This article was co-written by Chloe Prasetya, Lavanya Prakash, Melanie Ang, Nicole Wong and Sammie Ng from Speak for Climate. This is also part of a wider collaborative effort between Speak for Climate and Singapore Climate Rally to explore local and regional food systems through the lens of labour, justice and ecology.
Recently in Singapore, we’ve seen greater interest in local agriculture ranging from the state talking about food security to citizens engaging in home and community gardening. What’s missing, however, are the perspectives of those who actually grow the food we eat every day…
Discourse surrounding food systems has historically excluded smallholder farmers around the world. This is why we are seeing policies that perpetuate and entrench social and ecological injustices. One example is the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which many researchers and NGOs have boycotted. How has the UNFSS been problematic in excluding smallholder farmers? Why should Singaporeans care? What can we do?
Who grows our food?
Those of us who have tried edible gardening are probably aware that producing food requires a tremendous amount of work, from seed to harvest. However, our understanding has its limitations. Much of our food is readily available on abundantly packed supermarket shelves… making it difficult for us to connect with those who labour and care for the soil. So who actually grows our food?
Smallholder farms – those which span less than two hectares – occupy less than a quarter of gross agricultural area, but produce a third of the world’s food. They are thus an essential stakeholder in the global food system. Smallholder farmers are particularly present in Southeast Asia. They comprise an estimated 77% of the global smallholder community, and provide four out of five plates of food eaten. Agricultural workers are another important but oft marginalised group. The FAO estimates waged workers to number 300-500 million. There is also a substantial number of unpaid workers, often female, who often go unaccounted for.
Worryingly, smallholder farmers are under threat. It’s often easier for them and more common to practice sustainable agroecological farming methods, such as seed-saving, compared to large-scale agribusinesses. However, the latter’s unethical practices often encumber and override these farmers. These practices include land grabbing, sales of environmentally-damaging pesticides, monopolisation of seed sales and introduction of risky biotechnologies. Smallholder farmers are also among those most vulnerable to the climate crisis, as they lack the protections that large-scale agribusinesses have.
Why is the UNFSS problematic?
The UNFSS, which took place on 23 September, was meant to be the ‘summit of solutions’.The UN Secretary-General had proposed the high level event as part of the UN Decade of Action. It was meant to aid in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Simply put, this summit would define the future of the world’s food systems – for better or for worse…
IMAGE: Via South-South Galaxy | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of a farmer in the field. They appear to be cutting with a pair of scissors, and keeping what they are cutting in a bucket they are carrying. They are in a blue jacket, with a red hat and cloth that covers their face and neck. Below the photo is the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 logo, in text and pictoral form. The picture is a wheel of many colours, which correspond with the colours of the SDGs, with a green ring around the colour panels. The text logo reads “UNITED NATIONS” in green text above “FOOD SYSTEMS SUMMIT 2021” in white text on a green block.
The private sector dominated the UNFSS. For one, the summit was designed in close and strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum. The summit was also driven by the outsized participation of multinationals, like Nestlé and Danone, and philanthropies, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Stordalen Foundation.
Additionally, the Summit appointed Ms. Agnes Kalibata as Special Envoy. She happens to be the current President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). It is a Gates-endorsed institution that lobbies African governments to implement policies that promote Green Revolution-esque agribusiness models. For example, they promote policies which favour pesticide companies. Overall, AGRA has not benefited smallholder farmers. Over the past 12 years, yields of staple crops in the countries where AGRA is active have increased by only 18%. At the same time, undernourishment in those countries has increased by 30%.
Things are no better when it comes to the Summit’s civil society participants. The summit’s organising committee handpicked the civil society participants and has been criticised for a lack of transparency. Platforms that centre the perspectives of civil society and Indigenous Peoples were also not duly consulted. This is despite there being many existing platforms that could have easily been tapped. Examples include the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM).
These groups have since mobilised in resistance to the summit.
Why is big agribusiness problematic?
Ultimately, those dominating the summit are those who push the conventional value-chain, free-market approach to agricultural policy. Time and time again, this approach has ignored social, economic, and environmental justice.
Today, agribusiness is responsible for the majority of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Historically speaking, the Green Revolution did increase food production. However, it did so in a manner that consolidated corporate control over land and seeds, and involved extensive use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. This left many smallholder farmers with damaged soils, in debt and – ironically – hungry. Vandana Shiva covers some of the ways in which the Green Revolution has destroyed both nature and culture in her book ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics’.
These ‘scientific’ and high-yield practices have led to the erasure of important indigenous knowledge when it comes to farming agro-ecologically – through practices such as utilising natural fertilisers and saving seeds in order to preserve genetic diversity. Furthermore, human rights abuses have become a classic component of multinational companies’ operations. These are well-documented, as in a 2019 Oxfam report about farms linked to major European supermarkets.
Our global food system needs a radical transformation
Global food production is now large enough to feed the world’s population – yet people are still going hungry. What does this tell us? We need to stop framing the issue as one of scarcity. Instead, we need to reconsider how the system distributes food. Our current way of doing things, underpinned by industrial agriculture, is having a disastrous impact on people and ecosystems.
Smallholder farmers and agricultural workers being excluded does not only mean that their interests will not be on the agenda when it comes to facing climate change. It also means their expertise in agroecology is being sidelined. This is unfortunate because we need it, more than ever before. Smallholder farmers’ knowledge of traditional intergenerational farming practices and seed diversity is critical, especially when it comes to improving the climate resilience of our food systems.
It is thus imperative that we take a more holistic approach to food systems – one that recognises the interrelatedness of food and justice with its social, economic, and environmental dimensions. However, we cannot achieve this if an important arena for discourse – the UNFSS – is fundamentally premised on maintaining the status quo.
This is why smallholder farmers, fishers and pastoralists have been advocating for a just, inclusive and truly sustainable food systems transformation. The UNFSS has failed to give them that opportunity to kickstart radical change.
How does Singapore fit in?
How does Singapore fit into this picture? Relationships in the global food system are complex and there is a lack of available data. Therefore, it is difficult to make definitive comments or ascribe responsibility to specific actors. However, we can establish some tentative connections… by asking the question of how the money and food are flowing.
Using this as a jumping-off point, we see that Singapore is very much embedded in the global food system. Singapore imports most of its food from foreign sources. Its key sources of food in the region include Indonesia, Indian Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Thus, as Singaporeans, food production methods in the region should be our concern.
IMAGE: Via Luah Jun Yang on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of an elderly man purchasing seafood for the week’s home cooked meals. He is in front of a fish store, in a wet market, wearing a mask and a plain white shirt with light blue stripes. In the foreground, there is another man in orange pointing to a piece of a fish. The store is lit by three light bulbs, and there are baskets, a hanging weighing machine, a clock and a calendar around the store. In the background are other people looking to purchase foods from other stores. They are also wearing masks.
One specific example of Singapore’s outsized role is the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore is the regional base for many major palm oil suppliers. As a result, it has a key financial stake in these companies, such as Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources. The role of independent smallholder farmers in the palm oil industry is undercut by companies which take up such a large share of the industry. In Indonesia, independent smallholder farmers not employed in large mills or companies are responsible for just one-quarter of palm oil plantations.
Recognising this, organisations such as the Singapore-based People’s Movement to Stop Haze have focused their work on smallholder farmers in the region. They promote peatland restoration and community-led sustainable agricultural practices for palm oil and paper. People often accuse smallholder farmers of utilising unsustainable practices in their production of palm oil. But this label of ‘unsustainability’ is usually a result of an inability to attain the certifications required to be labelled ‘sustainable’. In reality, the burden of unsustainable production should fall on larger agribusinesses, such as Olam.
More indirectly speaking, Singapore’s capital investments in nearby regions have created land issues for local populations. For example, Singapore is supporting the development of the hydropower industry in Laos via its proposed imports. This is an industry that is damaging the ecology surrounding the Mekong River, and thereby the livelihoods and food supply of fishermen and farmers there. Singapore’s other investments are shaping areas such as seed diversity and genetically modified food.
How is the UNFSS being boycotted?
Many rights groups have organised parallel summits and events to the UNFSS, carving out alternative spaces to discuss these issues. One such event was held in July as a direct counter to the Pre-Summit of the FSS. The Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism (CSM) organised the event and participants shared visions of how food systems can be reclaimed by the people.
Another event was the Global People’s Summit in July. It consisted of farmers, peasants, indigenous groups, and others, whom the UNFSS excluded. Their declaration states that they want to “End corporate monopoly control! Fight for People’s Rights to Just, Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Food Systems!” The summit led to the creation of several action plans, which you can read about.
A Growing Culture recently organised the Peasant Press Forum. It aimed to raise awareness of issues affecting peasant farmers. Many of these issues involved large agribusinesses. KMP (the Philippines) and the Asian Peasant Coalition shared on issues such as land grabbing and human rights violations by agribusiness.
Finally, Salu Salo is a campaign based in the Philippines that demands an end to policies that favour foreign multinationals in the local food system, the country’s dependence on genetically modified seeds and chemicals, and the country’s refusal to withdraw from free trade agreements.
What now? What can we, as Singaporeans, do?
Policymakers, entrepreneurs, civil society and consumer-citizens have become increasingly interested in the topic of food. However, the UNFSS is not receiving much coverage in Singapore. It is time to draw explicit attention and resources to those who have been growing and continue to grow most of the food we eat today.
Besides thinking local, adopting a regional perspective on the issue is also important. Many smallholder farmer organisations are mobilising and speaking up. We can support them by listening to what they have to say and pushing policymakers and businesses in that direction. It is important for us to see our role in this as more than that of a consumer. Can we aim higher than simply purchasing food from more sustainable sources?
There are several things that you can do with regards to the UNFSS:
1. Inform yourself about this issue. In reading this article, you have already taken the first step! The next step would be to check out the resources we’ve highlighted below. Knowledge can change opinions, spark discussions, and help delegitimise any outcomes from the summit that harm smallholder farmers and agricultural workers.
2. Share about the issue on social media. We can spread knowledge and ensure that the sentiment against the UNFSS is widespread. This is how we begin to move away from the perspective of big corporations and profits and instead towards issues of human rights and sustainability.
3. Know of a company in Singapore that is participating in the UNFSS? Write to them, championing an inclusive UNFSS or a startup/company you think is demonstrating best practices when it comes to human rights-aware and agroecology-adhering production.
4. Purchase from local and regional farms that make use of sustainable agricultural practices. This might include farms that source from indigenous communities or those that are small-scale. For example, there are Bollywood Veggies or Green Circle Eco Farm. If you are an avid supporter of a brand that does not do this, write to them! Call for accountability on the way in which they produce their products. Ask them to transition to supporting small-scale farmers.
5. If you grow your own food, try purchasing seeds that aren’t produced by large agribusinesses or purchasing fertiliser from non-fossil fuel sources. You could do this by reaching out to nurseries to enquire where they source their seeds from. Or by joining community groups to share heirloom and non-GMO seeds. Better yet, try composting to make your own fertiliser!
Here are some more Singapore-specific and regional resources to check out:
1. Foodscape Pages is an independent online publication in Singapore. They put out insightful perspectives on food production, particularly in relation to the environment and people. More recently, they organised a Community Writing Workshop for the second issue of The Sauce journazine, and are collaborating with Kontinentalist to produce a bioregional seed map to surface stories of seed saving in our region.
2. Habitat Collective SG is a community that holds events on topics ranging from permaculture to food gardens. Recently, they launched an Instagram series about seeds and soil! Check them out at @habitatcollective.sg.
3. Read the essay collection “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene” to learn about indigeneity and food in Singapore. One of the authors, Neo Xiaoyun, investigates the Orang Laut’s methods of catching and eating crabs. She also investigates how much of this has been lost today.
4. Follow Instagram accounts such as @oranglautsg and @wansubinjournal. They share about the culture and history of the Orang Laut community in Singapore. Recently, the two accounts released a joint statement on the importance of horseshoe crabs to the foraging culture of the Orang Laut community, in the context of discussions around laws to protect it.
FEATURED IMAGE: Via eggy gouztam on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of a woman wearing a hat, gloves, and a blue dress. She is holding a tool and has a yellow bucket in front of her. Bent over the soil, she stands in the middle of rows of what appears to be a leafy green. The photographer has photographed her from behind some leaves and plants, so they frame her in the photo. Behind her are more rows of plants, in a village farm in Indonesia.
*Correction: In a previous version of this article, it was wrongly referenced that Foodscape Pages and Kontinentalist collaborated on the Community Writing Workshop. The workshop is organised solely by Foodscape Pages. It has been corrected, and we included mention of the bioregional map seed map they are collaborating on.
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