TRANSFORMATION FOR WHOM? On the Corporate Capture of the UN Food Systems Summit

Delivered by Sylvia Mallari, PCFS Global Co-chairperson for the event “The Future of Seeds in the UN Food Systems Summit,” held 6 May 2021. The event was organized by Global Coalition of Open Source Seeds Initiatives (GOSSI) and farmer-scientist network MASIPAG.

Last 2019, in the plenary of the 46th Session of the UN Committee on Food Security, UN Secretary General Gutérres announced the convening of a UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. While the premise is true – that transforming the food systems is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – the content of the proposals and the process of obtaining them are largely decided behind closed doors and, as is apparent, being taken over by corporate interests.

In September, the UN will hold what it now calls a “people’s summit” to “launch bold actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs.” It has 5 Action Tracks to support its goals, identify solutions and leaders, and ultimately guide governments and “stakeholders” in accelerating progress of the SDGs.

Transforming unjust, inequitable, unhealthy, and unsustainable food systems

The relevance of a Food Systems Summit and making radical changes in our current food system cannot be more stark than today.

Since 2015, hunger and famines in absolute terms have continued to rise. This is amid the year upon year record highs in production. Moreover, malnutrition, including obesity, in its manifold forms is a worsening global health crisis[i]. More than half the world can’t have access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than a billion people and counting have been sliding back to chronic hunger and undernutrition. The fragile global food system has failed to temper minor disruptions in supply chains to protect producers and consumers alike against rising prices of goods, volatility in staples, and so-called market shocks. All the while, food and agriculture multinationals are raking in profits and wealthy nations are hoarding foreign lands and food futures.

Owners of Cargill, one of the largest agricultural trading monopolies globally and a staunch partner of the World Economic Forum, now have a combined net worth of $47 billion and minted four new billionaires amid the pandemic[ii]. Similarly, agritrade monopolies ADM, Bunge, and Dreyfus and COSCO all posted huge earnings amid a global food crisis. US billionaires[iii] involved in global food and agriculture trade gained a weighted average of $2.2 billion and an average of $807 million each in just a year since COVID-19 affected the world.

This, at the backdrop of a worsening climate emergency. The respite that COVID-19, and the restrictions at its wake, has forced upon us isn’t even enough to mitigate the depths of which we have breached our planet’s boundaries. Decades of “sustainable intensification” have deforested wildlife areas, collapsed fish stocks, and eroded environmental boundaries. At the losing end of the straw are poor people of the Global South still, as major catastrophes of locusts, typhoons, and earthquakes threaten their lives and livelihoods.

Truly, there is an urgent and life-saving need to transform the global food system – a need to radically change the food system to serve the people’s needs and aspirations as well as address climate change.

Corporate Capture or Corporate Planning?

From the get-go, movements have rightly pointed out concerns regarding the timing of the announcement. In 2019, the UN entered into a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum or the WEF. Given how WEF, the biggest corporate lobby of billionaires, has been bankrolling and encroaching on civil society spaces in food and agriculture in the last decade, we at PCFS raised the alarm of a possible ‘corporate hijack’ of the UNFSS.

In our petition, which was signed by hundreds of CSO actors, we point out that, “The WEF – an organized global platform in which the world’s corporate giants, plutocrats and heads of states converge to promote the corporate agenda in the guise of ‘improving the state of the world’ – aims to cement its dictate through the recalibration of our food systems and agriculture.” Despite other organizations raising the same concern, we heard no reply from UN officials.

That’s why when the UN and the proponents of the UNFSS last year appointed Agnes Kalibata – the former head of the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa – as the Special Envoy, it drew the ire of broad civil society organizations.

Known as the champion of GM Seeds and fossil-fuel hungry agriculture, AGRA and its funders have pushed for “sustainable intensification” in the continent. It advocated for privatization of seeds and field testings of genetically modified crops done through so-called ‘private-public partnerships’. While it failed miserably in delivering its promise of better yields and higher incomes for farmers in Africa[iv], it succeeded in proliferating chemical-intensive agriculture, lobbying for pro-corporate legislation, reducing crop diversity, and shackling small farmers to debt bondage – all to the benefit of international seed and fertilizer monopolies.

In addition to putting Kalibata, and by association the ideology of AGRA, at the helm of the UNFSS, some of the announced initial committee members of the summit’s working groups were the same names behind controversial, if not outright pro-corporate, solutions in the past. A sordid mix of GM seed lobbyists like CropLife, landgrabbing enablers, cartel associations, and WEF-funded NGOs were handpicked to lead the Summit through an opaque process of selection.

Most notable of these is the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN. To head Action Track 1 or “ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all” is the leading think tank for biofortification campaigns through private-public partnerships. This GM and patented seeds lobby, which is involved in at least seven biofortification projects, is in fact co-founded and funded by no less than Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation[v]. Not only are they leading the charge in shaping the agenda and defining “safe and nutritious food for all,” GAIN’s officers and board members currently chair the Science Group and part of the Champions Group of the Summit[vi].

While much can be said about the others, these two examples alone paint a broad picture of how the Summit will proceed and which voices it is predisposed to listen to.

HUMAN RIGHTS AS A LEVER NOT FRONT AND CENTER

With corporations, their lobbyists, and champions at the top of the Summit, it is no surprise to anyone that most of the proposals we hear from its officials are market-based solutions aimed at “mobilizing private sector innovation” and technological fixes often hidden behind private patents.

In fact, neoliberal solutions such as “sustainable intensification” and “climate-smart agriculture” are currently some of the most salient and well-promoted proposals, even by the Special Envoy[vii][viii]. These agricultural policies that rely heavily on fossil fuel intensive inputs are being rebranded as “nature positive” solutions despite evidence to the contrary.

Worse, human rights and the human right to food were absent in the key documents of the Summit up until CSOs and the UN Special Rapporteur to the right to food Michael Fakhri have intervened. While human rights have rightfully made its way into the text and materials of the Summit, it remains to be missing in the front and center of its aims.

Moreover, the peasant right to land and resources, people’s right to development and self-determination remain absent, if not deliberately excluded, in the Summit documents.

With just months away from the Summit, the process and selection criteria for filtering the alleged thousands of “innovative” solutions that the proponents are getting from its Dialogues and foras remain opaque. Vague corporatized criteria of “impact at scale, actionable, and sustainable” present in current documents do not inspire confidence that community-led solutions such as agroecology and food sovereignty will even make the cut.

RIGHTSHOLDERS OR STAKEHOLDERS?

At the back of this all is a significant change in language and process within multilateral agencies as reflected in the Food Systems Summit. The seeming sidelining, if not disregard, of already established engagement forums for food and agriculture such as the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS)  to create a supranational “multi-stakeholder” body can and should be seen as a deliberate choice. A choice that exposes a shift towards private sector-centered, if not led, efforts in shaping global policies.

Ultimately, the corporate capture of the UNFSS represents a milestone in the transition of global multilateralism. It is setting a dangerous precedent in global agenda-setting and governance.

Instead of democratically elected governments, civil society organizations, and people’s associations at the helm of agenda-setting, profit-hungry corporations are given seats at the table and, in turn, undue influence at policy-making.

By framing rightsholders such as farmers and food producers, citizens, the hungry, the marginalized, the dispossessed as “stakeholders,” it obscures the global obligations and rights attached to these sectors.

Additionally, by framing dutybearers such as states and global governance mechanisms as “stakeholders,” it runs the risk of covering up responsibility and accountability.

In effect, the private sector and their corporate lobbies coming in as one of the “stakeholders” make their increasing involvement more ubiquitous, benign, and justified. It blurs the line between corporations, people, and governments. It obscures who regulates what and who is accountable to whom.

While corporations gaining ground in policy spaces is nothing new, the comfortable shift of multilateralism to multistakeholderism in the course of the UNFSS is alarming. Clearly fashioned and tuned to the World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative and its recent Great Reset, it adds to the increasing “multistakeholder” bodies taking over global governance. A governance and social innovation model where risks are socialized siphoning official aid and concerted public efforts – and where profits and gains are privatized.

The corporate capture of the UN FSS represents an ideological justification to our lived reality: that corporations own and control the means, processes and resources in food and agriculture. That billionaires from imperialist countries are more powerful than elected governments and civil societies combined in shaping global policies. That our food systems are not meant to serve the needs and aspirations of the people but is solely run by and subservient to the profit-motive.

It’s an open admission of defeat for multilateral agencies and a death threat to the hungry people’s of the world, its food producers, and our planet.

“TRANSFORMATION FOR WHOM?”

So what is at stake at the UNFSS?

In the face of corporate capture in the backdrop of rising global inequality and injustice, the question that we should be asking today is: If the UNFSS is set to “transform food systems” as we know it today, for whom does this “transformation” serve?

UNFSS is shaping to be a step back in building solidarity among social actors to address the root causes of hunger, scarcity, waste, poverty, conflict, and injustice.

For the longest time, civil society and rural food producers have been pushing back against the current unjust, unequal, unhealthy, and unsustainable food system. We have been pushing back the increasing control of corporations and landlords on our lands, seeds, and resources as producers and as people’s of the Global South. We have been pushing back against hunger and poverty, especially in the rural areas, against plunder and colonialism, against neoliberal policies of denationalisation and corporatization of food regimes, against imperialism in food and agriculture.

We have been hungry for change in our relationship with food, health, land, climate, and justice. So it is a welcome development that the United Nations is finally tackling changes in our current food system. But without a radical reorientation, the UNFSS is set to rehash the same neoliberal policies that caused the current crisis.

If it does not change course, the UNFSS will be ‘business as usual with caveats’ at best or a framework to roll back human and people’s rights to the benefit of profits at worst.

As it is, transnational corporations are moving at breakneck speeds in lobbying governments to rollback rights that farmers and food producers have fought hard for.

Loans from the International Monetary Fund earmarked for “recovery” contain, for most, an impetus for austerity measures and further privatization of resources including land. In India, the recently passed Three Farm Acts are set to corporatize agriculture further and backtrack on mandated support to farmers. Bans on highly hazardous pesticides such as glyphosate are being rolled back in countries like Mexico and Thailand.

The hundreds of farmer killings in Colombia and the Philippines last year alone stem from new laws that, in practice, protect corporate plantations, mining, and logging companies from the swelling disapproval of rural communities.

Indeed, there is a need to reclaim our voices in the transformation of the food systems for just, equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems. There is a need for a Global People’s Summit, one that is rid of corporate interests, which puts the interest of our rights and our commons before profit. ###


[i] Malnutrition is a world health crisis. Dr Francesco Branca, World Health Organization, 2019. Last accessed April 27, 2021

[ii] How The Cargill/MacMillan Family Became The Fourth-Richest American Family, With A Combined Net Worth Of $47 Billion Last accessed May 3, 2021

[iii] US Agri Related Billionaire Data prepared by PCFS Secretariat

[iv] False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung 2020. Last accessed April 27, 2021

[v] The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s grant-making programme for global health

[vi] GAIN’s Chair Catherine Bertini is in the Champions Group. GAIN’s Director of Knowledge Leadership Dr Lynnette Neufeld is a member of the Science Group while GAIN Board Member Dr Joachim von Braun will chair the Science Group with another Board member, Dr. Kaosar Afsana, serving as one of the Science Group’s Vice Chairs.

[vii] Agnes Kalibata: Fixing the world’s food systems is a problem we must solve together

[viii] Sustainable intensification benefits Africa’s smallholder farmers

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