06.09.2021 |

Food Systems Summit is not a people’s summit, says UN expert

Michael Fakhri
Michael Fakhri (Photo: Michael Fakhri/OHCHR)

The upcoming UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is not the people’s summit it claims to be because key elements such as human rights, equity and accountability are not on the agenda, according to a leading UN rights expert. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, says that the summit turns a blind eye on root causes and governance issues linked to hunger and malnutrition and fails to address corporate concentration of power in food systems. In a policy brief entitled “Last chance to make the Food Systems Summit truly a people’s summit”, Fakhri shares his concerns that the “people’s summit” will fail the people it claims to be serving. The UNFSS 2021 will be held during the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23 and will discuss the future of food systems and the pathways to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. A three-day pre-summit took place in Rome at the end of July in preparation for the main event. Mr Fakhri has followed the UNFSS process since the announcement of the summit in 2019, closely monitored the pre-summit and will also report to the General Assembly in October 2021 on the Summit, drawing from a vast array of inputs received by Member States, international and civil society organisations. In his new policy brief, he shares his reflections and actionable recommendations concerning the Summit’s expected outcomes, follow-up, and review.

The Special Rapporteur writes that the policy brief “is intended to guide Member States on how they can ensure that the Summit succeeds in making our food systems serve people and planet, as well as overcome challenges posed by hunger, inequity, and the global COVID-19 pandemic”. His objective is “to provide guidance to States in their imminent deliberations at the Summit on 23 September 2021, with a view to making it a truly transformative, rights-based and multilateral event.” The brief was completed on August 19th but it seems that Fakhri is rather pessimistic that this can still be achieved. “When I wrote I thought there was one last chance to salvage the Summit. It’s now clear that this is NOT a People's Summit,” the Special Rapporteur says in a more recent twitter post on September 4th. In this policy brief, Fakhri, shares his critical observations on four key shortcomings. First, he denounces that the COVID-19 pandemic is conspicuously absent in the summit’s deliberations: “The Summit was announced right before the COVID-19 outbreak. As the outbreak became a pandemic and the impacts on the global food systems and food security unfolded, the Summit’s objectives were not adjusted to the new reality,” Fakhri writes. The UN expert criticises that the Pre-Summit did not dedicate even one session to the pandemic despite the devastating consequences. According to the Special Rapporteur, multilateral action is needed to tackle the pandemic’s deleterious effects on everyone’s right to food, especially the poorest, most vulnerable, and marginalized persons.

Second, Fakhri condemns the UNFSS’s failure to consider the root causes of hunger and malnutrition. He highlights that hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity. But the summit’s focus has been on how to “boost production” sustainably through new technologies. “The challenges, however, facing our food systems are about ensuring better and more equitable access – questions of how food is produced, by whom, and who reaps most of the benefits from its processing and trade. Even at the peak of the pandemic, the greatest threat to food security and nutrition was not because food was unavailable,” Fakhri explains. “People had less access to adequate food because they lost their job, livelihood, or home.” In addition, the summit has not paid adequate attention to advancements made recently in agroecology and territorial markets, the Special Rapporteur added. The third point of criticism is that corporate concentration of power remains the Summit’s “elephant in the room”. Fakhri writes that transnational corporations “dominate the world market from the seeds to the supermarkets. Yet, the Summit fails to address the role and responsibility of the corporate sector in the food systems.” Power imbalance and concentration have greatly benefited transnational corporations and have undermined local communities’ tenure, human rights, and habitats. The UN expert shares the concerns raised by many that technology-driven innovation and the emphasis on a certain model of science promoted at the Summit risks to further marginalize small-holder farmers’ needs. “This approach ignores the fact that small-holders produce approximately 70% of the world’s food while preserving agrobiodiversity and promoting resilience to climate change. This approach also ignores the fact that Indigenous peoples successfully manage 80% of the world’s biodiversity on land. Farmers, farm workers, and Indigenous peoples around the world are entirely at the mercy of corporate powers, and it is not by chance that they suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and rights violations,” the policy brief states.

Fourth, the Special Rapporteur criticizes that the Summit’s multi-stakeholder approach is a smokescreen to stifle participation. “The Summit’s so-called multi-stakeholder approach has not been transparent, nor has it offered affected communities and civil society meaningful opportunities to participate. The decision-making process has been top-down and opaque. The Summit, influenced by agribusiness corporations, think-tanks and philanthropists, has not reflected the rich history of participation and inclusiveness at UN multilateral forums,” Fakhri writes. “The pre-summit lacked interactive and meaningful participation from grassroots movements, Indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fishers, and human rights advocacy groups.” For these reasons, millions of people decided to boycott the Summit through the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism of the UN Committee on World Food Security. The thousands of people that did participate in the host of online Summit events and meetings were left feeling cynical about the entire process since there was no clear connection between people’s input and the Summit’s outcomes, Fakhri observes.

The Special Rapporteur also provides some recommendations in order to improve the UNFSS. Fakhri says that UN Member States should mobilise further and assess the Summit through the PANTHER framework, a human rights-based approach centered on the seven principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination, transparency, human dignity, empowerment, and rule of law. He also advised against creating new institutions following the UNFSS and recommends strengthening existing UN multilateral forums for follow-up and review. “The UN Committee on World Food Security should be where the Summit outcomes are ultimately discussed and assessed, using its inclusive participation mechanisms.” Finally, the Special Rapporteur recommends that the Summit outcomes should be assessed through a human rights framework. This involves asking what contribution the outcomes and any Summit follow-up and review would make to the realization of everyone’s right to food and human rights in general. For this purpose, Fakhri has raised four questions that can be asked to check whether the four areas of criticism have been addressed. With regard to corporate concentration, the question to be asked is “How do the outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?”. And the question to be raised about participation is how the outcomes rely on an understanding of agency that puts the control of food systems in the hands of the people in their capacity as rights-holders. (ab)

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