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

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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