Julie Smit – In the November 2020 edition of the brennpunkt[1], we reported about the concerns of civil society that so far the preparatory process for the UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for 2021 lacked transparency, inclusiveness and accountability mechanisms and was being dominated by the private sector. Various appeals from civil society for improvements made in early 2020 had been ignored by the Summit convenors. The Summit finally took place on 23 September 2021. This article looks at how the preparation process continued, the outcomes of the Summit in the light of increased corporate capture of the UN and the threat it poses to global governance.

Civil society’s misgivings with regard to the Summit were confirmed as preparations continued during 2021. They were shared by two former UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food and the current mandate holder, Michael Fakhri, who issued a joint statement in March 2020 expressing their disappointment and frustration with the way in which the Summit was being prepared. It had only been after a year of persuasion on their part that the human right to food had been included and while some concessions had been made in response to the criticisms raised the largely cosmetic modifications would not have a meaningful impact. Referring to the fact that the rules of engagement had been determined by the private sector and a few scientific experts, the UN Special Rapporteurs compared the situation of those wanting to present different or diverging ideas to that of someone being invited to come to a meal where “the table is already set, the seating plan non-negotiable, the menu highly limited”.[2]

One clear sign that the Summit was not intended by the organisers to be a genuinely inclusive process was the sidelining of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), which was only added to the Summit’s Advisory Committee in November 2020, after the preparatory process had already been underway for a year. The CFS plays a unique and inclusive role as the principal space in which governments, civil society, international organisations and the private sector meet to develop global food policy and has a strong commitment to the human rights-based approach. Civil society is able to dialogue directly with governments and hold them to account at the CFS through the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM). The work of the CFS is supported by a High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) that provides in-depth, evidence-based reports that form the basis for the CFS policy discussions.

In their attempt to put the Summit on track to make it what it claimed to be, a genuine “People’s Summit”, the Special Rapporteurs’ joint statement pointed out that some radical changes would be needed. In particular, human rights and the key role of agroecology in the transformation of food systems would have to be at the centre of all aspects of the Summit and the CFS designated as the place where the Summit outcomes would be discussed and implemented.

Civil society rejects the Summit

By this time, hundreds of civil society organisations had abandoned any hope that the Food Summit could become a forum to represent those most affected by hunger and malnutrition, despite its claim to be a “People’s Forum” that would launch “bold new actions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030”.[3] It was becoming increasingly clear to them that corporate interests continued to dominate the Summit and the solutions gaining traction there were a clear threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, peasants, and Indigenous Peoples, who were not being meaningfully consulted in the Food Summit process.

Civil society support rapidly began to crumble. Many major civil society groups, including the International Peasants’ Movement La Via Campesina and the CSM, therefore decided to boycott the UN Summit and to organise counter events, which mobilised thousands during the UN Pre-Summit that was held in Rome in July 2021. It was also at this point that the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), which is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, the former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and current Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, announced its intention to withdraw from the Summit[4]. After months of active participation in the preparatory process, De Schutter and his colleagues felt that the Summit organisers had failed to address the serious concerns they had raised; there had been no substantial improvements on questions of governance and the Summit continued to be dominated by the private sector and a few scientific experts. Furthermore, the Summit’s “multi-stakeholder approach”, while giving the impression of inclusiveness, in fact meant that influential and well-resourced groups could form coalitions giving them much stronger chances of advancing their proposals.

Among the various civil society counter initiatives set up was the Global People’s Summit (GPS) led by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), of which ASTM’s partner organisation MASIPAG is a member. In the months leading up to the Summit, the GPS held a series of decentralised consultations and dialogues in which thousands of landless farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, rural women, youth, people living in occupied areas or under sanctions in Africa, Asia, Latin America and West Asia-North Africa. MASIPAG played an active role in the organisation of the GPS and in the civil society consultations held in the Philippines in the run-up to the UN Summit. The GPS culminated in a three-day Summit at which over one hundred organisations signed a “People’s Declaration” and agreed on action plans based on the information gained during the decentralised activities over the past year.[5]

Assessing the outcome of the Food Systems Summit

For civil society organisations and the UN human rights experts, the UN Food Systems Summit was a failure and a missed opportunity to address the root causes of the food crisis and the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on food systems or to provide suggestions for genuine systemic change. In their assessment, the UN rights experts did not mince words: “The world’s food systems currently violate human rights, exacerbate inequalities, threaten biodiversity, and contribute to climate change. A root cause of these problems is the fact that transnational corporations have increasingly dominated food systems for the past 60 years.”[6]. For them, what is needed is a human rights-based approach to food systems that addresses key issues such as land rights, access to water and the question of the privatisation of seeds and that allows people to hold corporations accountable for the negative impact of their actions. This approach was lacking at the Summit.

In a narrow, one-sided approach, the solutions being showcased at the Summit were largely technological innovations such as food fortification and so-called “climate-smart agriculture”, which promote industrial monocultures and serve to facilitate the introduction of a new generation of genetically modified crops, as well as digital and technologically advanced innovations. Agroecology on the other hand was side-lined, despite the fact that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation itself recognises the key role that agroecology plays in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and has taken a series of initiatives to scale it up.[7]

Setting the stage for the further corporate takeover of food policy

Aside from being a lost opportunity for developing steps toward a genuine transition of food systems based on the right to food, the UN Food Systems Summit process also revealed how the private sector is increasing its influence at the UN. The strategic partnership announced in June 2019 between the UN and the World Economic Forum, which played an influential role from the outset, the sidelining of the CFS and its High Level Panel of Experts in the preparation of the Summit along with the FAO’s plans to formalize a partnership with CropLife International, the global trade association that represents the largest agrichemical, pesticide and seed companies, are all warning signs that point to the private sector’s strategy to increase its influence on policy and political decision-making in the field of food, nutrition and agriculture.

This is set to continue beyond the Summit with the creation of new bodies to be put in charge of the follow-up, once again sidelining the CFS and HLPE. The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, had advised against this in a policy brief published a month before the Summit, recommending that the existing UN bodies should be responsible for the follow-up and that the Summit outcomes should be discusses in the CFS on the basis of a human rights framework. He suggested a number of questions to be addressed, including “How do the outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?[8]

However, disregarding this recommendation, UN Secretary General Guterres in his Statement of Action at the Summit on 23 September announced the creation of a “coordination hub” to be led by the FAO, IFAD and World Food Program, which would work with partners, including civil society and business actors, to support the follow-up process. The formation of a new Science Policy Interface was also announced, which it is widely feared will place purely scientific, technological solutions above agroecology, traditional knowledge and social innovation and undermine the existing HLPE, which takes an broad approach that includes the voices of all food system actors.

His decision was heavily criticized by civil society organisations. According to the People’s Autonomous Response to the Food Summit initiated by the Civil Society Mechanism that mobilised hundreds of civil society groups, “such a ‘coordination hub’ would encroach into the functions of the Committee on World Food Security and the most innovative Science Policy Interface in this field, the HLPE.”[9] The Group also pointed out that the UN Secretary General has no mandate to establish follow-up mechanisms for the Summit.

The German NGO Weltagrarbericht.de or Global Agriculture has already called on the German government to oppose the funding and extension of the mandate of the parallel structures established during the Food Systems Summit and support the strengthening of the CFS.

For civil society, perhaps the most positive outcome is that the Summit and the discussions around it have led to an increased interest in the issue of food systems and the forging of new alliances to push back against the increasing influence of the corporate sector at the UN and over our food systems. This political campaigning and advocacy work needs to draw on the experience of the millions of small-scale farmers and emerging alternative food initiatives the world over that have shown that sustainable and just food systems are possible. It is they, and not the fossil-fuel dependent food systems of the agribusiness corporations, that have the potential to overcome the global food crisis.



[1] https://www.brennpunkt.lu/en/world-food-systems-at-the-crossroads/

[2] http://www.ipsnews.net/2021/03/un-food-systems-summit-not-respond-urgency-reform/

[3] https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit/about

[4] http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/UNFSS%20Withdrawal%20Statement.pdf

[5] https://peoplessummit.foodsov.org/gps-declaration/

[6] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27505&LangID=E

[7] http://www.fao.org/agroecology/database/detail/en/c/1287912/

[8] https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Food/Policy_brief_20210819.pdf

[9] https://www.csm4cfs.org/people-who-produce-most-of-the-worlds-food-continue-to-fight-against-agribusiness-led-un-food-summit/