Experts called the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit a watershed moment in drawing attention to corporate influence over public food governance
A new research has highlighted how corporate capture of global food governance is increasingly taking place in more visible ways. There has been a growing presence of firms in governance and spaces, staking claims to be legitimate actors, for example, through public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder roundtables.
When corporations are involved in public governance, they can also justify involvement by reframing the concept of public interest in terms that benefit corporations and large private businesses rather than people and the environment, noted Who’s tipping the scales report, released by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) on April 25, 2023.
The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and food inflation, aggravated the issue of corporate involvement. Following these crises, governments and multilateral agencies have been facing fund crunches.
Over recent decades, corporations have succeeded in convincing governments that they must be central in any discussion on the future of food systems, the document read.
“Public-private partnerships and ‘multi-stakeholder’ roundtables have normalised a prominent role for corporations and given them an inside track to decision-making. Public governance initiatives have also become reliant on private funding,” added the report.
The experts called the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) a watershed moment in drawing attention to corporate influence over public food governance. The embrace of corporate participation by the UNFSS leadership enabled agribusiness firms to claim that they had a rightful place in public-interest-based decision-making, it noted.
“Many civil society organisations, social movements and food system scholars were deeply troubled by what they considered to be the corporate capture of global food governance that could undermine the public good, as well as the rights of people and communities to engage with food systems,” added the report.
Corporations have long had influence over international food governance and their involvement has manifested in multiple ways, both visible and less visible, the research showed. Like the UNFSS, it also noted examples of corporate influence in platforms such as the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement and the Food and Land Use Coalition.
Additionally, there were broader and often less visible ways in which corporate actors influence global food governance.
They control the system “through lobbying behind the scenes, political and institutional donations, market power, shaping trade and investment rules, shaping research and innovation, as well as influencing other structural aspects of global food systems.”
Moreover, corporate partnerships have also provided key sources of funding for global food governance institutions while at the same time providing corporations with an inside track to decision-making. To substantiate this, the report cited the example of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global research partnership of international institutions on food security.
CGIAR has increasingly relied on funding from private firms and private philanthropic foundations with close ties to industry. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was the second largest donor to the CGIAR system in 2020 at nearly $100 million, dwarfing the amounts pledged by individual governments, including the United States.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) also had a long history of pursuing close collaboration with the corporate sector through industry partnerships. However, many of the details concerning funding contributions are not readily available.
The FAO’s partnership with CropLife, a major pesticide lobby organisation that has many large agribusiness firms as members, is one of the more recent examples of this type of arrangement, the document pointed out.
“While such partnerships allow firms to ‘blue-wash’ or ‘social-wash’ their reputations via closer links with the UN and other intergovernmental bodies, critics have charged that these kinds of partnerships between private sector actors and international governance bodies also create conflicts of interest,” the IPES report said.
It also offers substantial solutions for reimagining the food governance system. The experts have recommended the creation of clear mechanisms for assessing, monitoring and managing conflicts of interest in food system governance — going beyond existing limited approaches and developing stricter rules on lobbying, spending and campaign financing intended to influence government policy and elections.
Actors working with those most affected by hunger and malnutrition should have the greatest weight in identifying food-related issues that need governance; setting the agenda, terms of participation and procedures; developing governance mechanisms and structures, it recommended.
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