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Newsletter no 22 - In the Spotlight 2

Monday 15 June 2015, by Manu

The corporate take-over of food and nutrition policy spaces

Deregulation policies over the past decades have led to an immense concentration of corporate power in global food systems [1] and have consolidated the influence of corporations over public policy making, both at national and international levels, stripping communities and families of their abilities to transform nature and food into nutritional well-being and health. Under the umbrella of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and multi-stakeholder initiatives, private corporations are assuming an increasingly prominent role in shaping public policies, and are thereby taking over the functions of elected governments, undermining the very core of the democratic governance. This new trend carries serious implications for food sovereignty. Indeed, policies and interventions aimed at food and nutrition are increasingly oriented in the profit-seeking interests of corporations and their shareholders, rather than the physiological and nutritional needs of the general population and more specifically the communities affected by hunger and malnutrition, which become further marginalized.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2010 launched the final report of its Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) [2], in which it proposes the radical restructuring of global governance towards a multi-stakeholder arrangement in which private corporations take part in negotiations and decision-making processes together with government representatives. While this may sound like wishful thinking it is unfortunately a reality, with nutrition and health issues being at the forefront of the corporate takeover of public governance spaces. According to the GRI proposal, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) would be replaced by a “Global Food, Agriculture and Nutrition Redesign Initiative” operating under joint state and non-state supervision.

In 2008, the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), the harmonising body for nutrition-related policies and programmes of the United Nations, was effectively shut down due to its relatively strong policy on engagement with private sector and the civil society constituency’s resistance to including the private sector as a constituency. At the same time, the same actors who had (unsuccessfully) pushed for private sector participation in the SCN, and subsequently led the way in discrediting and draining it out of funding, were promoting a new initiative of global reach – the Scaling up Nutrition Initiative (SUN). In contrast to the SCN, which is accountable to governments, SUN opens the door for strong private sector [3] engagement in nutrition in line with the GRI vision. Its members (including of its Lead Group) include large transnational food and beverage corporations and agribusinesses [4], some of which have been involved in human rights abuses in the past and are known for their resistance to public health regulations.

Involvement of private corporations in food and nutrition governance through PPPs such as SUN presents a real threat to food sovereignty. It introduces a bias towards technical, artificial and product-based solutions, such as therapeutic and fortified food products, genetically-modified crops, and nutritional supplements, and diverts attention from the social determinants and human rights violations which underlie hunger and malnutrition.

Moreover, a blind eye is turned on the role of corporations that are causing hunger and malnutrition through inappropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes and unhealthy foods, abusive labour and contracting policies, land and resources grabbing, pollution and destruction of eco-systems and biodiversity, etc., and the urgent need for binding regulations. Perhaps most importantly, this corporate take-over of food and nutrition governance spaces has negative implications for the rich and complex socio-cultural processes of eating and nourishment for individual communities and families around the world, by promoting unsustainable production methods and global warming.

In November last year, the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) took place in Rome. In the run-up to and during the conference, social movements and civil society organisations formed a broad alliance to advocate for nutrition policies and interventions which have people – and in particular affected communities and small-scale food producers – at their centre and are based on and promote the human right to adequate food and nutrition in the broader framework of food sovereignty, indivisibility of rights and women’s and children’s rights [5]. They called on States to put a coherent governance mechanism in place, charged with following-up and ensuring accountability in relation to States’ obligations and commitments on nutrition, while meaningfully engaging civil society and, in particular, groups affected by any form of malnutrition. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) should play a key role in this, ensuring policy coherence for food security and nutrition and was requested to fully integrate nutrition in its work plan. Social movements and CSOs strongly voiced their opposition to private sector participation in food and nutrition policy making and demanded the enactment of robust conflict of interest safeguards for all forms of engagement with the private sector.

Earlier this year, there have been attempts by some actors to carve out a prominent space for SUN in the CFS as the body is examining its future role in advancing nutrition. In response to these attempts, the nutrition working group of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) has called for the establishment of a transparent, informed, and participatory process within the CFS to discuss its engagement in nutrition. Last month a decision was taken by the Multi Year Program of Work (MYPOW) working group that nutrition will become a major work stream of the CFS in the coming years and that an open-ended working group on nutrition will be established.

This is a critical moment for bringing nutrition more strongly into the CFS and setting up a global harmonising body which can ensure policy coherence across sectors in line with the human right to adequate food and nutrition. However, for this to happen, CFS must develop adequate safeguards to protect its policy-making space from undue corporate influence. It is thus essential that social movements and civil society organisations, through the lens of the food sovereignty framework, bring to the centre the dimension of power in the discussions about food and nutrition governance, advocate for strengthening of conflicts of interest safeguards on the CFS and remain alert and monitor closely developments within and beyond the CFS in the nutrition arena, resisting corporate capture of this vital space and the further detachment of nutrition from food, humans and nature.

[1See Berne Declaration & EcoNexus (2013) ‘Agropoly – A handful of corporations control world food production’, available at www.econexus.info/sites/econexus/files/Agropoly_Econexus_BerneDeclaration.pdf

[2See Readers’ Guide to the Global Redesign Initiative of the University of Massachusetts which summarizes the key proposals of the WEF, available at https://www.umb.edu/gri. The full report can be found at http://www.weforum.org/issues/global-redesign-initiative

[4Companies participating in SUN include PepsiCo, Mars, Unilever, Syngenta and BASF, see http://sunbusinessnetwork.org/sun-resources/sbn-company-list/

[5The civil society and social movement statements before and at ICN2 can be found at http://www.fian.org/news/article/detail/civil_society_and_social_movements_present_their_final_declaration_at_the_icn2/