Did the First UN Food Systems Summit Give Corporations Too Much of a Voice? | Civil Eats

Did the First UN Food Systems Summit Give Corporations Too Much of a Voice?

Critics say many of the solutions championed at the global gathering of food-systems leaders were shaped by the same conglomerates behind the problems.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 25, 2021 in New York City. More than 100 heads of state or government are attending the session in person, although the size of delegations are smaller due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz - Pool/Getty Images)

In a speech delivered at the first United Nations Food System Summit, held in New York on September 23rd and joined by global leaders virtually, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for food systems that work for everyone.

“We need systems that can support prosperity—not just the prosperity of businesses and shareholders, but the prosperity of farmers and food workers, and indeed, the billions of people worldwide who depend on this industry for their livelihoods” said the U.N. chief.

It’s a statement that reflects the multi-stakeholder structure of the summit, which was branded as a “People’s Summit” because it brought together representatives from 148 countries, as well as an array of corporations, civil society organizations, indigenous groups, and farmer groups as well prominent figures such as José Andrés and Melinda Gates.

But is it possible to work for the prosperity of both corporate shareholders and food workers—groups that have historically opposing interests and hold vastly different levels of power over the current food system? To the hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists who boycotted the summit, the answer is a definitive “no.”

The summit was convened in order to build food systems that can advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including ending hunger and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by 2030. But critics like Sylvia Mallari, the global chairperson for the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), a collection of grassroots groups representing peasant-farmers, point to a fundamental schism in the way those food systems are perceived.

“At the onset, the question should be, ‘What is the definition of the problem?’” Mallari told Civil Eats. It failed to ask: “Why do we have hunger?”’ she added.

The organizers hosted nearly 600 dialogues around the world—webinars and discussions that were designed to encourage engagement with youth activists, Indigenous groups, smallholder farmers—in the months leading up to the summit. And many stakeholders at the U.N. Food Systems Summit committed to ending hunger, including a $10 billion pledge toward this goal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But at the summit itself, the structural origins of hunger—as Mallari and others boycotting the event saw it—were never addressed.

For Mallari, the answer is clear: “The problem is the existing power relations in society, meaning our land, our resources, are owned and controlled by big corporations,” she said. “So much so that these corporations can even [make decisions at the level of] governments and states, signaling the death knell of small rural producers—the toiling peoples of the world who are strapped in hunger, poverty, and landlessness.”

“The problem is the existing power relations in society, meaning our land, our resources, are owned and controlled by big corporations.”

If the summit’s leaders had framed it that way, however, it would have implicated many of the corporations and foundations involved in the summit, including Nestlé, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tyson, and Bayer.

According to a report released the day of the summit by a group called Food Systems 4 People, multinational corporations were given an outsized role in shaping the summit’s multi-stakeholder initiatives. Food Systems 4 People also released a declaration signed by around 200 global and local entities decrying the summit’s “illegitimate multistakeholderism enabling corporate power.”

Drawing attention to the concerns of rural, agrarian peoples disenfranchised by the summit’s process, the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty, alongside 21 other groups, staged a three-day counter-summit, which they called “The Global People’s Summit.” As the U.N. Food Systems Summit began its opening ceremony, Malcolm Guy, secretary general of the International League of People’s Struggles, read a declaration that decried the U.N.’s focus on corporate inclusion. “We say to the UNFSS and its big business patrons: “Not in our name!”

Michael Fakhri, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who acted as an independent official advisor to the summit’s process, also came away critical of the multi-stakeholder structure of the summit.

“No one has talked about why we’re in the mess we’re in today, and no one talked about who should be held accountable for the mess,” Fakhri told Civil Eats, after observing the day’s speeches. “All they [said] was, ‘everyone needs to be part of the solution.’” Yet casting such a wide, undiscerning net, Fakhri says, results in the “same people that cause the problem being invited to be part of the solution.”

On multiple occasions, Fakhri says that he pressed members of the summit’s leadership to consider the role of major corporations in shaping food systems, but was often met with pushback.

The two responses that he received most often were “let’s focus on the road ahead,” which he interpreted as an unwillingness to examine the causes of the problem. The other response he received was “governments are also part of the problem, and you need corporations to be part of the solution.” It’s a response that he saw as creating “a false equivalence between governments and corporations,” given that “governments, by design, are supposed to be accountable to the people.”

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To date, the summit’s stakeholders have made 218 commitments, emerging from the event’s dialogues and meetings. None include binding steps or timelines, so it’s unclear how these commitments will deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, although the secretary general will submit an annual progress report every two years.

And while many of the pledges include strong statements about transforming food systems, none address the major corporations that shape how the bulk of food is currently produced and consumed.

The stakes are incredibly high: Currently, 34 million people across the globe grapple with emergency levels of extreme hunger, predicted by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to worsen with climate change and ongoing shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth climate assessment, warning of a planet increasingly becoming unlivable, making food production more precarious than it has ever been. When it was released, the U.N. Secretary-General Guterres declared a “code red for humanity.” The food system, responsible for a third of global emissions, is a major driver of the climate crisis and a critical piece of the overall effort to bring down emissions.

‘Corporate Capture’ of the Summit’s Process

The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty began monitoring the summit’s development soon after its announcement in October 2019. The first sign that it would not live up to its radical promise: The World Economic Forum (WEF), a private organization outside of the U.N. system representing more than 1,000 global corporations, partnered with the U.N. to set the agenda for the summit and for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

In April, PCFS delivered a statement to U.N. offices that called for the revocation of the partnership. “The WEF—an organized global platform in which the world’s corporate giants, plutocrats, and heads of states converge to promote the corporate agenda in the guise of “improving the state of the world”—aims to cement its dictate through the recalibration of our food systems and agriculture,” reads the statement signed by 155 organizations and 31 countries.

The partnership with the World Economic Forum, which represents Nestle, Coca-Cola, fertilizer giant Yara, and the massive agritech company Reliance, among others, effectively bypassed existing U.N. mechanisms for addressing food and agriculture—namely the World Food Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Developments, and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS) provides coordination among those three organizations.

Sophia Murphy, the executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), says that “when the summit came along, it ignored the CFS. So, from the beginning, the summit never had a formal standing.” This led to a process in which the rules for participation and engagement were opaque, including for the “action tracks” designed to bring together stakeholders around a series of topics to find solutions. However, adds Murphy, “there was no transparency about how [the topics for] tracks were arrived at. There was no transparency on how leaders for tracks were chosen.”

Some advocates say there’s already evidence of corporations shaping the summit’s solutions. An investigation by Greenpeace Unearthed looked particularly at the group focused on “sustainable livestock.” The participants, which include the International Meat Secretariat, the International Poultry Council, the Global Dairy Platform, and other livestock industry groups, has been pushing for “advances in intensive livestock systems”—a solution that runs counter to the IPCC’s call to reduce global meat consumption to stay within the world’s dwindling carbon budget.

The conversation was proposed through the U.N.’s multistakeholder process for identifying “game-changing propositions.” However, the Greenpeace Unearthed investigation refers to the whole effort as “lobbying” the United Nations.

Many groups boycotting the summit point out that corporations don’t need to be part of designing “gamechanger solutions” to this crisis. And while corporations and foundations have shown support for high-tech solutions in agriculture, including genetically engineered seeds and increased use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the critics point to Indigenous and agroecological farming systems as much more likely to achieve the summit’s goals.

The choice of Dr Agnes Kalibata as the special envoy for the summit also raised ire among anti-corporate advocates. Kalibata is the former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has received criticism in recent years for failing to help usher small-scale farmers out of poverty, despite that being it’s stated goal.

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The U.N. summit includes agroecology primarily as a way to boost what it calls “nature positive solutions,” although some advocates see this as glossing over agroecology’s history as a tool of resistance to corporate control.

“Unlike large-scale corporate farms that drive significant GHG emissions, smallholder farmers are motivated to practice agroecology and are more resilient to severe climatic events,” reads the declaration of the Global People’s Summit. “They are the custodians of the diversity of crop species and varieties that are crucial in maintaining rich and healthy biodiversity, which is very important for global food security.”

The U.N.’s summit does include agroecology primarily as a way to boost what it calls “nature positive solutions.” However, as we reported in April, some advocates see this as a way of distancing agroecological farming methods from their history as a tool for resistance to corporate control over food systems.

Sidelining Human Rights?

Michael Fakhri said that human rights were often sidelined from the planning process. His concerns initially arose at the outset of the summit’s 18-month planning process. “Very quickly, I realized that most people who are involved in designing and making this summit had no experience with human rights,” he said. Initially, he found it “a little frustrating to have to argue why human rights matters” and for it to have a larger role in the summit’s agenda. Yet he operated from the assumption that “everyone’s mind was in the right place.”

After providing the summit’s leadership with reports, memos, and consultations, Fakhri realized that his expertise—and moreover, the expertise of the human rights community with whom he frequently consults—wasn’t going to be taken into serious consideration by the summit’s leadership. Case in point: Fakhri says he was not invited to be part of a planning process for a human rights panel that was held at the pre-summit.

“As the leading right-to-food expert on the United Nations, they did not consult me on how to frame the panel,” he said.

Fakhri also took issue with the way the Scientific Group for the summit—an “independent and diverse group of 29 leading researchers and scientists from around the world”—championed technological solutions without sufficient consideration of human rights. For instance, a commentary written by members of the group and published in Nature suggested that technology, such as data collection and blockchain, can and should be used to ensure land rights for small-producers.

“What many human rights reports have indicated is that technology is not an answer in in of itself,” said Fakhri. “Technology is only as good as the system it’s embedded in.” It’s this over-confidence in technological and corporate-driven solutions—without consideration of how it is being used and who will most benefit—that many boycotting the summit also characterize as a core problem.

While boycotts, counter-summits, and criticism of the summit fermented last week, there was next to no acknowledgement of the controversy at the summit itself. At a press conference, Jennifer Peltz of the Associated Press, asked about the concern that the summit was “too top‑down, too tech‑focused, and too corporate.” This criticism was quickly dismissed by U.N. spokespeople.

“In terms of inclusiveness, I actually don’t know of a more inclusive process than the one that has been had on the food systems process,” Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations said in response to Peltz. “I’ve heard that this is ‘elite capture.’ I’m not sure which part of it is elite, and it would be good to hear about that.”

Greta Moran is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats based in Queens, New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Greta writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. Read more >

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  1. JOJO TRAN
    Seattle, Tuesday, November 2,2021
    Hello Greta,
    My name is JOJO Tran,I am an undergrad at UW Seattle. Major in Food Systems,Nutrition and Health Science. I would like to THANK YOU for your article
    "Did the First UN Summit Food Systems Give Corporations too much of a Voice?" Many American citizens said that they are no longer trust the bureaucrats of U.N. And that became clearer from your reflection and sharing what's going on. U.N is not working for the benefit of PEOPLE. Please continue this valuable work !
    JOJO TRAN
    Community Outreach Liaison
    Seattle

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