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Raj Patel: Climate, Conflict and Capitalism Drive Global Hunger. COVID Made It Worse

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With hunger growing across the globe during the pandemic, the United Nations is holding its first Food Systems Summit, but the gathering is facing fierce criticism for giving corporations an outsized role framing the agenda. The United Nations’ own experts on food, human rights and the environment released a statement warning the summit could “serve the corporate sector” over the needs of workers, small producers, women and Indigenous peoples around the world. U.N. figures show the pandemic has increased the number of hungry people to 811 million, and nearly one in three people worldwide — almost 2.4 billion — lack access to adequate nutrition. “When you’ve got conflict, climate and capitalism compounded with COVID, you see a really apocalyptic situation,” says journalist and academic Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: With hunger growing across the globe during the pandemic, the United Nations is holding its first Food Systems Summit today. But the summit is facing fierce criticism for giving corporations an outsized role framing its agenda, with Big Food names like PepsiCo invited to fireside chats during a pre-summit in Rome. The U.N.’s own experts on food, human rights and the environment released a statement that, quote, “there is a risk the Summit will serve the corporate sector more than the people who are essential to ensuring our food systems flourish such as workers, small producers, women and indigenous peoples,” they said.

This comes as U.N. figures show the pandemic has increased the number of hungry people in the world by as many as 161 million, to 811 million, and nearly one in three people worldwide — almost 2.4 billion — lack access to adequate nutrition.

Soon we’ll be joined by leading food advocates in India and Ethiopia. But we begin with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. His piece, just out in the Scientific American, is headlined “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Raj. It’s great to have you with us. If you can start off by talking about just what this World Food Systems Summit is all about at the United Nations, and then the fierce attack by hundreds of groups and leading people who are experts in the area, fearful that the corporatization of the summit will only increase hunger in the world?

RAJ PATEL: Thank you, Amy. And thank you for having me.

So, let’s first, as you did, set the scene, recognizing that there is already far too much hunger in the world. You’ve observed that as many as 811 million people are undernourished and well over 2 billion are food insecure. Right here in the United States, we have 38 million people who are unable to be certain that they’re going to be able to put food on the table for their families.

And it was bad enough before COVID. There were forces that were pushing up the number of people and the percentage of people around the world who were going hungry even before COVID. And driving that were climate — so, climate change has made farming much more precarious, particularly for frontline and low-income communities around the world. So, climate. We’ve got conflict. You’ll be talking later on about the U.S. complicity in the engines of conflict and the arms trade around the world. But conflict is driving hunger because it creates displacement. It means that you plant the field, and the war tears through your community; you must move on, and harvests are lost, and livelihoods are lost. So, climate, conflict and, of course, capitalism. Capitalism operates through making sure that you buy low and you sell expensive. And that’s why in the United States seven out of the 10 worst-paying jobs are in the food system. But around the world, the deep irony is that the poorest people are usually the people whose hands touch our food. Now, when you’ve got conflict, climate and capitalism compounded with COVID, you see a really sort of apocalyptic situation.

And so, there’s clearly a need for policymakers to up their game. One of the ways that that can happen is through summits being pulled together where member states say, “Look, we really need to focus on this. We need to bump this up the policy agenda.” And unfortunately, what the U.N. Food Systems Summit is doing is sort of an end run. It’s a very strange summit, because rather than having countries come together and say, “Look, we all agree that we must do this,” it’s being driven the U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres. Now, he may have entirely benign intentions, because we do, as I say, need to address this problem. In 2016, the world committed itself to having zero hunger, zero undernourishment by 2030. But the rate we’re going, we won’t have zero; we’ll have about a billion people who are undernourished by 2030, if current trends continue. So we do need to do something about this. But the way this summit operated was that Secretary-General Guterres appointed in December 2019 the president of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. And Agnes Kalibata, the president of AGRA, was, before that, a — you know, she’s been president of AGRA since 2014, but before that she was the secretary of agriculture in Rwanda from 2008 to 2014.

Now, I mention this because part of her credentials for heading up this summit is that, under her tenure, you saw a huge increase in the amount of corn that was produced. Maize output from 2016 to 2019 increased fourfold, and the rice harvest doubled. And that kind of success story coming from Africa was part of the reason why the secretary-general appointed her. But, unfortunately, AGRA, this Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, is driven — I mean, it’s had mixed results. I mean, even in Rwanda, while the amount of food has gone up, hunger has — chronic hunger has increased by 40% over the same period, and so has the number of people who are undernourished.

Now, what this means is that we need to look very closely at what AGRA is and how it operates. AGRA was set up by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006. And the goal there was to bring better agricultural practices to 30 million people across 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And a billion dollars later, a lot of those dollars coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but also from the United States Agency for International Development and other countries, the results have been fairly grim. So, again, just a sort of CliffsNotes version here, and this comes from excellent research by academics like Tim Wise at Tufts University, but what we’ve seen is that in the countries where AGRA operates, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of people who are suffering hunger, and the agricultural productivity is kind of the same as it was before AGRA began. But what AGRA is is a way of locking in a certain kind of way of doing agriculture, where you increase productivity and hope that the money that that generates for certain kinds of farmers trickles down to end hunger. And as we’ve seen from AGRA’s own data, it fails on its own terms.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You said, Raj, that this summit is taking place on the initiative of the U.N. secretary-general. Could you also talk about the role of the World Economic Forum and how that’s informed the content of the summit and who participates?

RAJ PATEL: Well, certainly, the ideas that you’ll see floating around and the kinds of language that you see floating around the summit bear a striking resemblance to the sorts of ideas that come from the World Economic Forum’s sustainability roundtables and sort of corporate-driven missions to try and do something about hunger. I think that when we hear a little bit more about multistakeholderism from Shalmali Guttal in India, we’ll really be able to get under the hood of this.

But the idea here is that corporations fully understand that if we are to have zero hunger, their bottom lines are going to be targeted. You know, many of the world’s largest food corporations recognize already that they are producing food that is not making the world healthy. A leaked report, leaked in the Financial Times earlier on this year, showed that, I believe it was, 60% of Nestlé’s food failed to meet even the very basic definition of healthy output. And I think 98% of Nestlé’s non-coffee beverages and non-water beverages are considered unhealthy. Corporations know that their number is up. And when they understand that they are going to be regulated and their profits are going to be hit — because how else are we going to be able to end hunger among the poorest but by paying them more, which means corporations will be earning less profit — they want to be on the inside of this regulation game. And they want to control the terms on which policy is set.

And so you’ve got organizations within the sort of U.N. Food Systems Summit in some of the pre-summit meetings who represent industry. Greenpeace reported yesterday that the International Meat Secretariat, for example, and the International Poultry Council were part of the stakeholders who were around the table talking about livestock and sustainability. And the meat council was there saying, “Well, look, the only way for us to have a really sustainable future is to have more meat production in the Global North, because if it goes to the Global South, it will be poorly deregulated,” which is a spectacularly disingenuous argument to be making. But, of course, you know, they can make this argument uninformed by the science of sustainability that says that industrial meat production is one of the drivers of climate change. And we’ve seen in the United States industrial meat production was one of the industries that put people, particularly low-income communities and people of color, in the frontlines of COVID because of the opening of slaughterhouses in the pandemic. This powerful industry is largely immune to the best practices that we see emerging from the scientific community and the consensus we see emerging from the scientific community around climate change and around poverty. But they’re there at this summit because they’re considered stakeholders.

And that idea of having all the stakeholders around the table together is something that characterizes this summit. That’s why you’ll hear from this summit that, you know, “We invited everyone to come. And those movements outside, you know, we invited them in, and they chose not to be here.” But the sort of philosophy of multistakeholderism that was transported from the World Economic Forum to this summit is that you have everyone around the table — murderers and victims — and they try and reach a consensus. And, of course, that’s not how we’re going to end hunger. And that’s one of the reasons why so many organizations are on the outside of the summit protesting its process and trying to moderate the more dangerous effects of its outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Raj Patel, research professor at University of Texas–Austin. His piece in Scientific American is headlined “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger.” Next up, we’ll be continuing with Raj and go to Ethiopia and India, as well, as we talk about hunger growing across the globe. Stay with us.

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