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UN food systems summit quashes big business claims

Seasonal workers picking aspargus near Ruhlsdorf, Germany, in April 2015. (Keystone/EPA/Ralf Hirschberger)

The UN Food Systems Summit has been under fire from civil society for giving big business the front seat and sidelining other actors. The deputy to the UN envoy to the summit says the claims are not true.

Speaking to Geneva Solutions, Martin Frick rebutted concerns published in a report presented to the Human Rights Council last week, which claimed that the summit was still prioritising big business over human rights.  UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, said that despite efforts, they were still not at the heart of the forum.

Frick responded saying that this information dates back to December and that steps have since been taken: “All of our action track papers speak prominently out about human rights.”

In their latest versions from December three of the action tracks mention human rights explicitly, including women’s rights, farmers’ rights and the right to food. The remaining two fail to do so.

In presenting his rapport, Fakhri acknowledged the efforts made: “I welcome the fact that since my thematic report, the secretariat has now started work on enhancing the role of human rights in the summit. I will continue providing my independent advice in this regard. It remains to be seen whether human rights will be central to the summit, or be treated like a policy tool amongst others.”

Controversy around the summit. The UN Food Systems Summit has been heavily criticised for what its opponents see as a non-inclusive forum that prioritises the interests of big business. Fakhri, echoed these concerns in his report, saying that the forum championed a sustainable intensive agriculture model, leaving out other alternative models such as agroecology.

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

A group of more than 500 NGOs has boycotted the summit and is organising a separate forum.

“This summit is being built around a strong participation of the corporate sector,” Sofía Monsalve, secretary general of FIAN International, one of the NGOs protesting the summit, told Geneva Solutions. “There was an enormous lack of transparency in terms of who is actually making the decisions for the agenda of the summit on the way the summit has been prepared.”

Fakhri has also pointed to civil society and national governments being brought too late into the process.

“We think that it is very problematic that governments from poor countries are sidelined. And at the same time, governments from powerful countries are somehow abdicating their role and their responsibilities to this kind of actors like the World Economic Forum, or all these foundations, and so on and so forth,” Monsalve noted.

Addressing concerns about exclusion, Frick said: “In the beginning of last year we just took some time to get our act together, but that didn't mean that we were cooking policy discussions in the background. All of our policy discussions are in the open. We are doing a public forum, inviting everybody in.”

Frick claims that the private sector holds fewer seats than civil society: “If you look at the composition of our action tracks, you will see a large majority of civil society, and actually very few people from business.”

But NGOs have qualms about organisations with links to business interests holding some of the important seats. Action track one is for example headed by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which has partnerships with the private sector such as the World Business Council of Sustainable Development. The EAT Foundation is chair of action track two, which partners with actors such as Nestlé, Google Food Services and the WBCSD and of which the WEF is a board of trustees member.

Action track three is headed by the World Wildlife Fund, action track four by Care USA and action track five by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development from Bangladesh.

Fingers pointed at the WEF. The World Economic Forum has been particularly singled out. Former special rapporteur Olivier de Schutter has previously said that the summit emerged 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”.

Fakhri has also raised similar concerns. In an interview with Quota, he said: “The summit has been really influenced by the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

But according to Frick, the WEF has only played a minor role in the summit: “If you look at everybody who is engaged with the action tracks, we have close to 400 people who are working there, out of which one person is from the World Economic Forum. One out of almost 400, and still we are constantly getting this accusation that we are in the hands of the WEF. I mean this is just wrong.”

Sean de Cleene, member of the WEF’s executive committee and head of the Future of Food, told Geneva Solutions that the forum’s role has been “to come in and then obviously, where we can, to help along with a whole range of other players, (...) support creating momentum around the summit”.

The WEF is also co-leading one of the discussions focusing on how innovation can help transform food systems, along with the humanitarian NGO, Mercy Corps, he explained.

Regarding civil society demand that the UN ends its partnership agreement with the WEF, Frick said that “the agreement between the secretary general and the founder of the World Economic Forum is not related to the food system summit.”

Asked if he understood the fears NGOs have expressed, Frick said: “The biggest problem that we are having in food systems transformation is mistrust and it's mistrust from many sides, and I do understand that.”

“We will do a civil society forum, very soon and discuss all of our propositions, with all of the stakeholders. I mean, what we try to achieve will not be possible if parts of society say ‘this doesn't work’ or ‘this is just reflecting the interests of one’.”