Human rights overshadowed by big business in UN food summit, says UN expert

Soybean fields being harvested in Tangara da Serra, State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, March 27, 2012. (Keystone/AP Photo/Andre Penner)

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, raised concerns in a recent report that despite some progress, the UN Food Systems Summit, is still prioritising big business interests over human rights.

“Human rights were initially excluded from the Summit preparations, and have now been included, but remain on the margins,” the report published this month stated. The UN expert will present his findings early next week at the UN Human Rights Council taking place this month in Geneva.

The report raises concerns that it’s mostly market-based approaches that are being championed in the summit, while critics say these are at the core of many of the problems with global food systems, including inequality, low salaries, bad working conditions, disregard for land rights and other socio-economic and cultural rights. Other alternatives such as agroecology and indigenous-based practices have also been left out.

Summit under fire. The global summit on food security is due to be held in the last months of 2021 with the aim to develop a more sustainable food system that can eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

Although preparations are still underway and the summit’s secretariat and scientific advisory group were only formed in summer 2020, the event has been under fire for a while. Food security groups have harshly criticised it for being dominated by big corporations behind the scenes at the expense of small-scale farmers, indigenous groups and other small food actors.

In 2020, 550 organisations signed an open letter to the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres opposing the World Economic Forum’s participation in organising the event. The organisations also took issue with the appointment of Rwanda’s former minister for agriculture and president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Agnes Kalibata, as special envoy to the UN summit, claiming that AGRA is “an alliance that promotes the interests of agribusiness”. The letter has yet to receive a reply from the secretary general.

Fakhri, who was appointed as special rapporteur in May 2020, has been critical of the market-based solutions put forward by organisations such as AGRA and the World Economic Forum. In his report, the expert has voiced concerns about the prominent role of the WEF at the beginning of the summit’s organisation.

With the business sector being “part of the problem of food systems”, allowing it “to dominate the Food Systems Summit endangers the future of food systems and people’s ability to fully realise their human rights”, the report states.

This is not the first time that issues with the WEF’s participation have been raised. Former UN special rapporteur for the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, has also criticised the summit for emerging from “closed-door negotiations” between the UN and the WEF, with leadership roles going “to the proponents of high-tech, high-cost ‘green revolution’ approaches”.

“If this summit is about transforming systems, and the UN Secretary General is calling in the actors responsible for the food crisis and the ecological crisis as the main actors, then the summit will fail,” Sofía Monsalve, secretary general of FIAN International, an international NGO present in Geneva and one of the letter’s signatories, told Geneva Solutions.

FIAN International is part of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM), a platform of NGOs created to serve as an advisory member of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), spearheading the movement against the summit and calling on all food security organisations to boycott it unless changes are made.

Progress made. Despite their strong opposition, the UN report recognises that some efforts have been made to make the summit more inclusive. Kalibata has invited Fakhri as well as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to be part of the Summit’s different organisational bodies - both have accepted. She has also met with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and some indigenous representatives have now been included in the Summit preparations.

The CSM has also been invited to participate in the Summit’s preparation but has said that it will not accept unless there is “a substantial and radical redirection of the Summit’s current course”.

Among its demands, the CSM has called on the UN secretary general to consider withdrawing from the UN-WEF strategic partnership agreement signed in 2019 designed to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development goals (SDGs). The group has also asked the summit to organise an additional event around the theme of corporate capture of food systems, which would be led by the CSM.

In a letter addressed to the Kalibata dated from January, Fakhri has shared some of the CSM’s concerns and backed their demands for an autonomous place within the dialogues.

The expert has said that he will continue to monitor preparations for the Food Systems Summit and to meet with its team to address further issues.