are asset management companies, BlackRock and State Street and Vanguard and so on who are huge companies. BlackRock has now more than $9 trillion in asset management power; an enormous amount of money. BlackRock has shares in virtually every part of the food chain. Every significant company in the food system and BlackRock is there. BlackRock has that knowledge of what’s happening. It is sort of being like being at a poker game when BlackRock’s the only one that can walk around and see all the cards that all the players have. They know it all. And they can then make decisions they think are important to make for their profit. And they have, again, a massive control of data perhaps more than anybody else does to know how to use it most effectively.
FRIES: So in going digital, food and agriculture is generating massive data and with it massive profits for food and the non-food corporations like data platforms, asset management firms and others that moved in on food to get control of those data and profit flows. And with consolidation and concentration, mega corporations can amass vast profits.
MOONEY: It’s a very profitable enterprise really. Food is something that you do three times a day, if you’re lucky. And it’s something you’re shopping for it all of the time. So repeat buying is built into the idea of it. And that means a lot for the companies. It means an awful lot of data can be gathered. You can attach things to that. As you see with grocery stores that have bigger and bigger areas and merchandise beyond food and so on. There’s lots of ways you can build from a food base to control more of the retail markets.
But also, of course, with big data management, you control the production side much more easily. It’s possible to go to farmers and say: if you take this package of inputs, that we own and control and have proprietary rights over and we can monitor that for you, we can help you with understanding the weather, understanding the markets, deciding exactly how much fertilizer, how much pesticides, what seed varieties you should be using. They can control all that package of information and then attach that even crop insurance and sell that to the farmers.
So you end up with a company like John Deere, for example, as the world’s largest farm machinery company having the sensors on its tractors, on its combines, that really let it control the entire production process. John Deere is in the field at the beginning of the growing season planting and dumping in the fertilizers, and the pesticides. It is there at the end of the growing season, picking up the harvest. So its knowledge of what’s being produced and what will make it to the marketplace is vast and much stronger than any other company.
FRIES: From seed sector consolidation in the 1980s into the present, you’ve charted a trend of rising corporate concentration and control in food and agriculture since agribusiness got the policy framework it wanted. You pointed out policy makers embraced what agribusiness wanted on the back of promises made by agribusiness. At that time promises that biotechnology, so genetically modified crops, would solve problems like world hunger. You debunked agribusiness promises then and you debunk them now.
And as an expert on corporate strategies, you demonstrate agribusiness has a narrow focus that puts profit before people and the planet and systems vital to their well-being: the ecological system, the knowledge system, the social system. Your early work exposing the Terminator Seed being an iconic example of how that works. Tell us something about that and read-throughs into the present.
MOONEY: Well Terminator was something we worried about even back in the 1980s as we saw biotech developing and it wasn’t doing well. It was slow in getting into the marketplace. And when it got into the marketplace in the mid 1990s it ran into a lot of opposition. It’s a matter of just following the money. It’s something you know about. It’s paying attention to where the greatest profit is. And the biggest profit was going to be if farmers couldn’t save their seed; if they were prevented from saving their seed. Now they’re legal preventions of course, that you can apply through patents but that doesn’t work as well in such a decentralized world of producers.
And so what the companies dreamt up was was an idea of what they call a technology protection system, TPS. And that was a system which they described literally as being a way to help the farmers of South Asia have access to the best possible seeds and technologies in a way which assured the companies who produced those technologies they wouldn’t be robbed. That the farmers wouldn’t steal the technologies. So that meant the seed had to be developed in such a way that it would die at harvest time. They’d be able to take those seeds to give you the end product but the seeds would die at harvest time so they couldn’t be planted again. So farmers would have to go back to the companies and buy seed every year.
They called it Technology Protection System. We called it Terminator Seeds. And there was such a reaction against that, that the United Nations came down with a moratorium against Terminator Technologies. The companies themselves were forced to publicly say that they wouldn’t use the technologies, the biggest companies. And that’s held out. They have not used the technology. It hasn’t been deployed into the marketplace. But they did an end run around that again and we realized they would.
By the end of the nineties, we were saying that: well what they really want to have is not genetically modified crops; they want to have crops that will react to chemical use or can be changed internally. You don’t need to have genes moved from one species to another. You actually just simply change the DNA itself within the existing species. And that’s now what we call gene drive technologies. Where you can go in and you can edit the DNA of a plant variety or a livestock species and alter it as you wish. And there’s no GMO involved as we traditionally know it.
So that’s the next step of that control. And they are trying to get that into the marketplace. They’re saying that we can’t have food security without it. They’re applying that to both health and to the food systems. It works in both cases. To malaria, for example, in getting rid of insects. That’s part of the approach they’re now taking. And again, we don’t know whether it will work. We don’t know if it does work whether it will work too well, be too dangerous, what its longer-term implications will be. And we certainly know that we will not be the ones that control it.
FRIES: Pat, in your report you lay out two very different approaches to technology that as they run their course over the next few decades would map into two very different futures for food. In a nutshell, could you explain that?
MOONEY: There’s two ways of looking at how they approach technology or how we’re looking at technologies and I’m making this probably quite unfairly simplistic. But on one side we have high-tech. And the companies are saying they’re the high tech gurus. They know how to handle this. They can go into their labs and they can do at the nanoscale literally change life, change DNA. Manage systems in such a way that they can apply those lab based technologies to the world, on a macro scale.
And against that high-tech approach, we have what I would describe as a wide-tech approach. Which is where you have production of food and systems at the level of watersheds, at the level of ecosystems where peasants produce food and make changes. Create innovation but innovation which is set in that very specific narrow context, the nano context of their community, of their farm area. So one is wide in the sense that it deals with everything in that ecosystem but focused on the farm. And the other one is high in the sense that it has small innovations that can have multiple applications.
And I think the world is much, much safer if we have a system where the innovation comes from the 350 million labs that are farms around the world and the hundreds of millions more of scientists who are the producers around the world, who can really be innovative with 7,000 different crops, not with the 12 crops that the companies work with; with 38 different livestock species, not the five that the companies work with. To get us through the problems of climate change and the threats of new pests and diseases and so on and biodiversity loss to have a decentralized system of short supply chains. To me, that’s what makes sense for the future.
FRIES: So for the common good, for you what makes sense is policy frameworks that support and empower small farmers and peasants all over the world. So from local to global, that would reset the trajectory of food production, research and financing systems to put people and the planet before profits. As you explained earlier, under agribusiness as usual, the opposite policy framework has prevailed for decades. Knowing that, I was quite surprised to see you report small holder production has performed so well.
MOONEY: It was even a bit of a surprise for us as well. We knew that it was a lot. We didn’t realize how much it was. But conservatively speaking again peasant production, small holder production and that’s fisheries as well as livestock keepers as well as farmers together, urban and rural production (as a lot is being produced in urban areas as well), if you put that all together then about 70% at least of the world’s people depend upon that small holder production to stay alive, to feed themselves. And that also comes out to roughly the same percentage in terms of the amount of food, not just the number of people, but also the amount of calories and so on that are being produced.
Which really begs the question of what are the other guys doing? What’s agribusiness doing? The answer’s they’re not doing very much. They’re feeding perhaps 30% of the world’s people. They’re doing that with more than 75% of the world’s land and resources, water, et cetera that food would use. They’re causing tremendous environmental damages and they’re creating an amount of overconsumption of food. Because so much of the food in the industrialized world at least goes to overconsumption which causes health and environmental damages.
FRIES: Sum up briefly why you say history shows agribusiness has promised a lot and given little. And on the back of that, what it’s promising today.
MOONEY: Well industry hasn’t been successful. Agribusiness hasn’t done what it said it was going to do. Its promises from the 1970s with biotechnology; its claims around its capacity to manage inputs to deal with long supply chains, none of that has worked. And it’s manifestly true even to governments that they recognize that the promises haven’t proved to be valuable or to work for society.
So industry is struggling at this stage trying to figure out what it does about that. How do they make the case now that they learned their lessons and can come up with something which really works for governments and for people who want to eat food. And they do that, of course, by claiming that they’re really kind of doing what agroecology is doing. That they have regenerative agriculture.
And the language they grab onto is that we get the message we’re going to move towards climate-smart agriculture. We’re going to work towards systems which have a full life cycle attached to them from cradle to cradle production. We’ve understood those messages and we’re doing it ourselves. But we’re attaching to that and improving it by having big data management, by having our highly sophisticated supply chains, by using blockchains to track commodities from the field to the table. They’re capturing the language of what was called the organics movement, now the agroecology movement. They’re renaming it. They’re calling it regenerative agriculture. And they’re just saying, they’re going to tweak it with their proprietary technologies to make it better.
Now, of course, moving towards what’s going to be a food summit at the end of 2021 they’re saying they will accept that all of these systems of agriculture can live together. It’s possible for agroecology and peasant producers to be side by side with larger farms and the industrial processes of agriculture. On the other side, of course, civil society and La Via Campesina one of the world’s largest umbrella peasant organizations and others are saying that we can’t do this thing side by side. If you’re using pesticides or you’re using synthetic fertilizers, if you’re managing the marketplace for your purposes that destroys our livelihoods and our ability to feed the 70% of the people that we are feeding.
FRIES: In this context, the report warns food security is under threat from agribusiness if governments rubberstamp what agribusiness want. You’ve explained even governments now recognize the technological solutions for world problems promised by agribusiness have not worked out or been of value to society. You talked about how in moving towards the summit at the end of the year, that’s the UN Food Systems Summit, to make a convincing case its new technologies are of value to society, agribusiness has reframed its promises. I’ll just quickly quote a comment on that point and on what agribusiness wants in return for those promises at the summit. This is from an interview you did at the launch of your report:
“Agribusiness has a very simple message; the cascading environmental crisis can only be resolved by powerful new genomic and information technologies that, they argue, can only be developed if governments unleash the entrepreneurial genius, deep pockets and risk-taking spirit of the most powerful corporations. To do this, the world needs a new governance model – a multistakeholder round table where governments, companies and civil society reason together. If the summit embraces this governance model, they will be able to apply Artificial Intelligence, Big Data management, digital genomics, robotics and block-chain driven supply systems to sustainably feed 2 billion more mouths a quarter of a century from now”.
So, Pat in return for those promises agribusiness wants the UN Food Systems Summit to embrace a new governance model, the multistakeholder model. That means the UN stamp of approval to shift UN institutions in food and agriculture, so the existing governance structure of the world food system, to the multistakeholder model of governance.
I should note for viewers, that multistakeholder institutions promote the multistakeholder model as a vehicle to reset the world system of global governance. A leading multistakeholder institution (as reported in other segments) is the World Economic Forum. And these multistakeholder institutions are funded by the world’s most powerful corporations and philanthrocapitalists like the Gates Foundation.
Pat, to unpack all this for us, start with some comments on the multistakeholder model
MOONEY: That’s the model that we’ve seen. I mean, the world has woken up a little bit because of the COVID experience. That we have COVAX, which is a construction of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together with Wellcome Trust. And where they’ve said let’s have a multi-stakeholder group that brings together the pharmaceutical industry that are going to produce the vaccines. They should be there with those who are going to give the money to make this thing work. So that’s going to be the foundations, the big philanthrocapitalist foundations. And we have to have the governments who are going to give money as well. We’ll sit at the table. We’ll invite WHO [World Health Organization] to be there as an advisor.
So you have this facade of the world’s governments participating in this process, but they’re not really decision makers in it. And that those with the money and those with the technologies will make the decisions about how to distribute vaccines around the world. Which has not worked very well for the vast majority of humanity. It may not work well for humanity for years to come. So the world has seen that as a multi-stakeholder model.
But we’re seeing that multi-stakeholder model also being proposed in the context of agricultural research, in the context of how to restructure again the UN’s normative functions for food and agriculture and investment and food aid and so on. They are saying that that kind of model is what they want to put in place there. We’re seeing the corporations making that through the World Economic Forum in particular. Saying here’s how we want to restructure the food system in terms of its institutions at the United Nations level. Here’s how we want to change the control of big data and manage big data for food and agriculture in our way. And here’s how he want to take agricultural research through the international research body, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. And here’s how we’re going to change that to work for agribusiness and “for the world” they say.
And it comes down to this language of multistakeholderism which I think is the most insidious and dangerous concept that we’ve seen since World War II in terms of how the world will govern itself. And companies are fundamentally saying, let’s all reason together. Let’s all just sit around together and we’ll just talk these things out and sort out how best to do things in the future. We have to recognize that we’re all stakeholders here at the table together. So let’s talk. And their definition of that is that we need governments at the table of course because they finally have normative functions. We need to have the industry at the table because they got the money and the innovative capacity. We need to have civil society at the table to sort of keep everybody honest.
But of course the civil society that they want at the table are kind of store-bought civil society. The ones that the companies have built themselves and funded themselves to be there, who have been co-opted into the system. And they’re really there for almost camouflage purposes. The real negotiation is not multistakeholder. It’s a negotiation between governments and corporations. And how will the governments facilitate what the corporations say they need. The resources they need to have and the regulatory systems they want to put in place to let them do what they say is their job as corporations. And so it’s a complete falsity to call it multistakeholderism. And that’s just such a false description of the reality of the world and we think that it has to be rejected.
FRIES: In other words, under that false description of the reality of the world that you were talking about, powerful corporations are positioning themselves to directly call the shots on how the world will be governed. And as the vehicle for this is multistakeholderism it is not so hard to understand why you reject that model. Your Long Food Movement report maps out what the next 25 years have in store if “agribusiness as usual” gets the multistakeholder model of global governance that it wants. What that mapping shows is “the keys of the food system are handed over to data platforms, private equity firms, e-commerce giants, putting the food security of billions at the mercy of high-risk, AI controlled farming systems and accelerating environmental breakdown”.
Our conversation today is not so much to talk about the nitty gritty of the “dystopian future for food, people and the planet” mapped out in the report as about how to prevent it. In other words, prevent the corporate takeover of global governance of the world food system by means of the multistakeholder model.
So in the time we have, talk to us about immediate threats of this. You point to three big agribusiness plays on structures of global governance of food and agriculture being pursued right now in 2021. Those being the 2021 UN Food System Summit a play to get the summit and so the UN to mandate an embrace of the multistakeholder model for governance of food and agriculture. And two other fronts, one, a play on global governance on Big Data in food and agriculture and thirdly, agricultural research. So let’s take them one by one in reverse order.
So first, the play on agricultural research. You talked earlier about how from the 1980s agribusiness got major governments to turn their public sector research institutions into a servant for the private sector, so agribusiness. The play in 2021 is to turn the world’s international public agricultural research institution into a servant for agribusiness. And that research body is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR. So, who’s spearheading that?
MOONEY: It really is I mean, it’s the Gates Foundation together with people who used to work at least for the Syngenta foundation, which is now Sinochem’s property with the UK government and the US government, a couple of others. Who are saying that we need to create a public international public sector research body which really is working hand in hand with the biggest private sector companies to deliver food security in the future. And it’s only the biggest companies that actually have the technologies again, and the money for those technologies that can get us out of this mess. So in the past whereas the CGIAR organization, which I’m a critic of, by the way, historically it’s not been a great organization but still it was trying to do something in theory for the South and collaborating with governments in the South.
Now that that body will really be a body which says here’s what we want to do to you guys. If you want our money and our technologies, then you’ve got to go along with what we recommend to you. It is really COVAX all over again but for agriculture. It is the biggest companies, with the biggest money pockets saying you can have our vaccines or you can have our food technologies but only under our conditions. And that kind of control is really, I think, quite scary and that’s what they are pursuing.
FRIES: On your point that this play is COVAX all over again but for agriculture, as we can’t go into that here, I’ll just point out for viewers a good resource for finding out more about COVAX and so read-throughs to other sectors can be found online. It is report by Harris Gleckman called COVAX: A global multistakeholder group that poses political and health risks to developing countries and multilateralism.
So Pat, to get back to your comments about the world’s international public sector agricultural research body, CGIAR. The plan tabled, as I understand it, was for a so-called ‘unification’ of the CGIAR system. Corporate framing you decode as meaning turning the system into a single corporate entity with stronger than ever connections to agribusiness. So what’s the state of play there? And has this CGIAR ‘unification’ been achieved?
MOONEY: Yes. And again there’s counter trends to it as well. That’s what they are doing. They’ve achieved it. They’ve actually amalgamated the fifteen institutes that are part of the CGIAR system into one. They’ve gained the controls they want. They’re streamlining their technologies and research; they’re pushing out any smaller enterprises and marginalizing scientists in the South to be involved in their own food systems. They’re doing that but they are still stuck with a legal structure which is grounded in about fourteen different countries around the world. That any one of those countries can treat what’s happening as a kind of merger as they would any other merger and acquisition and could stop it.
And there are many good reasons why, for example, Peru or the Philippines or Mexico who have these institutes in their own territory to step in and say: no, no, no. We’re not allowing this merger to happen. And under the headquarters agreements which exist now and have existed for some time, those countries could literally take over those institutes and make them national property, bring them entirely into the public sector of that country. So all you need to break, stop this takeover of agricultural research is to have two or three countries just say no to it. And that I think is what we need to be pursuing in the discussions leading up to this food summit. We need to say to governments recognize you have power here. Exercise that power, or you’ll never have it again. You’ll lose control.
FRIES: So Mexico then is one of the key countries in this. And Mexico of course has been under intense pressure from agribusiness since by presidential decree they banned glyphosate and GM corn.
MOONEY: Absolutely. I mean, Mexico is where the international center for the production of maize and wheat takes place in the world. It’s right there in Mexico, just outside Mexico City. If Mexico says that our headquarters agreement’s been violated by this takeover by the Gates Foundation and friends, then they can step in and take over all of those resources, including the gene bank, with an enormous diversity of maize and wheat seed in the gene bank. And say, now that was the property of Mexico and we’ll cooperate with the rest of the world. But we’re not going to surrender to this private sector initiative.
FRIES: Let’s move now to another immediate threat to governance of the world food system from agribusiness-led plays for a shift to multistakeholderism. Earlier you talked about the massive data and profit flows being generated as food and agriculture go digital. So this play has to do with control over global governance of data in food and agriculture. Specifically the creation of an International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture. Tell us about this. First of all, is it already a done deal?
MOONEY: No, it’s not, it’s still up for discussion. I think it’s encouraging that while we know what the companies want to achieve here – they want their multistakeholder group to make the decisions – the German government has stepped in and said: we got to look at this more closely. And they’ve gone to the United Nations to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization [FAO] and they’ve said: we need you to set up the governance structure for this and this has to be a discussion with the world’s governments.
So while there is a tendency to push in the same direction that they have with the World Health Organization, marginalizing it and giving it a sort of a cameo appearance in the process, I think there’s still a hope the Digital Council could be one in an intergovernmental body and which is a negotiated process with peasant producers around the world, as well as with the governments to decide what should be done. It’s not too late.
I am worried that the [UN] Secretary-General in New York has created this wider Digital Body that’s looking at use of digital information in every sector of economy, outside of agriculture as well. And they’ve surrendered that process to a multi-stakeholder group led by the biggest companies. But there still is a subsector around food and agriculture that’s being negotiated. And there’s still some hope that we can protect the interests of the food insecure and the food producers.
FRIES: So then global governance of data in every sector of the economy outside of agriculture has already been surrendered to a multistakeholder group. That group is a body proposed by the UN Secretary-General. I should note for viewers that body has been dubbed Big Tech Governing Big Tech in a civil society campaign to get it revoked by the UN Secretary General. And that in several other contexts, civil society continues to call on the UN Secretary-General to rescind & desist from actions that surrender the UN multilateral system to multistakeholderism.
The classic case of the role of the UN Secretary-General in normalizing multistakeholderism inside the United Nations was his signing of the United Nations World Economic Forum Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2019. Other experts I’ve interviewed, report how that agreement was signed without internal discussion among UN Member States or public debate. As reported by TNI at the time, an open letter sent to the UNSG by over 400 organizations denounced the agreement for formalizing the corporate capture of the United Nations.
In this conversation we have been talking about three big agribusiness plays bringing the threat of multistakeholderism to food and agriculture. And you say when taken together put the entire structure of the UN multilateral food system on the table in 2021. So far you discussed two. The remaining play is the UN Food Systems Summit.
And as context for viewers, I will very quickly note that this Summit was convened by the UN Secretary-General. And as envoy to the summit, the UN Secretary-General appointed a recognized proponent of multistakeholderism and of agribusiness. That envoy, Agnes Kalibata, is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (now known as WEF Global Future Council). She is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). A letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General signed by 176 organisations working in Africa and their allies, called on the UN Secretary-General to revoke that appointment. To no avail.
In your words, the summit is the brainchild of the World Economic Forum. So, comment now on 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.
MOONEY: It is really a shocking move. We felt that there was a need for a Food Summit. And one that really looked at the architecture of how food and agriculture services are dealt with around the world. But not the one that’s being talked about by the World Economic Forum again, which is this sort of multi-stakeholder strategy for governance which is behind the scenes sort of. And the response has been from the World Economic Forum and those who are pursuing the summit from the Secretary-General’s office is to say: well, it’s really going to be a people’s summit. We’re going to open up to absolutely everybody.
They call it the World Food Systems Summit. To me, it’s much more like a Disney World Food Systems Summit. You can go to the park. You can get on any of the rides you want to. The rides are bright and colorful. There’s never, never land. There’s frontier land there. There’s what else they have there, all of those fantasy places you can go to. But when you go on the ride and enjoy the ride, you end up exactly where you started when you get off it. Nothing has changed.
So we’re all going to be on this ride moving towards the Food System Summit but at the end of the day, it will only be those who are managing the process who will be able to interpret what came out of the process. So much will happen. There will be so much discussion in so many different areas, and there is no effort to actually create a final decision-making process where governments say here are the conclusions.
It’ll be up to the organizers to say at the end of the day: here’s what we interpret to be the conclusions. Here’s what we’ve picked out of this wonderful sort of potpourri of activities that went on here. And that’s the scary part because they know what they want already. And they will will claim that they got it and they’re welcoming all the noise and fanfare and activity along the way but they decide.
FRIES: There’s been significant press coverage reporting controversy and protest surrounding the summit, including out and out calls for a boycott. I found it especially interesting to see the summit criticized in letters and statements not just from civil society and social movements but also UN insiders and UN Independent Experts. For example IPES Foods Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
MOONEY: Yes Olivier and others have tried to give it a chance. We all in IPES Food we felt we should. You know, at the very beginning of the process, we were invited to be involved. We agreed to be involved to at least see if it could go somewhere. We were it our best effort. I think there’s overwhelming recognition now from those in civil society and academia that have tried to participate that it is not working. And I think there will be an exodus away from the summit.
And I say that with knowing that having been around the UN for more than half a century, the UN can paper over almost any disaster. And governments are very good at making disasters look okay. This is such a disaster in its organizational processes that I’m not sure it can survive it. I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to paper over this mess.
FRIES: For me, one statement in particular really seemed to capture a lot of what we’ve been discussing today. That was a statement made by the world renowned economist & a former Assistant Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations, Jomo K.S.
He wrote: “Big Ag claims that the food, ecological and climate crises has to be addressed with its superior new technologies harnessing the finance, entrepreneurship and innovation only they can offer. But in fact, they have failed, instead triggering more problems in their pursuit of profit. As the new food system and corporate trends consolidate, it will become increasingly difficult to change course. Very timely, A Long Food Movement is an urgent call for the long haul.”
You still seem to think the Long Food Movement can get to where it wants to be by 2045. That in other words, it’s not too late to turn things around.
MOONEY: I’m an optimist. I think it’s probably in my genes to be optimistic. And I sure wouldn’t offer to gene edit me, to get it out of me. But I do think that we’re not too late in this. Again, the surprise for us was that civil society is doing better and moving better than we thought; is more coherent than we thought they would be. They’ve got to do more but it is possible. And the other surprise is that again 70% of the world’s food system is produced by small holder producers not by the big corporations as much as they’d like you to think otherwise.
The reality still is that 70% of the world’s people are living from the bounty and the work of peasant producers, fishers and others around the world who are getting food on the table. So we’ve got the majority of it still. There is still an enormous amount of diversity beyond that which is held by science which peasants have in their fields. They’ve been saving their own seeds. They’ve been nurturing their own diverse livestock. They’re working again with 7,000 crops with much more diversity than the industry is working with. I mean, just compare this one figure which I think explains it a lot. About 45% of all agricultural research in the private sector focuses on one crop, corn or maize, one crop. Farmers are working again with 7,000 crops.
So if you’re trying to survive climate change, who do you want to trust to get you through it? You know, are you just going to eat popcorn the rest of your life? Or are you going to be able to in climate change, are you going to be able to have that diversity of food that can get us through different growing conditions and different pests and diseases? So there’s a lot still on the side of the peasant producers.
FRIES: Pat Mooney, thank you
MOONEY: Thank you
FRIES: And from Geneva Switzerland thank you for joining us in this segment of GPEnewsdocs.
Pat Mooney is lead author of A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045 produced by IPES-Food in collaboration with ETC Group. Pat Mooney is an IPES-Food panel member and project lead the IPES Food Long Food Movement project. Pat Mooney is the co-founder and executive director of the ETC Group. Since 1977, ETC group has focused on the role of new technologies on the lives and livelihoods of marginalized peoples around the world. Pat Mooney is widely regarded as an authority on issues of agricultural diversity, global governance, and corporate concentration. Although much of ETC’s work continues to emphasize plant genetics and agriculture, the work expanded in the early 1980s to include biotechnology. In the late 1990s, the work expanded further to encompass a succession of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geoengineering, and new developments ranging from genomics and neurosciences to robotics and 3-D printing. Pat Mooney and ETC group are known for having discovered and named The Terminator seeds, genetically-modified seeds designed to die at harvest. He received The Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) in the Swedish Parliament in 1985 and the Pearson Peace Prize from Canada’s Governor General in 1998. He has also received the American “Giraffe Award” given to people”who stick their necks out.”