Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 23 - July 2021 عربى
International Developments

W(h)ither the UN Food Systems Summit

The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), planned for September 2021, is taking takes shape, and so is much controversy around its structure, content and objectives. It has become manifestly clear that the UNFSS does not intend to bring about the changes needed to address the world’s great challenges of hunger, disparity, the pandemic and the climate crisis.

Much of civil society is convinced that the Summit will entrench current, pro-private-sector favoritism and rhetoric under the guise of “green washing” and highly concentrated, corporate-dominated and globalized production and distribution of food at the expense of poor producers and consumers. The current system of trade, investment and finance of food systems that benefits the world’s 10% already has wrought havoc on our planet and majority of the world’s people. Rather than a self-congratulatory world summit of the parties dominating global food systems, the planet needs something fundamentally different.

In October 2019, the Secretary-General of the United Nations announced he would host a Food Systems Summit in 2021 with the aims of maximizing the benefits of a food-systems approach across the entire 2030 Agenda, meeting the challenges of climate change, making food systems inclusive, and supporting sustainable peace. Since then, the pandemic has raised the contradictions of the current system to high relief; however, the planned summit in primary partnership with the private sector has not adapted to the unavoidable reality of the systems’ flaws and inherent injustices.

Hence, the Summit is under pressure from hundreds of small food producers, NGOs and civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, including the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security (CSM) to align its efforts with the already-stated promises of peoples’ participation and alignment with human rights norms. They have charged the Summit with ignoring human rights and sidelining the small-scale producers who actually produce 70–80% of the world’s food, prioritizing instead the interests of corporations.

In March 2020, the CSM, together with more than 400 organizations, sent a letter to the Secretary-General to express these key concerns, as well as the lack of transparency in the Summit’s planning process. That letter aligned itself with the promises of the UN Sustainable Development System, including ECOSOC, the General Assembly and the UN Secretariat, to integrate human rights obligations of states in the 2030 Agenda and strengthen the Human Rights Treaty System. That letter remains unanswered to this day, as implementation of those lofty commitments remains in suspense.

In October 2020, the CSM and other organizations of those most affected by hunger, malnutrition and ecological destruction launched an open invitation to join forces to challenge the Summit and its organizers for being unfaithful to their own solemn promises. This new platform of organizations and individuals has assumed the name of “Autonomous Peoples’ Response to the UN Food Systems Summit.”

The CFS and its member states approved Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition through consensus at their 47th CFS session in February 2021. However, the CSM explained that “almost all our priorities are not represented in the guidelines.” They reflect no acknowledgment of the role of industrial food systems, no emphasis on sustainability, no acknowledgment of human rights as a pillar of food systems transformation, and no focus on the indispensable shift to agroecology. Detailing its position, CSM issued over 100 recommendations as to how food systems should operate to reduce malnutrition and help the world meet related Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

This is not the first time CSM has declined to endorse a policy document that was negotiated and adopted by CFS member states. In 2014, the civil society group declined to endorse the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems for its bias toward private interests in global food policy.

In the meantime, the Summit planners continue to over-ride the CFS, expert civil society input and Rome-based agencies and decision-making processes, which are the highest policy-making authorities on matters of food security in the UN System.

  • Independent UN experts also agree with the CSM’s position. In January 2021, Michael Fakhri, the current Special Rapporteur on the right to food, wrote an open letter to Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, pointing out how the perfunctory reference to human rights in the Summit’s Action Track 4 – Advance Equitable Livelihoods was insufficient. In March 2021, three successive Special Rapporteurs on the human right to food open proffered advice on “How Not to Respond to the Urgency of Reform,” criticizing the Summits process and program. The experts warned that the planned New York-centered September event would fail to be the self-acclaimed “people`s summit” unless it is urgently rethought. In particular, they urged that:
  • The human right to food must be central to all aspects of the Summit, with attention on holding those with power accountable;
  • Agroecology should be recognized as a paradigm (if not the paradigm) for transforming food systems, alongside actionable recommendations to support agroecological transition;
  • The CFS should be designated as the home of the Summit outcomes, and the place where it is discussed and implemented, using its inclusive participation mechanisms.

In May 2021, those civil society organization who responded to the open invitation proceeded to organize a counter event in parallel to the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit, scheduled to take place in Rome on 25, 26 and 27 July. The event, entitled Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems, took place in a hybrid format.

The Summit’s Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata is operating under the direction of Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Muhammad, who holds the portfolio for the Post-2015 Development (2030 Agenda) process. Ms. Muhammad is also responsible for upholding the promises of the Sustainable Development System to integrate all pillars of the UN Charter, including human rights. Under considerable public pressure, Dr. Kalibata finally has conceded, but without substantiation, that “delivering fundamental human rights…underpins all of the Summit’s efforts.” However, many legitimate stakeholders, apart from the Summit’s private-sector co-convener, World Economic Forum, remain unsatisfied with the Summit arrangements.

Further reading:

Problem analysis: What is wrong about the UN Food Systems Summit?

Briefing for UN Member States outlining our main concerns

Call-to-action for the Counter-Mobilizations to Transform Corporate Food Systems

More information about CSM’s position vis-à-vis the UN Food Systems Summit

Civil society rejects UN committee`s food systems reform guidelines

Global food systems can only be truly transformed with a people’s summit

Tackling SDG2 and SDG12.3 — how food banks help address the paradox of hunger and food waste

Hot, hungry and crowded` — why fixing food systems is good for peace and planet

Photo: So many onions among the vegetables for sale at a local food market in Sri Lanka. Source: UNDP Sri Lanka / CC BY-NC.


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