How to protect global food policy from corporate capture

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.

These ineffectual commitments not only put off necessary and binding policy to confront the greatest challenges facing our food systems, but these also foreground the adoption of policies that are more palatable, often ineffectual, and even advantageous to the world’s largest agri-food corporations.

Let’s put a corporate accountability framework for food first so that we have a fighting chance to have thriving food systems.

Take again the example of UNFCCC. The crowning achievement of years of talks was tighter controls on carbon-trading schemes. Even when better regulated, carbon trading is no panacea and usually a shell game in reducing emissions. A body victim to corporate capture couldn’t even begin to tackle the oft-industry-friendly International Energy Agency’s recommendation that all new oil and gas projects be stopped.

But food policy leaders need not look to peers in the climate space to appreciate the need for a strong corporate accountability framework.

For example, FAO has signaled its intent to partner with CropLife International — a trade association for the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers — to “support rural development and eradicate poverty.”

Never mind the conflict this presents to FAO’s own commitment to minimize the use of highly hazardous agrochemicals — nor how counterproductive it is for FAO to provide deeper entree for pesticide corporations to small scale farmers, who can scant afford the health harms, fouling of water quality, and threat to sovereignty that the Bayers and Syngentas of the world threaten.

This said, there are powerful precedents within the U.N. to guardrail FAO and global food policy against corporate capture.

For one, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or WHO FCTC, provides a road map for protecting policy from corporate capture. Vested industry interests are not to write their own regulation or to participate in policy talks. They are not to enter “partnerships” with governing bodies.

Such protections, of course, haven’t stopped Big Tobacco from attempting to upend policy, but they have made it considerably harder for it to do so. And the proliferation of lifesaving, national tobacco control laws that firewalls against industry interference is proof of as much.

There is also the opportunity to align the work of the U.N. on food and agriculture to the binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights being negotiated in parallel. The treaty, as with Article 19 of WHO FCTC, is developing strong standards for holding industry responsible for its harms to health, human rights, and the environment.

This is not uncharted territory. Global food policy need not progress without strong safeguards if together we are to be successful in adopting binding, inclusive policy that truly guarantees food security, sovereignty, and environmental sustainability.

By Sofía Monsalve Suárez, Ashka Naik
This opinion piece was originally published by Devex on 14 February 2022.