"Food security? The real stakeholders are food providers, workers, and the food-insecure."
Why now for a Long Food Movement? What's the controversy over tech in food systems anyway? And how can social movements possibly alter the course of "agribusiness-as-usual" by 2045?
To mark the launch of the Long Food Movement report, we asked lead author Pat Mooney (ETC Group and IPES-Food) for his take on who the real stakeholders are when it comes to the world's food security.
This report calls for a ‘Long Food Movement’. But why are our food systems in need of such a radical overhaul?
Our world’s food security is confronted with compounding crises: at least four – and probably six – of the nine Planetary Boundaries have already been exceeded; the climate crisis is worsening not improving; massive biodiversity loss is imperiling farm and fish harvests and our soil and water resources are both evaporating. We urgently need to change direction. To do so, we must reset the trajectory of our food production, financing and governance systems. We only have a couple of decades to steer humanity to a safer place. In other words, we need a Long Food Movement. A Movement that rigorously scans the horizon for threats and opportunities, and also sets out pathways for tough political and systemic change.
Why release this call to action now? Is it because the UN Food Systems Summit is approaching?
We began our work literally a couple of months before the Summit was proposed, but it is fortuitous that our initial report is wrapping up as the Summit moves into its final preparatory phase. Because the Summit is the brainchild of the World Economic Forum and so heavily emphasizes the technological strategies of agro-industry and giant IT corporations, we’ve looked closely at a kind of “agribusiness-as-usual” scenario, and we’ve also studied the governance reforms for food and agriculture that began a dozen years ago and considered ways to build on these reforms regardless of the outcomes of the Summit later this year.
You warn of a future dominated by ‘agribusiness-as-usual’. What exactly are the threats, and who stands to lose out?
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 “multi-stakeholder” round table where governments, companies and civil society reason together. If the Summit embraces this governance model, companies say they will be able to apply Artificial Intelligence, Big Data management, digital genomics, robotics and blockchain-driven supply systems to sustainably feed 2 billion more mouths a quarter century from now.
Unfortunately, we heard the same high-tech message a quarter of a century ago at the first Food Summit. The technologies either didn’t show up or they fell flat and the only thing that grew were the corporations. In return for trillions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies, the agribusiness model would centralize food production around a handful of untested technologies that would lead to the forced exodus of at least a billion people from hundreds of millions of farms. Agribusiness is gambling on other people’s food security.
But anyway, what’s the problem with more technology and big data use in food systems? Why the controversy?
That’s a complex question but let’s just say that the benefits of new technologies – like COVAX vaccines – are rarely distributed equitably. Recent history also teaches us that new technologies do not have to be scientifically successful in order to be commercially profitable and, finally, successful technologies – Agroecology is a good example – are frequently suppressed by the industries they imperil..
Let’s be blunt : in the context of new technologies applied to our food supply, we shouldn’t be taking unquantifiable risks in the midst of a crisis. We need to build upon our known strengths. This raises the fundamental problem of so-called multi-stakeholderism. In strengthening food security, the real stakeholders are the food providers, food workers, and the food-insecure. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake. By contrast, agribusiness is a stake eater – all they are risking are their dividends and bonuses. We need to ask ourselves who owns and who controls the technologies being offered?
What exactly do you think civil society could achieve with a long-term, 25-year plan for food systems?
We were surprised by our own findings. Civil society has a remarkable track record in developing, for example, healthy and equitable agroecological production systems; building short (community-based) supply chains; restructuring and democratizing local, national and even international governance systems; and even redirecting financial flows such as through junk food taxes, etc. Civil society has also halted dangerous corporate technologies such as terminator seeds – seeds engineered to die at harvest time forcing farmers to buy new seeds every season and quadrupling production costs. Under pressure from civil society, governments and the UN have prevented the technology from being commercialized.
Civil society has done this without a clear, coherent, long-term strategy. Simply through closer collaboration – across not just the different links in the food chain but across other sectors such as health, human rights, trade, labour, etc. – with graduated 25 year timelines we think it is politically realistic that – working with friendly governments and UN agencies – civil society could achieve a great deal. For example? Shifting more than $4 trillion per annum from current wasteful food expenditures toward healthier, more equitable and environmentally sound food systems that could also cut the industrial food sectors greenhouse gas emissions by at least 75%. The strategy could massively diversify crop and livestock production and fish harvesting redressing biodiversity loss and ensuring the livelihoods of smallholder food providers around the world. Our conclusions aren’t based on theoretical technological fixes; don’t concentrate corporate power; and need less money than is going into food and nutritional security today.
Do you see any hope for sustainable, equitable food systems in the future? Are we too late?
After extolling all the potential for a Long Food Movement, I still have to tell you that we might be too late. As I said before, probably six of the world’s nine planetary boundaries have been crossed; we don’t know the dimensions of future climate calamities, new pandemics, or the geopolitical responses such crises could evoke. The difference between success and failure will be the capacity of civil society to collaborate and make preparations to take advantage of both the threats and opportunities that will come. We’ve identified possibilities in agroecology, in the furtherance of territorial markets in short supply chains, in local and global governance systems, and in shifting financial flows that could and should get us to a better place. The sooner we begin, the better our chances.
Pat Mooney is the co-founder and executive director of the ETC Group, and is an expert on agricultural diversity, biotechnology, and global governance with decades of experience in international civil society and several awards to his name. The ETC group is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada with offices in Mexico, Philippines, Nigeria and USA. ETC group has consultative status with ECOSOC, FAO, UNCTAD, UNEP, UNFCCC, IPCC and the UN Biodiversity Convention. 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 has almost half a century of experience working in international civil society, first addressing aid and development issues and then focusing on food, agriculture and commodity trade. 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." The author or co-author of several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity, 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.