Critical Observations on the Food Systems Summit due Sept 23

2021-09-16, 2:42pm Food


Foodstuff distributed among jobless people at the Khulna Zila School ground on Saturday 24 April

The Food Systems Summit will be held virtually on 23 September 2021, during the UN General Assembly High-level Week. While the process has elevated public discussion concerning much-needed food systems reform, there remain many failings that have yet to be addressed. The failure to do so will result in flawed and even counterproductive outcomes that will not address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity and will not overhaul the current food systems that prioritize profit over people.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, in his thematic report, analyzes in detail the Summit’s shortcomings (Item 1). The report begins with an explanation of how and why the world’s food systems undermine human rights, exacerbate inequalities, threaten biodiversity and contribute to climate change. The Special Rapporteur focuses on the rise of corporate power in food systems and the legal rules, institutions and decisions that have enabled the unprecedented expansion of corporate power. A detailed chronology and assessment of the Summit’s process regrettably shows how it privileged corporate-friendly perspectives through its multi-stakeholder process and failed to incorporate human rights-based perspectives.

In a separate policy brief (Item 2), the Special Rapporteur outlines the key shortcomings; such as the conspicuous absence of response to COVID-19 in the Summit’s deliberations, turning a blind eye on structural causes of failed food systems, ignoring the worrisome corporate concentration of power, and diluting the right to participation in decision-making through the so-called multistakeholder approach.

Both the thematic report, which offers recommendations, including on how the Summit outcomes could be assessed through a human rights framework, and the policy brief, which highlights critical observations on areas for improvement, provide guidance to States in their imminent deliberations at the Summit.


In his report, focused on food systems, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food observes that, even though the 2021 Food System Summit has elevated public discussion concerning food systems reform, sufficient attention has not been paid to structural challenges facing the world’s food systems. The Summit’s multi-stakeholder approach, driven by the private sector, has fallen short of multilateral inclusiveness and has led to the marginalization of some countries. In a break from past practice, the Summit process has not provided an autonomous and meaningful space for participation by communities and civil society, with the risk of leaving behind the very population critical for the Summit’s success. In the report, the Special Rapporteur warns against building new forms of governance from the Summit’s outcomes and recommends a set of questions for assessing the outcomes through a human rights framework.

Conclusions and recommendations

84.  While it is too early to provide a comprehensive assessment of the Food Systems Summit, the Special Rapporteur nevertheless acknowledges the Summit’s contribution to already elevating public discussion on food systems reform. Unlike with United Nations food summits and conferences of the past, the Summit leadership was not able to provide an autonomous and meaningful human rights space for a significant number of communities and civil society organizations. As a result, the human rights concerns and aspirations of the very people that the Summit is meant to target in food systems have been sidelined and excluded. Furthermore, the Summit has not paid due attention to structural problems of the world’s food systems. The Summit can therefore be understood as an attempt to review food production policies, rather than to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity and overhaul the food systems that prioritize profit over people.

85.  Furthermore, the Food Systems Summit process raced headlong through the pandemic (without addressing the pandemic). The online format of the Summit preparatory work limited the ability of many developing countries, civil society organizations and communities to participate meaningfully and have their voices heard in the myriad of public and private meetings. Many have complained that Summit discussions have privileged the most equipped and powerful actors, especially the corporate sector. These complaints included concerns about the marginalization of countries affected by food insecurity and also small-scale food producers and workers, who still provide most of the food consumed in the world.

86.  The Food Systems Summit has not recognized (much less built upon) the wealth of proposals, knowledge, innovations and normative frameworks negotiated by grassroots movements with Member States and international organizations over time. For at least the last 10 years, human rights have been at the core of how new international food knowledge has been developed and how international food policies have been negotiated. The Summit’s late attempt to imbue its process and outcomes with human rights-based perspectives has not succeeded.

87.  Going into the Summit, “agency” was introduced as one of the pillars supporting the global narrative of food systems towards 2030. This concept includes recognizing people’s ability to engage in processes that shape food system policies and governance. The Food Systems Summit process, however, has discouraged many actors from getting involved and providing their inputs. The theory of change informing the Summit process was elitist and led to low confidence and lukewarm participation by civil society organizations substantively committed to human rights. In practice, the Summit multi-stakeholder approach excluded many food movements and marginalized the most vulnerable. Part of the Summit multi-stakeholder design was to get stakeholders to cluster around a particular menu of ideas, but it did not provide mechanisms to assist States to collaborate and cooperate with each other. A number of States felt worse off by comparison with United Nations multilateral practices derived from sovereign equality, highlighting how the Summit is disconnected from international law. Moreover, the Summit procedures, in particular relating to the categorizing, reorganizing and prioritizing of the inputs extracted from various Summit channels, have been opaque, leaving many people unsure of how the whole Summit worked.

88. In the light of the foregoing, the Special Rapporteur warns against building new forms of governance or new institutions from the outcomes of the Summit.

89.  The Special Rapporteur strongly recommends prioritizing existing multilateral forums, such as FAO committees and the Committee on World Food Security to review the Summit’s outcomes. Only through multilateralism will countries suffering the most in the pandemic be able to articulate their needs; and only through human rights will Governments be able to serve people.

90.  The Committee on World Food Security includes the autonomous Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism, a space for human rights that enables solidarity among the food systems’ constituents. The Mechanism must be included in any Food Systems Summit outcomes conversation and assessment.

91.  The ultimate question is whether the Summit’s proposals will fulfil people’s right to food and human rights in general. The Special Rapporteur suggests that the Food Systems Summit outcomes should be assessed through a human rights framework by asking the following questions:

(a) Do the outcomes help Governments and people come together to tackle hunger, malnutrition, famine and inequality exacerbated by COVID-19 today?

(b) Did the Summit guide Member States to identify and allocate the maximum of available resources for the realization of the right to food and avoid retrogression in the realization of human rights?

(c) Do the outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other relevant actors accountable?

(d) Do the proposals 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? Do the proposals make national and international governance mechanisms more accountable to people and responsive to structural inequities?

92.  Drawing on lessons learned from the pandemic covered in a previous report and on conversations and inputs received in response to his call for contribution, the Special Rapporteur invites States and other stakeholders to tackle current human rights challenges related to food systems based on the following recommendations for a meaningful transformation and guide to post-Summit actions.

93.  More specifically, States should:

(a) Coordinate with all levels of government and ensure that all children receive free meals at school during the entire calendar year. This has proven to be the most effective way to fulfil children’s right to food, and it strengthens families and communities;

(b) Supply these universal school feeding programmes through public procurement programmes that connect local, national and regional producers to school kitchens. These programmes could transform food systems and support territorial markets in a way that fulfils people’s right to food;108

(c) Invest in enhanced territorial markets infrastructure at the local, national and regional levels;

(d) Scrutinize policies that unjustifiably privilege formal retail food outlets over more informal markets that connect small producers and lower income consumers, including periodic rural markets and street vendors;

(e) Strengthen international multilateral forums such as the Committee on World Food Security and its High-level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, with an emphasis on Indigenous and/or local knowledge and human rights expertise;

(f) Enact and enforce laws that limit the growing corporate concentration and power in food systems and that hold corporations accountable for human rights violations;

(g) Enact the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through national policy and legal frameworks;

(h) Ratify and enact international labour treaties, enforce national labour laws and extend labour protection to agricultural workers. The ILO Convention on the Right of Association (Agriculture) 1921 (No. 11) and the recently ratified Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour 1999 (No. 182) are more important than ever;

(i) Coordinate multilaterally to develop international food agreements as binding mechanisms that provide support to agroecology.

94.  Businesses should:

(a) Prevent, address and effectively remedy human rights abuses across their entire supply chains, making the information public through due diligence;

(b) Not operate in a territory without the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples;

(c) Hold their subsidiaries responsible for human rights abuses.

95.  International organizations should prioritize human rights and agroecology in all their food systems work.

- Third World Network