Big agribusiness corporations have covertly captured key talks on the future of global food systems

Combine harvester unloading wheat into a tractor in a field. Food Systems Summit UN WEF
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If you needed a reminder that corporations rule the world, look no further than the United Nations’ (UN) answer to the planet’s broken food system. The UN is hosting the Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) stocktaking event in Rome between 24 and 26 July. It comes two years after the seminal 2021 UNFSS in New York.

The UN established the summit to address food systems within the context of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global organisation set forward 17 SDGs in 2016. These lay out a series of interconnected development objectives to, as the UN has euphemistically described:

end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Similarly, the UN offered a nauseatingly self-aggrandising spiel on the role of the UNFSS:

The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit.

Naturally then, the Canary has found that its latest iteration is crawling in private sector premiers and household brand vagabonds. However, at first glance, you wouldn’t know it.

For the most part, corporate involvement in the 2023 stocktaking summit is covert. The UN has listed just a few of the companies participating directly. Instead, corporations operate through nebulous networks of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and coalitions. MSIs do what they say on the tin: bodies composed of stakeholders from various sectors.

Read on...

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On the face of it, these MSIs and groups sound innocuous enough. Yet delving into their funders and partners reveals a wealth of private sector powerhouses (pun intended). Of course, the list of represented companies reads like a wanted poster chock full of the worst corporate criminals destroying the planet.

Corporate capture of the summit

While the UNFSS hub has published the organisers of the 38 side events, the same isn’t true for the events in its main programme. Barring a few exceptions, the majority of the core plenaries, leadership dialogues, and special events do not disclose speakers or specific participants in advance. In fact, the UN posted speakers at some of the events only on the day of the talks.

As a result, information on private sector attendees is sparse and piecemeal. However, the Canary has combed through available event flyers and agendas, alongside separate announcements by speakers, to build a picture of the private entities invading these spaces. Though incomplete, what follows is a compendium of the corporate kings co-opting the food systems summit – and by extension, the future of food itself.

Key multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) appearing at the 2023 conference include:

  • The World Economic Forum (WEF).
  • The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).
  • The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
  • EAT (composed of: the EAT Forum, the EAT Foundation, and the EAT-Lancet Commission on Sustainable Healthy Food Systems).
  • The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
  • Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

These MSIs, alongside a multitude of coalitions at the summit, represent multiple notable food processing and manufacturing corporations. For example, these include: Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Danone, JBS, Kelloggs, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, Unilever, and Yara International.

In addition, contentious chemical and agritech companies such as Bayer and Syngenta are members of key MSIs attending. Likewise, packaging giants Tetra Pak and Smurfit Kappa join the cast of infamous private actors participating by proxy.

Of course, a comprehensive list of corporate crooks and disreputable conglomerates would be lacking without their morally vacuous financiers of planetary destruction. For instance, Dutch Rabobank is a recurring character in MSIs and coalitions joining the conference. Other significant players include private sector philanthropic fronts like the Mastercard Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Private sector interests shaped the UNFSS

Corporate control of discussions on the future of food systems is therefore threaded through at multiple, interacting levels.

At the 2021 founding meeting, the UN dubbed the new food systems mechanism “the People’s Summit”.

However, the new architecture openly welcomed private sector “stakeholders” into the fold. It did so under the shallow guise of reasoning that it:

will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems.

In response, a flourishing social movement of Indigenous groups, land-based communities, and civil society organisations (CSOs) emerged to challenge this dominant narrative. The People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is a grassroots food sovereignty coalition.

Food Systems 4 People is the public liaison group for the powerful movement. It has traced the capture of food systems spaces to the rise in multistakeholderism, particularly through the UNFSS.

World Economic Forum weaving “stakeholder capitalism” into UNFSS

Naturally, the champion of corporate capitalist interests the WEF has been quietly pulling the strings.

It is made up of over 1,000 leading companies. Members convene with the leaders of international governments at annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland.

The WEF partnered with the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and other high-level groups to organise the 2021 UNFSS.

A 2021 article in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems articulated how the WEF’s corporate rhetoric has underpinned the shift to a multistakeholder approach:

In its efforts to promote the interests of the world’s largest corporations, the WEF has pursued a “Great Reset” intended to allay opposition to neoliberal globalization through a new vision of “stakeholder capitalism” and multistakeholder global governance.

Notably, the article identified that the WEF has likely pushed this agenda through its “strategic partnership” with the UN. The two bodies signed this agreement just months prior to the initial UNFSS in September 2021.

Now, as the UNFSS global stocktake commences, this corporate agenda is on full display. Food Systems 4 People has summarised the summit’s deliberate shortcomings, aptly describing how:

The UNFSS+2 is designed to ignore the need for deep structural transformations in our food systems, emphasizing instead a model that prioritizes profit-making over public interest.

Running the show

Moreover, the prominence of other MSIs and coalitions at the latest summit confirms who’s really running the show. Spoiler: it’s not the people and communities sewing the land.

CGIAR and GAIN both boast significant showing at the conference. The Canary found that representatives of CGIAR are speakers at no fewer than six core programme events. Additionally, the MSI has co-organised two side events. Meanwhile, GAIN speakers are participating in two events in the main programme. GAIN also co-convenes the Scaling-up Nutrition (SUN) initiative, which has speakers at three events. In addition, GAIN is co-organiser of two further side events.

Alongside this, CGIAR, GAIN and EAT are members of multiple coalitions sending speakers to the summit. CGIAR features in four coalitions confirmed to be speaking at and coordinating five additional core meetings and three side events, separate from those it is participating in directly.

Similarly, GAIN is a member of five coalitions speaking at five further main programme discussions and four extra side events. EAT is part of three coalitions, with panellists at five events in the main programme, plus four side events.

Meanwhile, the vice president of the WBCSD is participating in a panel during one of the key leadership dialogues. It is also co-hosting three side events during the course of the summit.

AGRA is speaking at three main events and is also co-organiser of a side event on the private sector’s role in transforming food systems.

What this all signifies, is the powerful presence of private profiteers at the summit. In particular, it highlights how these vested interests have entered the talks around the future of food, via nested memberships of MSIs and corporate-friendly coalitions. In effect, these are corporate front groups. Their public-facing magnanimous aims conceal a corporate capitalist agenda.

Moreover, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Since the UN has not circulated a publicly available list of speakers for its main programme, this could be understating their involvement.

Sponsors of Earth Destruction Inc.

Accordingly, these MSIs and coalitions appear in crucial discussions on everything from school meals to fertilisers.

AGRA president Dr. Agnes Kalibata is a speaker in three core programme events. For example, she is speaking at the meeting titled ‘Building Africa’s Food Sovereignty and Resilience through Sustainable Investments’.

As the Canary’s Tracy Keeling has previously reported, AGRA has ushered in an agricultural ‘revolution’ that:

reduces farmers’ autonomy, making them reliant on artificial inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides supplied by corporations

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Rockefeller Foundation founded AGRA in 2006. Ostensibly, the non-profit has cemented the grip of big agribusiness and agritech across the African continent.

Far be it for a foundation forged in the fire of corporate capitalism to deliver real change or upend the system – the very hand that fed it fortune in the first place. Invariably, the same applies to the multitude of other transnationals co-opting the summit.

In 2021, environmental campaign group Mighty Earth named and shamed Cargill and JBS as the worst companies driving destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The BBC has also linked Cargill to the decimation of the biodiverse Cerrado grassland ecosystem in Brazil.

A more recent report from 5 July found that Dutch Rabobank has financed sectors causing deforestation in Brazil. Between 2000 and 2022, the bank provided loans and financial services to beef, soy, pulp, and paper companies to the tune of $10bn.

Meanwhile, a 2021 Global Witness investigation revealed that Kellogg’s and Nestlé had been purchasing palm oil from Papua New Guinea complicit in rampant deforestation and child labour.

Who gets a seat at the table decides who gets to eat

The latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report estimated that 900 million people faced severe food insecurity in 2022. Meanwhile, the UN is knowingly giving the very corporations sponsoring the destruction of the planet prime seats at the table.

Ultimately, those sitting at that table get to decide who gets to eat.

It is precisely these corporations who already shape the state of global food systems. For example, as Keeling has also reported, companies like Cargill, JBS, Nestlé, and Yara have been securing monopolies over key supply chains in the agricultural market.

In response to the continued process of corporate capture of the UNFSS, the Peoples’ Autonomous Response issued a declaration to the UN. It called on the global organisation to turn away from profiteering agribusiness and its investors.

Member Perla Álvarez from the international farmers, landless workers, and Indigenous group La Vía Campesina said:

In these times of growing hunger and multiple crises, it is more urgent than ever that governments and the UN listen to us. We call on you: change direction, and support our demands and efforts for a food sovereign future based on human rights and the principles of agroecology, care, justice, diversity, solidarity and accountability.

As ever, the solutions to a burgeoning world crisis cannot be found in the corporate capitalist system that manufactured it. Instead, we must look to the grassroots movements fighting for a future grounded in food sovereignty, sustainability, and flourishing, well-nourished communities.

Feature image via Michael Gäbler/Wikimedia, resized and cropped to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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