Jackie Kearney reports on an ORFC 2024 session that “affirms the right to food as a protected human right, and the role of our governments to represent the power of the people, not corporations”. Watch along as you read.
Why does power matter in our food systems?
The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have both shone a spotlight on our global food systems and have exposed some of the immense challenges they face. We are all aware of the ongoing food price crisis, the threat of climate breakdown, and the persistent issue of hunger and malnutrition globally. There needs to be urgent changes in the structure and function of our food systems if we are to address any of these threats, and in order for these changes to be made it is first crucial to be aware of the powers influencing these systems. This session, one of the first of the conference, aims to bring this crucial consideration to the forefront by analysing the deep power asymmetries in food system governance which are blocking potential paths to food system transformation, and to ask how this imbalance can be redressed.
Who controls the food system?
Nick Jacobs, the director of IPES Food, kicked off the session by presenting the findings of the recent IPES Food report “Who’s Tipping The Scales?”. The report’s findings reveal the significant influence that corporations have over our food systems. By exerting their influence to drive down the prices of agricultural produce, the true costs of production are overlooked and both the environment and producers suffer as a result. Nick revealed the range of ways that corporations impact food governance decision making, from their more visible presence in public-private partnerships, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and through funding global food governance fora, to some less visible aspects of corporate influence such as lobbying, political donations, and research sponsorship. While there have been attempts by governments and the UN to limit the power of corporate interests over the past 50 years, the IPES report found that today a small handful of corporations control up to 90% of certain sectors of the agri-food chain. It was made clear that there is much work to be done to redress the structural power imbalances in our food systems if we are going to have any possibility of recapturing food system decision making for the public interest.
How can this power imbalance be redressed in favour of communities?
IPES Food proposed 3 principles for action to counter the corporate takeover of global food governance spaces, firstly to rein in the influence of corporations on food, secondly to democratise decision-making to serve the public interest and finally to build counter-power from the grassroots upwards.
These suggestions, and the report findings, were brought into clear focus by the sharing of the perspectives of three different speakers active in different areas of food and farming. Nikki Yoxall is a first generation farmer based in Scotland as well as being Head of Research at Pasture for Life. Nikki expressed frustration at the difficulties facing UK farmers attempting an agroecological transition, stating that the market dependency on outputs forms a major barrier to transition for many farmers, exacerbated by the industrialised processes of large corporations that overlook aspects such as health, nutrition and animal welfare. Nikki expressed the evidently commonly held fatigue that agroecology inspired farmers are feeling, exclaiming ‘we’re knackered!’, which was met by cheers and clapping from the audience. Change needs to happen, Nikki argues, but farmers are overburdened and can not be responsible for creating alternative power structures, instead representatives from every aspect of the food system need to come together.
Million Belay, the General Coordinator for the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) shared the struggles faced by many AFSA members. He expressed that for many African countries life revolves around agriculture, with 80%+ of livelihoods related to the agricultural sector. Recovering a functional agricultural system from the legacies of slavery and colonialism is still a work in progress and it is too easy for corporations to take advantage of the fact that many African governments are strapped for cash. AFSA’s approach to building a resistance against corporate overreach in food systems is to connect the ‘dots’ of successful work into one larger voice. Million shared some examples of progress in this field, such as a Kenyan county which has produced its own agricultural policy, and the fact that Uganda has incorporated agroecology into its climate policy. The My Food is African campaign was also shared as having a significant positive impact. Building upon these examples of success, Million shares that what is needed next in the African context is greater engagement with youth, and for NGOs and CSOs to work with governments and the existing power structures in order to create systemic change.
Dee Woods, the Food Justice Coordinator at the Landworkers’ Alliance who also works with the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism for the Committee on World Food Security, also shared her perspective on the distribution of power in the global food system, as well as potential steps forward. Dee began by affirming the right to food as a protected human right, and the role of our governments to represent the power of the people, not corporations. Dee illuminated many of the challenges facing civil society in the fight for representation in food governance decision making, such as the lack of financial support, language barriers and the failure of large institutions to ensure civil society participation. Despite these huge barriers Dee reflected on the big wins achieved by civil society such as the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While these are substantial wins, Dee reminds us that these took decades of work to achieve, and reminds us all that there is much more work to be done, ‘we’re tired – but we can’t be weary, and expresses that we need to reclaim our power.
All presenters were united in calling for increased listening, connection, collaboration, and participation from all intersections of the food and farming movement. The need to build and reclaim our power was the resounding call from the session, and a great seed to sow amongst the audience to take forward throughout the rest of the conference.
Jackie Kearney is the Network and Membership Manager for Re-Alliance, a global network of regenerative practitioners operating in crisis contexts. She is a researcher, network facilitator and project coordinator whose work focuses on localised climate resilience, ecosystem restoration and forced migration. More specifically her work focuses on harnessing and strengthening the power of grassroots networks to advocate for a shift towards more equitable approaches to disaster, displacement and development.