February 14, 2022

Devex: How to protect global food policy from corporate capture

By Sofía Monsalve Suárez of FIAN International and Ashka Naik of Corporate Accountability on Devex

In the aftermath of the first United Nations Food Systems Summit, the world is wondering: “What comes next?” We suggest the more important question is “what needs to come first” before another such convening consumes our collective political capital.

Sure, these global summits help spark critical discourse, call attention to pressing issues, and serve as a catalyst for action. But without strong safeguards against corporate capture — a phenomenon where corporate interests exert their power to influence the decision-making process — the UNFSS has no hope of rising to the challenges our food systems face today.

Before another dime is spent by global governments, before another breath is expended pursuing voluntary initiatives following up UNFSS, there needs to be a robust corporate accountability framework for global food policy. This is the case we make in a new paper outlining the abundance of precedent for and efficacy of as much.

The world has enough trade shows. We don’t need multilateral bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, supported in large part by taxpayer dollars, spending their scarce capital on profit-centered policies, especially as the world grapples with deepening food insecurity during a pandemic, systemic exploitation of food workers, and the alarming contributions of industrial agriculture to the climate crisis.

The UNFSS became such a forum, marginalizing the voices of millions on the front lines of the world’s food systems. It was initiated just after the U.N. signed a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum, a platform of about 400 global firms as of January 2016. And early documents indicated WEF was, indeed, helping organize the summit.

The summit constituted its leadership of those like special envoy Agnes Kalibata, who spent years opening doors for transnational agri-food corporations with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a highly controversial organization.

It provided a platform for the executives of the world’s largest and most abusive food corporations to trumpet their latest nutri- and greenwashing initiatives. Nestlé, for one, used the UNFSS to promote its plans to reach net-zero and promote regenerative agriculture. This sounds good at face value, but why is an official U.N. body providing this marketing platform instead of adopting laws that ensure bad corporate actors are held to account?

It freely allowed the participation of industry proxies. For example, trade groups advocating carbon-intensive and inhumane factory farming such as the International Poultry Council and Global Dairy Platform were engaged in dialogue on “sustainable livestock.” The NGO Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, which boasts funding from ultra-processed food giant Unilever, was involved in eight different sessions in and around the summit.

So what could go wrong with this new platform with already tarnished credibility going forward?

Well, if other fora with similarly lacking safeguards against corporate capture, such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, are any indication: a lot.

Lofty, nonbinding, and ultimately empty commitments will be made that give those causing the greatest harm to food systems undeserved public relations and deeper access to policy spaces. Around UNFCCC, for instance, it has become vogue for corporations to announce “net zero” pledges that are unenforceable, based on unproven science, and a veil for inaction.

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