Q&A: Pat Mooney with his take on the Food Systems Summit

Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group and member of the International Panel of Experts. Photo by: Alessia Pierdomenico / FAO

With the aim to bring together “key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, health care, and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organizations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders,” the inaugural Food Systems Summit has faced some stumbling blocks recently, with critics suggesting that large-scale commercial agriculture stakeholders are controlling the agenda.

As early as February 2020, civil society groups wrote an open letter claiming that the summit “will provide transnational corporations preferential access to the U.N. system ... some of whose core activities have caused and/or worsened the social, economic, and environmental crises the world faces.”

Meanwhile, Michael Fakhri, current U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, and his predecessors Hilal Elver (2014-2020) and Olivier De Schutter (2008-2014), voiced concerns a year later, stating that some key stakeholders have been sidelined and the agenda predetermined, and asking: “What if the table is already set, the seating plan non-negotiable, the menu highly limited? And what if the real conversation is actually happening at a different table?”

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Others are just as worried about the process itself, including how decisions will be made during the summit and whether these are expected to lead to concrete policy changes. They argue that the Committee on World Food Security, or CFS, is still the best mechanism. It supports governments making decisions and involves civil society, academia, and the private sector. Yet, the CFS also has its weaknesses.

"The fact that the process has been created around the negotiations have almost excluded the Committee on World Food Security, which is established for this kind of purpose … did alarm us."

— Pat Mooney, executive director, ETC Group

Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group and member of the International Panel of Experts, which aims to inform debate about sustainable food systems through scientific reports and policy recommendations, sat down with Devex to talk about these issues and how he thinks the Food Systems Summit could be improved, and why that needs to happen now.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been quite critical of the way the Food Systems Summit came to fruition and how it is proceeding. Why?

It’s the first summit I know of that’s actually been proposed by industry and brought to the United Nations to take it up ... without the actual participation of the Rome-based U.N. agencies that are involved in food and agriculture — that's really worried us.

The fact that the process has been created around the negotiations have almost excluded the Committee on World Food Security, which is established for this kind of purpose … did alarm us. I'm more concerned ... now about how it's proceeding. We don't have a clear sense and nor do governments.

I'm not sure anyone's really in control, and [whether] they really understand what it is they should be trying to do. We've always had a series of food congresses over the decades, where they've invited — everybody come one, come all. This as a summit [is] ... the same kind of thing, except ... they actually want to reach conclusions, but governments themselves don't know how those conclusions will be reached.

Normally there's a process, and I recall the earlier food summits, there was a clear process of inputs that were going to lead to a negotiated text and ... lead to results.

Do you think there’s a way that agribusiness and large-scale industry can still be involved and the FSS can still be credible?

For sure. I think that it's fine to have everybody at the table, and ... bringing their ideas. I want governments to make the decision at the end of the day, I don't want there to be any doubt as to the decision-making process that's underway, but all of us should have inputs into that process.

And that's customary in the Committee on World Food Security ... as a committee which has a civil society mechanism and private sector mechanism. It's got strong participation from academia, [and] the scientific community is there. Everyone is at the table but governments at the end of the day actually do decide, and we all know what the process is.

You mention the CFS being the preferred mechanism. How do you think it could be improved given any negotiated text of CFS reports is not binding, and some governments aren’t actively engaged?

Could the Committee on World Food Security be improved? Absolutely. It hasn't adhered to its own rules very well in the last few years; we think that they've been a bit sloppy in their management; [and] they're suffering from an absolute lack of resources to do the job adequately. [If] the money that was going into the Summit, went into the Committee on World Food Security, we’d probably be well further down the road than we are now.

[What] you described [is] the multilateral system for the world, whether you're talking about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund or you're talking about the [Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.] and Rome-based [U.N.] agencies. It's a process in which there are winners and losers, where votes take place and decisions are made and not everybody's happy.

What's being proposed now clearly isn't working because it has already got such antipathy from so many quarters and not just from civil society, it's got it from academia, it's got it from governments as well who are frustrated and annoyed by how it's developing — they don't see that the clear pathway to decisions and how that's decided. So, if this was meant to be a way to resolve some perceived shortcomings of the Committee on World Food Security, it's fallen on its face.

The U.N. is dependent upon voluntary donations by governments to do most of their work and again that's true for those who are [part of the] ILO [International Labour Organization] or FAO, and that needs to be changed for all of them to do their job well.

It's not solved by creating other structures. I've been around the system for more than half a century, and I'm amazed to hear proposals for new structures where for decades the mantra of the United States and Europe was, “let's not build new structures, let's not have new institutions, let's make the old ones work — if not broken, don't fix it.”

And yet now we suddenly have this “it’s broken, let's fix it” attitude coming from those who have caused the problem in the first place.

How do you see the Food Systems Summit moving forward?

Well, we have a few weeks. This could be turned around [but] if we haven't got a clear negotiating line and decision-making process laid out for governments ... between now and the beginning of the summer, then we've got a desperate problem on our hands. I don't give up hope on that. There are some very good, decent human beings trying to do their best to make this Summit happen. I appreciate that they're trying to do that. It's a tough situation for everyone to be in. And we'll wait and see what finally comes out.

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the author

  • Rachel Shue

    Rachel Shue is responsible for Devex's digital content series, liaising with partners and clients, and helping flesh out ideas for new initiatives and events. She is currently based in Barcelona and has previously lived in Laos, South Africa, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Lebanon, working with a range of NGOs, U.N. agencies, and management consulting firms.