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  • Molly Anderson

Corporate Control of Food System Governance

By Molly Anderson

Troubling developments at the global scale are unfolding, likely affecting us locally sooner or later. Several problems are coming together in what has been called a polycrisis: the collective failure to deal effectively with climate chaos, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues; COVID-19 and the likelihood of new pandemics on the horizon; conflicts within and between nations. The United Nations brings countries together to solve global problems, but it hasn’t successfully tackled the build-up to the polycrisis. Major food and agricultural corporations have concentrated and moved into political spaces, where they are encroaching on governance (decision-making) about seeds, land, markets, trade agreements and other aspects of food systems in the public interest. Many countries in the “Global South” or Majority World aren’t happy with the amount of political power they have in international forums, and countries in the “Global North” (Minority World) want even more control over global food system governance.

In the context of these challenges, the United Nations Secretary General posted a report with recommendations called “Our Common Agenda” in 2021 and set up a High-Level Advisory Board calling for “reinvigorated” global governance. These reports suggest that rather than nations making decisions together about their people and territories, we need “multistakeholder platforms” that are more inclusive than country delegates. Although this may sound good, it’s actually a way that corporations are assuming greater control of governance, and the UN system is facilitating this by setting up partnerships and memoranda of understanding with big corporations and corporate coalitions. The argument is that countries don’t have the finances to deal with the polycrisis, so the private sector has to step in as part of the solution. But the private sector is in the business of making money, not responding to the public interest, as the UN should be doing, such as prioritizing healthy food for everyone, decent work and livelihoods, a clean environment, regeneration of degraded soil and biodiversity, etc.

Multistakeholder coalitions are open to anyone who wants to join but doesn’t have a way to deal with conflicts of interest or the need for accountability to people affected by their actions. They tend to be dominated by corporations, sometimes in cahoots with big international NGOs providing humanitarian aid or working on environmental problems. That’s why many people in civil society (NGOs and social movements) are fighting against multistakeholderism. These people are well aware of the difficulties with multilateralism (the system in which countries are responsible for their peoples’ future) but fear that corporate control will be far worse. The UN organized a summit in September 2021, the Food Systems Summit, that showed us what multistakeholderism could and couldn’t do. A “stocktaking event” took place in July 2023, Summit+2, for coalitions and governments to showcase what they have done since the first Summit.

Civil society groups and the International Panel of Experts in Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) organized two webinars in July to discuss issues of multistakeholderism and increasing corporate control of food systems. I was invited to participate in the first one and asked to address two questions:

  1. What have been the experiences of the recent history of global food governance, especially since the reform of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2009?

  1. How has the controversy between multilateralism vs. multistakeholderism played out in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit?

The reform of the CFS in 2009 allowed civil society to speak directly to government delegates and others attending the CFS meetings by allowing its members to participate in all activities and planning except the final vote on issues. Civil society still encounters challenges. For example, some Chairs feel that it’s necessary to allow the private sector to speak every time that someone from the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSIPM, the self-organized group of small-holders, women, youth, Indigenous, urban poor and others in civil society) makes an intervention, which gives the illusion that the two are equivalent. However, civil society consists of a far more significant number of constituents than the private sector. It represents rights-holders and those whose rights are being violated (unlike members of the private sector, who are sometimes the violators). In my view, CFS should center its sessions around the needs of the CSIPM to fulfill its mandate.

Another challenge is that major exporting countries have become more vehement over the last few years in obstructing recommendations from the CSIPM, and weaker countries are reluctant to oppose these more powerful countries openly. A third challenge has been the growing power of concentrated corporations vis-à-vis the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for example, through the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between FAO, CropLife and the International Fertilizer Association. These MOUs signal that FAO and the UN are increasingly interested in partnerships with industry rather than making decisions that benefit the public good.

Contrast FAO’s stance toward the private sector with UNICEF’s policy on engagement with food and beverage industries, stimulated by growing scientific evidence of the health impacts of ultra-processed food and proof that partnerships with the UN do not result in more sustainable practices by industry:

  • Continue to advocate for the food and beverage industry not to be included in public policymaking.

  • Avoid all partnerships with ultra-processed food and beverage industries.

FAO should follow suit by avoiding all partnerships with companies that produce and profit from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, primarily responsible for the insect apocalypse and destruction of soil microbiodiversity. They should not be part of public policy-making forums such as the CFS. Yet FAO and the UN are generally moving in the opposite direction by creating more partnerships with the private sector.

The Food Systems Summit of 2021 was a significant shift in how questions of global food governance would be resolved, from multilateral discussion and negotiation among states accountable to their citizens to multistakeholderism. The 2021 Summit (and all indications show the Summit+2 to be the same) didn’t and won’t address the real causes of food system problems:

  1. Power asymmetries between corporations that are rolling over human rights with little regulation and people, especially marginalized populations and small-scale farmers who comprise the majority of food-insecure people in the world;

  2. Tremendous inequality of wealth, resources and political power within and between countries;

  3. The exacerbating influences of COVID, climate change and conflict.

  4. Lack of democratic, inclusive governance by people most affected by food system decisions.

  5. Human rights didn’t figure prominently in the Summit and existing human-rights-based UN institutions such as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) were sidelined. Despite promises not to create new institutions, we now have a Coordination Hub which is much better funded than the CFS.

Civil society was quite divided at the Food Systems Summit. It inspired greater coherence in opposition - 9000 people participated in a counter-mobilization - but it was also divisive because some members of civil society decided to participate and others abstained. Summit organizers created a civil society “space” that was not autonomously organized. Civil society panel participants were cherry-picked, avoiding people who would be critical of the Summit.

The Summit was dominated by corporate interests, from the selection of Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, to be the UN Special Envoy for the Summit to the heavy involvement of coalitions and agencies that have strong corporate representation or partnerships in each of the Action Tracks. The Summit advanced a very narrow concept of science and knowledge, thus ignoring other sources of knowledge, such as Indigenous, feminist, and traditional knowledge, that have great potential for contributing to real solutions.

The 2021 Summit did not result in outcomes that significantly decreased global malnutrition, hunger, greenhouse gas emissions and clarity on solutions. It collected a chaotic jumble of solutions, but since there was no effort to identify the core problems, there needed to be coherence to the solutions proffered. 37 Coalitions were created and 122 countries have submitted national pathways to dealing with food systems. Still, there are no guidelines on how power differentials should be managed in coalitions and in creating national pathways so that civil society and less-powerful participants have a full role. Pathways discussions in the US were by invitation only and didn’t include members of the North American Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ group that engage with the CFS.

In sum, the 2021 Summit did not advance a coherent pathway to a structural transformation of food systems that would further food sovereignty, planetary health and biodiversity, gender justice, climate justice, economic and social justice, and peace. I am not expecting anything different from Summit+2, yet it is sucking up tremendous amounts of time and money and its organizers are poised to declare it a major success.

Molly Anderson teaches at Middlebury College and contributes to food system transformation at local, state, national and international scales.

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