Julie Smit – How corporate agribusiness is trying to take control of our food and agriculture systems.

The latest report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”1 stated that the number of people affected by hunger globally has been increasing since 2014. Almost 690 million people, or 8.9 % of the world population were undernourished in 2019, an increase of some 60 million over the past five years. If this trend continues, it will be impossible to achieve the target of Zero Hunger by 2030.

This dramatic situation has been exacerbated by the social and economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Food Programme, this could lead to an increase of some 121 million in the number of people facing crisis level hunger this year. Oxfam warned that more people could die through hunger linked to COVID-19 than from the disease itself and many people in the global South are more concerned about hunger than succumbing to COVID-19.

The need for a radical transformation of our unsustainable, unhealthy and inequitable food systems towards more sustainable ones based on human rights and food sovereignty has been expressed by food justice movements, environmental groups and others for many years. The announcement in 2019 by UN Secretary General Guterres that a global Food Systems Summit was to be held in 2021 as a critical contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals could be seen at a first glance as a very timely and necessary initiative. It could be an opportunity to analyse the failures of the prevailing food system and to discuss ways forward to address world hunger and malnourishment. At the same time, it could offer a space to address the many social and environmental problems associated with industrial, globalised food systems, such as the impact on the climate, the environment, biodiversity, human rights, land grabbing and, since COVID-19, the risks of zoonotic disease. In short, the Summit could be an opportunity for as many actors as possible concerned with questions relating to our food systems in all their dimensions to discuss the future of our food systems as equal players.

However, a number of developments indicated from the outset that, far from being inclusive, the organisation and agenda of the Summit were being dominated by corporate agribusiness, to the exclusion of groups promoting small-scale, locally based agroecological food systems. Among the indications that pointed to this include the prominent role played by the World Economic Forum in calling for the Summit along with the appointment of Ms. Agnes Kalibata, the current President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as the UN Special Envoy for the Summit. AGRA is heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is well known for its promotion of the interests of agribusiness.
Concerned about the direction that the Summit was taking, several hundred civil society groups sent a collective letter to the UN Secretary General in March 2020, expressing their misgivings at the way in which it was being dominated by agribusiness, whose role has been widely criticized for its negative impact on food producers, consumers and the environment across the world. They are yet to receive a reply.

Bypassing the UN Committee on Food Security

It was particularly striking that the Summit secretariat failed to involve the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) in preparing the Summit. Established in 1974, the Committee serves as a forum for reviewing and following up UN security policies; its secretariat comprises the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP). After a major reform in 2009 it is now widely considered a model for inclusive decision-making. The reform led to the creation of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the CFS with the aim of democratizing food policy making and facilitating civil society participation in policy processes. The civil society develops common positions through an inclusive process based on thematic and geographical working groups.2
Rather than working with the CFS, the Summit secretariat chose to “cherry pick” the participants for the various committees and working groups as it sees fit, with no transparency or clear criteria for the selection. The same strategy has been applied to the selection of civil society representatives to be involved in the process. At the same time, the organisers have tried to put an inclusive slant on the Summit, pirating the language and terminology of social movements and civil society organisations, calling for a “transformation of food systems” and referring to the Summit as a “people’s summit”.

On World Food Day 2020 (16 October), frustrated with the way in which the Summit is being prepared, the CSM took the unusual step of launching a call to all movements, networks and organisations concerned in any way with food or related issues to challenge the Summit and to “engage in a process of building joint strategies around essential issues for the life and wellbeing of our peoples and communities: food, health, nature, peoples’ sovereignty, and economic, social, gender and climate justice”.

Support from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Michael Fakhri, who started his mandate as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in May 2020, shares the concerns of civil society with regard to the Summit. In an interview for the FAO website in September, he pointed to the lack of attention given to human rights, making it more difficult for people to hold powerful governments or companies accountable for their actions, and the focus on technical solutions rather than social justice. He also regretted the failure to involve the CFS in the advisory committee. “The Summit touts itself as a “People’s Summit” but does not build upon the CFS’s mechanisms of inclusivity or its policy accomplishments.
At a recent dialogue with civil society and farmers’ organisations from several regions in the world, Michael Fakhri promised that he would do all in his power in his role as a member of the Summit’s integrating committee to ensure that their demands are heard. He also encouraged them to engage directly with the Summit, express their criticisms and organise whatever activities they feel could be useful, including holding national dialogues. In the Philippines a group of civil society organisations, including several ASTM partners working on agriculture, recently launched a one-year campaign “SALU-SALO” (meaning something like “let’s eat together”) that will culminate in an alternative, food summit “SALU-SALO 2021. The campaign aims to sensitize the public and decision makers about the need for a pro-people national food system and draw up resolutions to be submitted to the National People’s Food Systems Summit and to the global Food Systems Summit.

The growing influence of Big Tech corporations

The dominant role of corporate agribusiness in the preparation of the Summit is not an isolated case, but an example of the many ways in which large tech firms such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are building their influence on people’s lives, in particular with regard to food. One particularly striking example of corporate attempts to increase their influence was the signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the UN and the World Economic Forum in June 2019. Alarmed at this move, 400 civil society organisations wrote to the UN Secretary General in September, calling for the agreement to be terminated, arguing that giving transnational companies, some of whose activities have been responsible for the social, economic and environmental crises that the world faces, preferential access to the UN went against the UN Charter”.3

Further developments in this direction have been identified by the ETC Group, an organisation that monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights. In a paper “Stakeholders versus Steak-Eaters”4, ETC Group warns that “the World Economic Forum, agri-food conglomerates, IT companies and philanthropists (led by the Gates Foundation) have teamed up to spearhead three separate initiatives which could converge and utterly transform the multilateral agricultural system.” The first of the three examples mentioned was the global Food Systems Summit, which ETC fears could lead to the development of a new bilateralism between agribusiness and governments.
The second development concerns the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an international global partnership engaged in research on improving food security in the global South. In 2019 the US and UK governments, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of CGIAR’s biggest funders, started a restructuring initiative to place all 15 independent research centres that make up the CGIAR under central leadership. There has been considerable criticism of the way in which the centres from the global South were pushed into accepting the restructuring and the fact that there appear to be no changes in focus from top-down scientific solutions to food security issues that are “provided to rather than developed with” the beneficiaries in the global South. It is feared that, with a concentration of decision making power in the hands of the biggest and most influential donors, there will be no chance of CGIAR placing a stronger emphasis on diversity and farmer-led research in areas such as participatory plant-breeding, farmer-managed seed systems or agroecology as alternatives to the “business as usual” model.

Thirdly, ETC pointed to the growing influence of the Big Tech companies with regard to digitalisation. By way of example, they mention how in June 2020, the UN Secretary General Guterres presented a Road Map for Digital Cooperation, which was based on a set of recommendations developed by the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation established by the Guterres in 2018. That Panel was chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies: two of the largest Tech companies were advising the UN on how to ensure global connectivity and effective digital technology, considered by Guterres to be “instrumental in achieving the future we want and the SDGs”. For ETC, the UN has allowed itself here to be taken hostage by Big Tech in setting the global agenda on digital cooperation.

Bearing in mind that the Big Tech companies are increasingly involved in the food retail and agriculture sector – Amazon and Alibaba, for example, are now among the biggest food retailers globally – it is clear that these developments present major challenges that urgently need to be addressed. The global Food Systems Summit could be a suitable forum to do so. However, given the undue corporate influence in the preparation of the Summit and the risk that agribusiness interests will be appropriating the decision-making process, the possibility that such issues will be placed on the agenda seems – for the moment at least – unlikely.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the months leading up to the Summit could be pivotal for the future of our food systems; it will be important for civil society organisations to follow developments there very closely and work together to challenge them. The recent “Call for Engagement to Respond to the UN Food Systems Summit” launched by the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism is a welcome initiative to set such a process in motion.


1 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en
2 For more information on the CSM: www.csm4cfs.org
3 https://www.tni.org/en/article/end-the-united-nationsworld-economic-forum-partnership-agreement
4 https://www.etcgroup.org/