The UN Food Systems Summit: Corporate, non-transparent and undemocratic

June 18, 2021

The UN Food Systems Summit has been repeatedly called out for its corporate influence and lack of focus on the people who actually grow, harvest and process our food.

Binta Kané, a small-scale farmer in Mali.

The UN Food Systems Summit, slated to take place this fall, is convening with the mandate to “launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems.”

But many have been critical of the summit from the start.

Three UN rights experts, Michael Fakhri, Hilal Elver and Olivier De Schutter, have urged the organizers for more accountability and democracy. The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security—a group of 300 million members from more than 500 civil society groups (of which SeedChange is one)—has boycotted the summit and laid out the conditions under which it would take part in the event. Organizations like Slow Food, La Via Campesina, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and Friends of Earth International, have all publicly called out the summit for its corporate influence, non-transparent and undemocratic processes, and lack of focus on the people who actually grow, harvest and process our food.

All critics, including SeedChange, have also pointed out that there is already a well-established global body set up to have food systems discussions and make decisions through a right to food lens: the UN Committee on World Food Security.

To get a better idea of what this all means, our communications manager, Kath Clark, spoke to Martin Settle, SeedChange’s director of finance and operations, who participates in the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism on behalf of SeedChange.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

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Kath Clark (KC): Having a global summit to discuss problems in our food systems and solutions to them seems like it would be a good idea. But the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit has been getting quite a bit of criticism since the get-go. Can you talk a little bit about the controversy around it?

Martin Settle (MS): In general people are enthusiastic about there being conversations about global food systems. The confusion is why this conversation isn’t happening in the context of the agreed upon structure of the Committee on World Food Security.

While they say the Food Systems Summit is a multi-stakeholder approach open to all voices, there’s no comparison of the stakes that people hold in the conversation. Feeding into the summit is primarily predicated on your ability to participate in the variety of consultations, online input systems, or requests for submissions. This heavily favours highly-resourced organizations and individuals. And it really reduces the ability of small civil society stakeholders—and particularly peasant farmers and food producers—to participate in an equal way to well-financed, well-resourced corporations.

UN Food Systems Summit - screen capture of a zoom meeting between two people.
Martin Settle and Kath Clark discuss the UN Food Systems Summit.

On top of that, there’s no clarity on who makes decisions. Under the Committee on World Food Security, it’s very clear that the nation states have the vote. In the UN Food Systems Summit, there are a variety of top level committees. We don’t always know who is on those committees or how people were nominated to them. There’s been no organized processes to ensure that the representatives coming from communities have been selected and put forward by those communities. So there’s a lot of tokenism.

Overall, it is a non-transparent summit. Because of the lack of definition in terms of decision-making and nomination processes, it is wildly open to the possibility of being hijacked by voices that have the resources to engage with the process, that have access to the decision-makers (whoever they might be…), and that can push through their own agenda.

That’s ultimately the crux of the matter. There is already a clearly defined, transparent venue for food system governance—the Committee on World Food Security—and this summit is trying to bypass it.

KC: So at this summit, who gets left out of the conversation?

MS: Well this is the funny thing about the summit—they have created systems where any voice can participate in the conversation. There are online forms that any individual can go and fill out (presuming they can connect to the Internet and access those forms). There are public consultations. There are lots of ways that people can feed in.

The question is not necessarily, “How accessible is the conversation?” The question is, “Who is making judgements about what is being contributed to the conversation and who decides what gets taken forward to the next stage?” And that’s not clear. Unless there’s clarity as to how input is being assessed and weighed, then ultimately, participating in the conversation is meaningless.

If we don’t take the right to food as the fundamental principle, then what we’re allowing ourselves to do is centre profit.

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KC: So… there’s lots of conversation but whether or not it does anything is unknown?

MS: Well the danger is not so much whether or not it does anything. It’s whether or not it does what it needs to do.

Everyone is certain that the Food Systems Summit will come up with conclusions and make recommendations that governments will follow. The problem is, those recommendations are going to be biased in the favour of the people who have the most access and resources.

I think we’re already seeing that. In the initial “findings” documents that are coming out, there’s a heavy bias towards technological intervention and globalized food systems—always assuming a kind of trickle-down effect that will support the wellbeing of peasant farmers.

Now, the instances where peasant farmers’ long term sustainability and livelihoods actually benefited by participation in global markets are few. In most cases, access to those markets increased vulnerabilities. And when we’re talking about sustainability and resilience, the key issue is to reduce vulnerabilities.

The UN Food Systems Summit could negatively impact small scale farmers like Jeidy pictured here. Young woman reaches into a coffee bush to show ripe coffee cherries on the bush.
The recommendations that come out of the UN Food Systems Summit will ultimately affect small-scale farmers’ lives, says Martin Settle. Depending on the outcomes, they could disempower farmers like Jeidy Marilú Domínguez Morales in Honduras. (Beatriz Oliver/SeedChange)

KC: A global summit like this can feel pretty far away from our daily lives. How can something like the Food Systems Summit affect a smallholder farmer—say someone who SeedChange works with?

MS: The recommendations that come out of this Food Systems Summit will be influential in shaping national government policies. And those policies do impact farmers.

For example, if the Food Systems Summit comes out and says, “Governments should focus on supporting cold chain refrigeration systems from farm to table,” that implies that the participants in those food chains have sufficient resources to access refrigeration equipment, trucks and storage. That shuts out the vast majority of small producers. Which means their role gets reduced to supplying input to the chain, putting them completely at the mercy of whatever prices are offered, whatever monopolies may operate in their region. It disempowers them.

KC: So since this summit really has the potential to affect the lives of smallholder farmers, what would the Civil Society Mechanism want to see?

MS: What they want to know is “What are the values that are underpinning the Food Systems Summit?” And they’re very much pushing for what the Committee on World Food Security has endorsed for a decade: a right to food approach.

If we don’t take the right to food as the fundamental principle, then what we’re allowing ourselves to do is centre profit. When we’re talking about the economic returns of food systems, we are talking about economic capture at corporate levels and extracting wealth into already wealthy nations.

What we’re seeing is what people have feared—it doesn’t matter what the conversation is, if the people who are drawing conclusions from it are coming at it with their own bias. They’re hearing what they want to hear.

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KC: What do you see as the values underpinning the summit?

MS: There is a high-tech, industrial, corporatist bent to the values being driven. And that goes right from the very foundation. This summit did not come out of the Committee on World Food Security—it was a proposal of the World Economic Forum to the secretary general of the United Nations. It is highly supported by organizations and corporations that have supported Green Revolution processes—industrialization, corporatization, mechanization, heavy reliance on large-scale food systems that deliver uniform products based on uniform inputs. It seems like the impetus for the summit was to look at how those systems could be brought forward as solutions, disregarding all the problems they cause along the way.

That was shown even in the appointment of Agnes Kalibata as the chair of the summit. Agnes Kalibata herself was the executive director of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa. Her approach to thinking about solutions is through an industrial model.

We know there has been lots of input during the consultations on things like agroecology, whether by IPES-Food or La Via Campesina or other groups. Yet when you look at the findings documents that have come out so far, agroecology does not appear.

What we’re seeing is what people have feared—it doesn’t matter what the conversation is, if the people who are drawing conclusions from it are coming at it with their own bias. They’re hearing what they want to hear.

The front tire and front spray piece of a tractor driving over a field and spraying a mist onto small crops below.
The UN Food Systems Summit is supported by organizations and corporations that have supported Green Revolution processes—industrialization, corporatization and mechanization.

KC: That doesn’t seem like a good way to go into a summit.

MS: No, exactly.

This isn’t really a matter of people saying there shouldn’t be a UN Food Systems Summit. This is a matter of people saying, “We need to see, understand and trust the summit’s process.” That’s the message that the Civil Society Mechanism has been trying to give since the Food Systems Summit was announced. That’s the message that the CSM has been giving every time they’ve met with Agnes Kalibata or with the UN deputy secretary general.

This is a matter of being able to trust that the process will deliver on the right to food. Until there is trust that the process can deliver on that, there is going to be unwillingness to give legitimacy to the Food Systems Summit.

KC: As a member of the Civil Society Mechanism, what is SeedChange’s perspective in all this?

MS: As SeedChange, we have endorsed the letters of concern and critique from the Civil Society Mechanism. We have also communicated our support for those messages to the Government of Canada and asked them to push the UN Food Systems Summit leadership to recognize these concerns and address them appropriately.

We also recognize that we have a voice as a well-resourced organization with direct contact to a lot of farmers in Canada. As an independent organization, we have engaged in a couple of Canadian government consultations on the UN Food Systems Summit. Within those consultations we have reiterated the critiques and asked that they be taken seriously. And we have continued to press for agroecology to be seen as a primary driver toward the fulfillment of the right to food.

We will likely participate in some of the civil society organized counter events. We’ll be ready to be constructively critical of what we see coming out of the Food Systems Summit. All the while, we will try to reinforce the primacy of the Committee on World Food Security as the governing body for world food policy.

Looking for more historical and contemporary context? UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems analyzes the development and organization of the United Nations Food Systems Summit, analyzes concerns that have been voiced by civil society, and elaborates how the structure and public engagement lack basic transparency and accountability, fail to address significant conflicts of interest, and ignore human rights.