Header image for news printout

UN Food Systems Summit marginalizes human rights and disappoints, say experts

GENEVA 22 SEPTEMBER 2021- On the eve of the Food Systems Summit, UN human rights experts are deeply concerned that the event will not be a “people’s summit” as promised. They are worried that the Summit will instead leave behind the most marginalized and vulnerable people.

According to the three human rights experts, who were involved in the Summit preparation, “The Summit claims to be inclusive, but it left many participants and over 500 organizations representing millions of people feeling ignored and disappointed.”

“Despite the occasional use of human rights language in Summit material, human rights were not properly woven throughout the Summit’s preparations. Tomorrow, the Summit may unfortunately present human rights to governments as an optional policy instead of a set of legal obligations.”

“How is it that in the two years it took to prepare for the Summit, the organizers did not substantively address the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic impacts?”, they asked. “The Summit does not provide any specific guidance to governments or people on how to transform their food systems in order to overcome the current pandemic and food crisis.”

“Before anyone commits to what the Food Systems Summit is putting forward, people and governments must first discuss and assess the Summit through an inclusive and multilateral process,” they stated.

The experts fear that there is a risk that the UN Food Systems Summit will serve the corporate sector more than the people who are essential to ensuring our food systems flourish such as workers, small producers, women, and Indigenous peoples.

“It is no mystery. The world’s food systems currently violate human rights, exacerbate inequalities, threaten biodiversity, and contribute to climate change. A root cause of these problems is the fact that transnational corporations have increasingly dominated food systems for the past 60 years.”

States must at least protect people’s rights from corporate power and ensure people have access to effective remedies, and corporations must at least respect people’s human rights.

“By ignoring the root causes and vested interests behind increasing rates of hunger, malnutrition and famine, the Summit only reflects the status quo. It leaves victims of human rights violations no clear direction on how to overcome the inequality, violence, displacement, and environmental degradation caused by mainstream food systems,” they added.

“In contrast, a human rights-based approach to food systems would hold corporations accountable. It would address ingrained power imbalances regarding access to land and water. And it would tackle core issues like land tenure, fair markets, and the privatization and monopolisation of seeds,” they said.

The UN experts think a global focus on agroecology is one of the best ways to ensure that food systems fulfil people’s human rights. “We think that agroecology should a primary focus because it starts with the question of power dynamics; it frames the problem as an issue relating to access to resources and control over the food system.”

“New research suggests that if we calculate productivity in terms of total output per hectare and not for a single crop, and in terms of energy input versus output, agroecology is often more productive than intensive industrial techniques,” they explained.

“Agroecological practices can reduce environmental impacts and improve livelihoods for small-scale farmers, including women, because of reduced reliance on expensive external inputs. Agroecology improves air, soil and water quality, is less energy-intensive, reduces emissions of greenhouse gases and enhances carbon sinks.”

The experts were also concerned with the proposals for a new science-policy interface to be established in the wake of the Food Systems Summit – either by extending the mandate of the Summit’s Scientific Group, or by establishing a permanent new panel or coordinating mechanism based on the Summit. They urged the world’s governments to rely on the widely recognized Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and its High-Level Panel of Experts guaranteeing a human rights approach and wide range of expertise.

“The approach to science taken by the Summit's Scientific Group excludes the voices of many food system actors,” they stated. “The Scientific Group is constituted almost entirely of natural scientists and economists. The assessments it has conducted and commissioned have failed to sufficiently consider the consequences of innovations on marginalized and poor people; have placed technological innovations above social innovations; and have not been opened up to public scrutiny.”

“Let us be perfectly clear. In the urgently needed transformation of the world’s food systems to eliminate hunger and protect the planet, States must respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, including the rights to food, a healthy and sustainable environment, and an adequate standard of living. These are legal obligations, not policy options.”

Note: SR food will present a report to the UN General Assembly on the Food Systems Summit and provides further guidance on how to assess the Summit through human rights framework in his recent policy brief. SR environment will present a report to the UN General Assembly on reducing the environmental impacts of food systems on human rights.


*The experts: Mr. Michael Fakhri Special Rapporteur on Right to FoodDr. David BoydSpecial Rapporteur on human rights and the environment and Mr. Olivier de Schutter,  Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.”