Opinion: The future of food must include a commitment to human rights

A woman prepares maize in Chimteka, Malawi. Photo by: Kate Holt / Africa Practice / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

At last year’s World Food Day, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced that he would convene a U.N. Food Systems Summit in the fall of 2021. Little did anyone know that the stakes would become so acute so fast.

The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly become a hunger crisis: people’s livelihoods are being decimated and they can’t afford to eat anymore; schools are closing cutting many children off from their primary source of meals; and food workers are deemed to be essential, but their lives are treated as if they were expendable. All while climate change continues to menace all aspects of life.

At this moment of upheaval, what gets decided in the next few years will determine the path for global food governance for decades to come. Guterres’s goal is to host an event that will push the world to transform food systems in order to reach all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals, with a particular emphasis on eliminating hunger and malnutrition.

But to over 500 pe-led social movements, food worker unions, and human rights activists, the U.N. secretary general’s call reflected an attempt by the private sector to take over global food politics.

These claims were not unfounded. The blueprint for the summit came from the World Economic Forum. Guterres then appointed Agnes Kalibata as his special envoy for the summit; as former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa she has been a proponent of high-tech, high-cost agriculture. Moreover, much of the early summit organizing has been underwritten by mega-philanthropic organizations committed to market-based solutions such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.

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In broader terms, the major concern has been over how the summit may detrimentally alter global food governance. What’s at stake is the fate of the U.N. Committee on World Food Security, or CFS, which has been the pre-eminent global venue where governments, international agencies, the private sector, and civil society coordinate their efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition. Grounded in multilateralism and a human rights approach, CFS has become a unique forum for people to directly dialogue and debate with governments, holding them to account.

CFS creates policy tools that address the world’s most pressing food problems. The CFS High-Level Panel of Experts regularly provides groundbreaking policy reports. But more importantly, these policy tools and reports have a high degree of legitimacy since they arise from rigorous public debates amongst governments, civil society organizations, private sector organizations, researchers, and international civil servants. The CFS is the closest thing we have to a democratic approach to global governance, along with the International Labour Organization and Arctic Council.

Civil society organizations are worried that if CFS is side-lined by the Food Systems Summit, there will no longer be a place for human rights in food policy diminishing anyone’s ability to hold powerful actors accountable. Some governments are worried that because the summit is built upon on multistakeholder platforms and not multilateral consensus, corporations will have more influence than national representatives from developing countries in the summit. Some policymakers are wondering why the summit is trying to reinvent the wheel by not building on the CFS’s infrastructure.

Now that the summit task force has been working for one year with one year to go, it’s worth revisiting these global governance concerns and examining what is known about the summit so far.

At the highest level, the summit has four support structures: advisory committee, scientific group, champions network, and U.N. task force. CFS has been consigned to be part of the champions network as opposed to the advisory committee. This means its role is to promote the summit — without knowing what it is yet — instead of providing strategic guidance and feedback on the summit’s overall development and implementation.

It’s still unclear how the U.N. Task Force is organized, but CFS doesn’t seem to be playing any role there — it could have acted as the core coordinator for all the U.N. agencies. On the scientific committee, the chairperson of the CFS High Level Panel of Experts Steering Committee has a position, but he is only one voice amongst 28 others.

The summit proposes to facilitate “Food Systems Dialogues” in every country of the world and alongside major global events and processes. The specifics surrounding these dialogues have not been announced yet, and it launches today, with the participation of some national representatives and cultural celebrities. The obvious partner for these dialogues, however, would be CFS since it has significant experience with hosting productive, complex dialogues grounded in human rights.

But a lot can change in a year. The date, location, and meaning of the summit are still open questions. The civil society and indigenous peoples’ mechanism that is part of CFS just put out an open call to all organizations representing those most affected by hunger, malnutrition, and ecological destruction to join forces and challenge the Food Systems Summit.

I have just been invited in my capacity as U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food to sit on the integrative team that will attempt to give the summit a cohesive vision, and we have yet to meet. The summit is still in the early phases of recruiting people to join the process leading up to the summit.

In the end, the summit’s ultimate goal is to focus the world’s attention on food systems and generate an immense amount of energy around the issue. That energy will sparkle then fizzle unless it is directed somewhere that already has the capacity to change food systems.

CFS not only has the capacity but also has the added legitimacy derived from its multilateralism and commitment to human rights. The summit may end up being yet another U.N. event that generates a lot of noise but no action, unless everyone thinks about how their contribution to the summit draws from and connects with CFS and the right to food.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Fakhri

    Michael Fakhri is the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food. He is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law where he teaches courses in international law, food and agricultural law, and commercial law.