The highly anticipated Food Systems Summit is on track to be meaningless, fears the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Michael Fakhri.
He has said as much in an open letter to the summit’s special envoy Agnes Kalibata, the UN general secretary’s representative in organising the world-first event, due to take place in September or October this year.
What’s at stake is billions of dollars in future investment to improve food systems, that would tackle hunger, inequality and climate change.
- Professor Fakhri’s struggle with the summit leadership
- What’s at stake regarding the the UN’s Food Systems Summit
This view is also communicated in a report to the Human Rights Council, which Professor Fakhri will present in March.
Speaking exclusively to Quota on the day he sent the letter to Agnes Kalibata, Professor Fakhri said, “The summit has been really influenced by the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Every day I meet with the summit leadership. I meet with national governments. I meet with social movements and advocates. And everyone’s still trying to understand – what’s the outcome of this summit supposed to be?
“300 organisations and millions of agrifood operatives were excluded and are now marginalised”
“It took me and others almost a year just to get human rights on the agenda… For the Food Systems Summit that’s coming out of the [UN] Secretary General’s office it took us a year to explain, educate and convince the summit leadership that human rights matters. A year.”
Civil society representing over 300 organisations and millions of agrifood operatives were initially excluded from the summit and are now marginalised, he said.
“The summit, coming out of the United Nation’s secretary general’s office, has not put human rights at the heart of it and has not engaged with civil society from the beginning.
“This is problematic not just in terms of human rights obligations and the spirit of transparency. This is problematic from the history of food diplomacy. Every World Food Summit since the mid 1990s has created autonomous space for civil society as part of the summit and this was different this time.”
Professor Fakhri is a commercial trade lawyer as well as an academic. His research focuses on the right to food and agroecology. He took on his role as UN rapporteur on the Right to Food in May last year. His predecessor Olivier De Schutter, said in March last year that food security groups around the world had expressed misgivings about the summit.
Professor Fakhri said, “Civil society was brought in a lot later. National governments were brought in a lot later. Even governments were marginalised in the first six months of the organisation.
“Unfortunately the argument still needs to be made that human rights matters”
“So, from an international legal perspective we have neither governments nor do we have people driving the agenda from the beginning.”
He said even now, the rights-driven conversations are being marginalised.
“What I’ve learned from my experience of the Food Systems Summit is unfortunately the argument [still] needs to be made today that human rights matters.
“In my mind when I started this job I thought, well of course human rights matters, but what does it mean and how do we put it in practice? How do we legislate and how do we find spaces of compromise? How do we actually get down to business?
“Turns out that part of my job is not reporting but explaining and educating around not just the right to food but why human rights matters, without becoming cynical in the process.
“If people’s ability to collectively organise is better as a result of – or despite the summit – then that’s a good thing”
“The majority of people in the majority of countries will benefit from the Food Systems Summit if social movements and trade unions come out stronger afterwards.
“If people’s ability to collectively organise and articulate their demands is better as a result of, or despite the summit – then that’s a good thing.”
The emphasis on the ability to organise is widely deemed urgent to food systems as eighty percent of food systems workers lack agency, they are financially vulnerable; a high proportion struggle to feed themselves and their families.
A 2018 Oxfam report published by the World Economic Forum found that trade liberalisation, with the deregulation of agricultural and labour markets, has led to inadequate wages and a worsening standard of living for agrifood workers.
In particular, it found women are concentrated in the lowest paid, least secure roles across agrifood, providing a reserve of cheap, flexible labour on which modern food supply chains are built.
“How do the Food Systems Dialogues get processed to change the food system? That’s unclear”
Regarding his letter to Agnes Kalibata, Professor Fakhri said, “It’s framed as constructive feedback. I want this summit to be a success. They invited me to give my opinion. I want it to be a success, but there are some big problems.”
The summit leadership has introduced Food Systems Dialogues to offer civil society a voice. However, Professor Fakhri can’t see how this mechanism will lead to change within food systems.
He says, “I look forward to learning from the summit leadership – what do you do with these millions of perspectives that are coming in? How does that get processed? How does that get articulated in a way that can actually change the food system? It’s all unclear.
“I’m happy to give them my advice, which is, you should anchor this in what we already have. Anchor it in the Human Rights Council. Bring in the human rights community and develop these dialogues based on best practices and experience of how we host politically sensitive dialogues in a way that truly allows people to speak honestly, critically, without reprimand.
“Civil society has said this is an uneven playing field. If you’re a peasant organisation or a trade union representing food workers suffering from Covid at a higher rate than the general population, you have to pick and choose which forums you’re going to be involved in.
“What’s at stake now is there’s a recognition that there needs to be more investment in new ways of growing food and not just extracting wealth”
“Are you going to pick an international forum where the odds have been stacked against you from the beginning?”
The Food Systems Summit represents 25 years of food advocacy that has led to three key issues that everyone at least agrees on, Professor Fakhri says.
“It’s this, one: climate change is a problem and the food system is part of the problem and part of the solution. That took years to get on the agenda. Food systems and climate change go hand in hand.
“Two: the status quo can no longer hold. Everyone agrees that supply chains don’t work well, that financial markets didn’t work well. So, things must change. That’s finally being heard across all sectors.
“Three: All sectors realise that food matters – it’s not just for the Ministry of Agriculture from a government perspective. It’s labour, it’s gender, environment, urban planning, land use, indigenous rights. The food system is everything. If you transform the food system you transform your country.
“What’s at stake now is there’s a recognition that there needs to be more investment in new ways of growing food and not just extracting wealth.
“What’s at stake is investment. How should we direct public funds in a way that change the food system? Do more of those public funds go towards the business sector, or only the business sector committed to human rights? Do those funds go toward creating new relationships between city governments and social movements, procurement programmes, universal healthcare, social protection programmes? And where does research money go?
“How do we direct all this energy in terms of investment and also private investment. Where is private investment going to go? Most private investors are looking for a return, but some also want to make the world a better place. Others say we start with accountability, with equality, and then sure you can make a profit. And some would say they don’t want private investment.
“Agro-ecology and civil movements are not against business and they’re not against the market. They have a clear articulation of what the market should look like.
“And good faith is at stake. Will there be instances of greenwashing and cynicism? Of course. But the way I’m engaging with everyone at the summit is that everyone’s operating on good faith with these basic assumptions we all share.”
Regarding his thematic report to the Human Rights Council in March, Professor Fakhri said, “My assessment of the summit will be on the record – the way I’ve seen it internally, the decision-making, all of it. And right now, I remain ambivalent. I don’t know if it’s going to be a good summit.
“I’m doing my best to educate and articulate what a human rights approach should be. Whether that gains traction and will be implemented in a way that can change the food system for the better, I don’t know.”