The following interview was originally recorded in October 2021 between podcast co-host Samara Brock and the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, Shalmali Guttal. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Focus on the Global South (Focus) is an Asian activist, policy research think tank that works with social movements, civil societies, government officials and the public on various aspects of globalization, economic financial policies, and environmental ecological issues.
Focus brings diverse actors together to share and deepen the analysis of emerging power patterns and power relations, and to build broad collective mobilizations for global change. It produces analyses that illuminate relations of power, how they create and perpetuate inequality, exclusion, environmental destruction, and entrench marginalization at national, regional and international levels. It also aims to generate high quality, credible and accessible materials that contextualize, inform and support people’s struggles.
Image: A recovered family farm in Thailand. Source: Shalmali Guttal
Samara: Welcome, Shalmali! I’m really excited to talk to you today. Could I start by asking you about how you joined Focus for the Global South in the late 1990s? How did you come to be in this role - what were you seeing happening at the time that inspired you to do this work?
Shalmali: Thank you, Samara. One thing that was really influential was my experience in engaging with global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, multilateral agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, and national policymaking and governance processes. These experiences helped me to see how alienated policymaking and policymakers are from on the ground realities. How the so-called evidence basis of policymaking is biased and manipulated by research that's financed by particular interest groups, how negotiations in economic, trade and investment agreements are completely skewed to serve the interests of corporations, and how there is a lack of mechanisms to prevent conflicts of interest in governance.
The other thing I saw in this engagement work was the glaring absence of public and democratic oversight, and the inadequacy of legal and material accountability when people's rights are violated, and public interest is undermined. And you know, here governments have a big role to play, because they are supposed to be upholding the public interest and people's rights. But who holds them to account and how do we hold them to account if we don't have public and democratic oversight, and the necessary legal mechanisms?
Power in the food system
Samara: In terms of looking at the current food system, you’ve mentioned corporations and government as major players, are those the actors you see who hold the most power to influence the food system?
Shalmali: There are many foods systems in the world, and these have emerged in different geographies, biomes and ecosystems. They're shaped by the knowledge and innovation of people and communities who inhabit those regions, but also through economic, social and political conditions.
Those who actually produce food and nurture the conditions for food to be possible have the power of knowledge and capability, but they don't necessarily have the power of agency, autonomy, decision making, and money; those who produce and provide much of the food we eat usually have the least power in making policy level, system-wide decisions. At the national level, it is governments that have the legal or statutory power in terms of exercising system-wide decisions across the different dimensions of food systems.
But then, over the past several decades, we have seen the expansion of the so-called ‘global food system’, a system that is dominated by transnational corporations and finance capital and shaped by global export markets and global value chains. This food system is buttressed by neoliberal economic policies at both national and international levels, and it is given subsidies, institutional and policy support, and legal protection through trade and investment agreements. In this global food system, corporations have the maximum amount of power.
The global food system is based on industrial agriculture, livestock, poultry and fisheries, large scale monocultures, and extensive use of fossil fuels and agrochemicals. It's a food system that has expanded and continues to expand through biotechnology, high or advanced technology and digital technology – all proprietary – for production, processing, transportation and marketing. This food system has the largest environmental and climate footprint of all food systems, and it’s the driving force behind the destruction of ecosystems, natural landscapes and territories and biodiversity, and also violations of rights of workers, small-scale food producers and Indigenous Peoples.
The power holders in the global food system are corporations who have far too much unchecked power over the economy, society, politics and governance. A big danger comes from finance corporations that have become increasingly involved in agri-food supply chains by investing in agri-food, agri-business and technology firms, and are often the hidden force behind a lot of large-scale land acquisitions. The world's top corporations have market valuations that are higher than the GDP of many countries. And they're using their financial clout to control decision making structures and processes in national and global governance. One of the ways they're doing this is through multistakeholder partnerships, in which corporations more or less arrange the policymaking tables and where power asymmetries among the parties are not recognized and addressed. Corporate influence in policy making on trade, investment, banking, energy, climate, public health and agriculture have long been visible. But now, a strategic partnership between the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the UN Secretary General’s office has brought corporations into the highest level of global governance.
In the global food system, we can see that a small number of corporations exercise a very high degree of influence at all levels by forming mega business entities through mergers and acquisitions, and horizontal and vertical market concentration. Such concentration gives them even more market power, and control over production capabilities, supply chains, distribution and retail: they own products and technologies through intellectual property rights (IPR) laws; they determine commodity and food prices and shape markets; and they benefit from the privatization of a range of key public functions in the food system, such as procurement, agricultural research, even school meals.
This is what Professor Philip McMichael has called the corporate food regime, which has been a driving force behind the conversion of actual food production work into unprotected contractualization and casualized labor on a world scale. Such power undermines the rights and agency of small-scale producers, workers, and low-income consumers who find themselves faced with very poor choices regarding credit, markets, livelihoods, incomes and nutrition. Women face particular hardships by concentrated corporate power and privatization of goods and services because of their multiple social and economic roles as producers and care providers.
We’ve also seen contract farming that has been pushed by governments as the only way in by which small scale food producers can actually make a living. Because corporations develop the contracts, they set the rules in terms of what needs to be grown, how it should be grown, what the prices will be. They provide the packages of seeds and breeds. They’re the ones who set safety and quality standards, and farmers have to comply with that. Contract farming literally creates factory conditions in agriculture and food production. This is happening in horticulture on a very large scale as well, through highly controlled production of fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. And it’s alarming that it’s even happening in the production of foods that are labeled as organic: so-called organic foods are increasingly produced through monocultural conditions.
Wealth and inequality
Samara: What would you say to those that argue that we need all hands on deck to address our current challenges and that corporations can actually play a role in helping to create a sustainable food system?
Shalmali: Well, yes, I agree that we will definitely need all hands on deck to address urgent challenges. But let’s examine the deck and the boat first. We’re all in the same storm but corporations and people with wealth and political connections are in bigger and far safer and more comfortable boats than majority of the world. The experience, understanding and analysis of the challenges we face are also not the same.
In many ways corporations serve consumers through the goods and services that they’re able to produce on vast scales. But they’re not doing this as a public service, they’re doing it for profits. And this is where the line has to be very carefully drawn between profits and public interest.
It is become abundantly clear that corporations will not voluntarily accept responsibility for the harm they have created by concentrating on profits and profits alone, and in precipitating the crises that we're facing. They use corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct to build social acceptance, while they continue business as usual in operations and profit accumulation. Corporations have crossed the line of responsibility way beyond what is conscionable and acceptable. So the obvious solution, then, is to have legal measures to compel corporations to become accountable. But this is easier said than done because the vast empire of influence that corporations have built gives them legal cover and inroads into national and global accountability systems.
Corporate influence in international governance
Samara: You mentioned earlier your involvement in international governance. Is this what has motivated you to try to counter these global corporate forces? Are there international mechanisms that you think are up to the task?
Shalmali: There are international mechanisms that are up to the task. But again, we're seeing the expansion of corporate influence in these spaces. One of the most alarming trends is the increasing presence of corporations and corporate philanthropies in global food governance, through multilateral spaces. This is not new, we've already seen this with the Millennium Development Goals, the Global Compact, and then of course, the Sustainable Development Goals. But the private sector that is involved in these global spaces is not our local, homegrown private sector of entrepreneurs and small businesses. These are large businesses tied to transnational capital.
Multistakeholder platforms and initiatives have been pushed by corporations for a long time, to be able to say, ‘hey, we're concerned and we want to be part of the solution’. But in none of those multistakeholder spaces did they actually accept their own role in creating crises, nor did any of the solutions that they proposed address tackling structures of inequality. Multistakeholderism has entered United Nations spaces - corporations have now been given a seat at the UN table through the United Nations Food Systems Summit - and multilateralism itself being molded into multistakeholderism [see end box for definitions].
I think this is a particularly worrying trend, because multistakeholderism blurs the lines between those who are rights holders, those who have obligations to protect people's rights, and those who have to be held accountable for abuses of rights.
The right to food
Samara: So how do you see this changing? Would this necessitate a shift away from increased corporate power in these governance spaces?
Shalmali: The first thing is to think about what kind of governance we want. Food does need to be in markets for access, availability, incomes and livelihoods. But food should not be governed as a market commodity. We need to try to convince policymakers in every way we can that national and global governance must promote and support food sovereignty, not market-based food security. You can’t rely on global markets to be able to combat hunger and ensure the right to food. It will not happen, because that's not what these markets are designed for. Global agri-food markets are designed to accumulate profits not to ensure the right to food. So, global governance must promote and support food sovereignty, agroecology, and territorially embedded food systems over a market based, corporate dominated global food system, because this global corporate food regime will not ensure the right to food, reduce its carbon footprint and advance the rights of small-scale food producers, workers, Indigenous Peoples and women.
We also have to stop the advancement of multistakeholderism, which is one of the biggest dangers to public interest-oriented governance. At the national level, we can at least use whatever democratic means are available to us. But at the global level, this becomes much more complex. We need to rebuild multilateralism to make it democratic. This means working at the national level, with our governments, but also using as many international mechanisms that we can, such as the UN Human Rights Council.
Another step we need to take is to protect and defend the rights of people and communities to access and control over land and resources. Agrarian economies are the backbone of the world, not only as primary livelihoods but also as absorbers of economic shocks. This involves protecting the rights of communities and peoples who live there, especially women who hold families and communities together. Without strong social protection measures, without a strong public economy, without public goods and services, poor and vulnerable communities are not going to be able to survive. Simply increasing incomes, as part of this whole economic growth strategy, just doesn't hack it.
Pathways to prosperity
Samara: At TABLE, we try to interview people who have different perspectives on the food system, and sometimes radically opposed ones. And as you're speaking, I'm thinking of past interviewees who have spoken in positive terms about the Green Revolution and its ability to feed people. As well as that, you're speaking about smallholders, and we had another guest who mentioned that, you know, the best thing we can do for farmers is to get them out of farming, that that's a pathway to prosperity. And I'm just wondering your response would be to people who would say that the Green Revolution has been success, that it has provided people with more affordable food, and created efficiencies of scale that have been of benefit?
Shalmali: Well, firstly, I strongly contest the idea that the best thing for small scale food producers is to get them out of farming. I think that is absolutely wrong. Small scale food producers don't need to get out of food production, on the contrary, they need social, economic and political support to be able to continue producing food, and innovating how to produce healthy food in increasingly unpredictable and challenging climatic conditions. And be able to do all this with dignity, earn living wages, build stable livelihoods from which their families, their communities, their children can actually look forward to a brighter future. Yes, there are many people in every generation who want a different life for themselves. But the kind of migration that we're seeing, at least across Asia, from agrarian to urban areas, it's a choice that's driven by extreme economic distress, and severe crisis and hunger conditions. And the answer to that is not to get them out of farming, but to stop the destruction of environments and agrarian livelihoods, and ensure that rural communities and workers have adequate choices.
On the issue of the Green Revolution, what was the Green Revolution? It was basically the promotion of capital intensive industrial agriculture. And yes, it is true, that for a certain time period of time the application of those Green Revolution technologies suddenly increased food production. There was a lot more food available, and it did address issues of hunger and access for a while. But let's not forget that the Green Revolution was also a political strategy. Because in the middle of the 20th century, as many countries were decolonizing, a lot of nationalist movements across the South had very strong peasant movements. These peasant movements were revolting against colonial capitalism, and this was also happening in India after independence in 1947. At the same time, India also had a long history of social inequality and exploitation of the peasantry by large landlords. The Green Revolution was introduced to India in this context. On one hand, India was able to make an alliance of some kind with the United States, despite the non-aligned movement to get Green Revolution technologies to address issues of hunger and food insufficiency. And at the same time, it was also able to keep its large landowners happy and build a rural middle class of farmers dependent on government largesse. I think the Green Revolution in India needs to be looked at from these historical-social perspectives as well.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the Green Revolution technologies was the impacts it had on the environment. It was subsidized and supported by the government for a short period of time. But by the 1980s, the Green Revolution package was fiscally just too onerous; state support declined, farmer debt escalated. The government was not able to or didn't agree to provide remunerative prices for the food that was produced. Ground water tables fell, salinity increased, soils degraded and then health disorders started from pesticide use. There are lots of negative social and environmental impacts of the Green Revolution that are not discussed as much as they should be.
I think this points to strategies that we have to think about as we go forward. Technologies are not value ‘neutral’ or apolitical. Scientific technologies are developed in particular contexts for particular purposes. And this is another reason why many of us are very concerned about the kinds of corporate techno-solutionism that is being pushed in global discourses and narratives about how to address the climate and food crises, biodiversity erosion, etc. These techno fixes are also political, technological, economic packages. They have implications for power - who has power then over food production going ahead? Who has power over social reproduction? Who has power over economic production? Who has power over governance?
Technology and agroecology
Samara: Could you see any technology that could be implemented that wouldn't have those negative power implications?
Shalmali: Yes, agroecology. It's a system of knowledge, of technologies and innovations. It's a system of practices, and it's dynamic and evolving. It is as much a science as it is a social, ecological movement. Technologies are not only high-tech things that are developed in labs, by people in white coats. Technologies are also what people develop in their fields, and through their innovations, and localized technologies are democratically governed. We can look at food sovereignty and agroecology as paradigms that can generate – and repurpose - technologies that support and serve the public good. I think that's a very positive use of technologies. I am not anti-technology, what I'm against is the development and use of technologies that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few. Agroecology is empowering to women and the youth because it provides space and recognition for their knowledge and innovations.
Aspirations for the future
Samara: As we move toward the end of our conversation, I wanted to ask if you could say a bit more about your aspirations for the food system?
Shalmali: Well, I would like to see the strengthening of territorially embedded food systems at local, national and regional levels through food sovereignty, agroecology, and deglobalization. Basically, reclaiming democratic social control over the economy, rather than allowing markets to control society, the economy and governance.
Another aspiration is that food system discourses shift narratives away from global value chains and markets to public interest, and food as a human right and a public good. And that they enable a shift in the balance of power among food system actors and support meaningful participation of those who feed at least half the world’s people, especially those who are economically and socially vulnerable. I go back again to small scale food producers, workers, indigenous peoples and local, small scale enterprises. Another hope I have is that human rights becomes the foundation of food system governance nationally, and globally. The right to food is inseparable from other rights. And it's inseparable from social, economic, and environmental justice.
One issue that we didn't touch on earlier is the role of women in food systems, and how women are affected by power asymmetries in the food system in a number of ways. They're affected at local-national levels, because of patriarchy. But women are particularly impacted by global food systems, that affect their rights to land, rights to seeds, access to credit and information, etc. One of my aspirations is that as we move forward in building more egalitarian systems of governance, women are able to take their rightful place in governance and in democratic participation at every level.
I also think it's very important that policymakers understand the complex interlinkages between food systems, and between the multiple sectors and systems that drive change in food systems. Right now, food systems are being governed in silos. The World Trade Organization has an impact on food systems governance, as do other Free Trade Investment agreements. What happens in the COP negotiations has impacts, as do World Bank policies, and the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security. But all these are siloed. It's almost like food is being ripped apart, rather than being approached holistically.
Samara: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure talking to you.
Shalmali: Thanks, Samara
Multistakeholderism & multilateralism
In talking about multistakeholderism vs multilateralism in multistakeholderism, you've been contrasting these two approaches. Can you say a bit more about what each of those mean to you?
Multilateralism refers to the system that we have in the United Nations. Countries are members of the UN. They have accepted the basic premise of the United Nations, which is actually international humanitarian rights law. It’s a space where you have governments sitting around the table, one country, one vote. They deliberate, discuss key issues, negotiate, and they come to negotiated agreements. So, the UN is the example of multilateralism.
Multistakeholderism is quite different from that. It's a model of governance that brings together diverse actors that have a potential stake in an issue, in order for them to arrive at some kind of collaborative agreed solution, or strategy. Now, a stake can be anything, it can be a financial interest, a material interests, like owning land, it can be a potential interest for example, future generations might benefit from a strategy or a development. So for example, stakeholders in a coal mine or hydropower dam project could include affected communities, because they're going to be displaced, and their environment is going to be affected. It can include the government officials who would give approval for, and get revenues from these projects. It would include industrial companies involved in the project as well as project financiers; environmental NGOs and CSOs; local businesses who could be affected; workers unions and so on. But when they come together around the table, the big question is whether they have the same rights, obligations, liabilities, power and capacities to negotiate. And the answer is no. There's a lot of talk about how, in a multistakeholder initiative or multistakeholder platform, everybody's equal, everybody negotiates. But in reality, participants in a multistakeholder platform are not equal. They're not equal in their economic status, they're not equal in the amount of the information they have, or the knowledge they have, their ability to negotiate, the ability to not be intimidated by these spaces. Nor do they have the financial clout to sway decision making. And that's at a project level. If you elevate that to a global governance level, multistakeholderism shows the alienation and the power asymmetries among people around a negotiating table even more starkly than at project levels.
Multistakeholderism actually blurs the lines between those who are rights holders, and those who have obligations to protect people's rights. When governments and corporations are sitting at the same table, as in the UN Global Compact, or the Food and Agriculture Organization, or in any of the multistakeholder initiatives that have come out of the World Economic Forum, what we're seeing is the corporations have a lot more money, which shores up their negotiating power. They're able to finance research, produce experts, promise financing for programmes nationally and internationally, and this is financing that most governments don't have. So, in these types of spaces, they are able to sway decision making, and they're able to sway and influence the direction of discourses away from legally binding obligations. And this blurring of lines completely undermines multilateralism.
Image: A food market in Thailand. Source: Shalmali Guttal