Is there space for innovation (and technology) in the CFS?

By Allison Loconto

 This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Allison Loconto reflects on the politics of knowledge and techniques within in the CFS and in turn, how these contribute to food security.She acknowledges that frank debate about innovation and technology for sustainable agriculture and food security are not yet high on the CFS agenda, but that the CFS could become a mechanism to provide guidance on these questions as the global community begins to tackle them.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:


Loconto pic.jpeg

Each of us attending the 43rd session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) this year came to the meetings with a different learning/research objective. For me, this year, I was interested in following a topic that was not a clear priority for the negotiations, but nonetheless kept popping up throughout the discussions: technology and innovation.

For someone who is quite interested in how knowledge about techniques (another way of thinking about technology) circulates, the 43rd CFS offered an interesting arena for understanding how politics around knowledge and techniques are contributing to broader questions of food security.

Throughout the week, technology could be found as a silent undercurrent that upholds specific positions in the political debates around trade and agricultural policy. For example, the strong anti-GMO position taken by civil society within the organic and agroecology movements is often countered by a strong private sector call for ‘science’ and public sector promotion of ‘productivism’ where the sole objective and value of agriculture for food security is reducing the yield gap. The latter position is part and parcel of the conventional wisdom about the need to modernize agriculture.

In the opening plenary session, the representative from South Sudan summed up this position saying: “We need to inject technology and information into our systems”, the representative from Nigeria likewise stated that their cows are only producing 1 litre of milk per day and “the will of the people is to increase their production – but the challenges are so deep they cannot [access technology]”,  while the Chinese representative stated very clearly that they are strongly committed to linking together agricultural modernization, industrialization and information technology.

This idea that technology and information can be injected like medicine into the arm of a sick patient and will solve systemic problems of food security and development both ignores processes of innovation that can explain how technology becomes useful (and thus widely used) and how information must be turned into different forms of knowledge that are actionable (Gorman, 2002).

There is an assumed linear path for innovation that begins with invention, follows through technology and product development and design, and ends with commercialization. Following this logic, individual scientists and companies invent (the latest EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard figures show the more than 50% of R&D spending in the Agriculture and Food sectors come from private investment), with state investment through R&D funding (and protection of patent registration).

The private sector commercializes and develops products. The public sector distributes the benefits to all people (to prevent poverty), extension diffuses the new technologies and more broadly, the State manages environmental and social impacts of technology and innovation. Here, civil society is a watchdog that calls out bad technologies or bad practices while the majority of the people are consumers, producers, employees and voters (but not innovators).

However, there is significant evidence of innovation as multi-actor networked paths, rather than linear paths. A number of scholars have differently named these phenomena where innovation has become a collective endeavor (Van de Ven, 1999), with inventors and users collaborating and sharing ideas and information. These have been referred to alternatively as user innovation (Von Hippel, 1976); co-inventor networks (Breschi and Malerba, 2005); open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003); open source (Raymond, 2001); participatory design (Schuler and Namioka, 1993); community innovation (van Oost et al., 2009); upstream engagement (Macnaghten et al., 2005); mid-stream modulation (Fisher et al., 2006); Constructive Technology Assessment (Rip et al., 1995); cooperative research (Kleinknecht and Reijnen, 1992); democratising innovation (von Hippel, 2005; Felt et al., 2007); responsible innovation (Guston, 2006); responsible research and innovation (Von Schomberg, 2013; Stilgoe et al.); social innovation (Stirling, 2008); and grassroots innovation (Smith and Seyfang, 2013).

Therefore, “innovation is not simply a technology (or a technical object), it must be the reorganization of institutions, organizations, value chains, and businesses to enable actors to innovate on their own terms” (Felt et al., 2007). This means that innovation is not a new technology, but a new way of doing things. Thus, if innovation is a collective reorganization of systems, can we not also consider it to be innovative uses of old technologies, new combinations of traditional knowledge and techniques or perhaps the discontinuation of some technologies that have not become useful to many people?

These alternative ideas about innovation were highlighted during the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation CFS side event entitled ‘Who Will and How Will We Feed Humanity’. A panel of four speakers, representing the private sector (Syngenta), civil society (ETC Group) and farmers (Via Campesina) and a donor (GAFSP), tried to find complementarity between contrasting approaches to achieving food security and nutrition.

The motivation for this side event was precisely that discussions around how to achieve food security and nutrition and the related SDG targets are often polarized, with core challenges being framed based on an ideology or perspective (such as modernization, or productivity). As we know from theories of the performativity (Callon, 2010), different framings can lead to different and sometimes contrasting approaches to solving them. This is one of the reasons why this panel discussion was so interesting. We got to confront face to face these different framings of a single (hypothetical) problem of constraints on food security in two countries.

Continue reading “Is there space for innovation (and technology) in the CFS?”

Winds of change, or more of the same? Urbanization and rural transformation in the context of emerging global initiatives

By Alison Blay-Palmer

 This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Alison Blay-Palmer reflects on opening at the international level for discussing food with an increasingly regional and sustainability focus. She questions whether emerging initiatives call into question the capacity of the CSM and its constituent groups to achieve its mandate on the Right to Food.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:


I offer the following comments as a new observer of the CFS process. I attended CFS 42 (2015) and then 43 (2016), and participate in the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) meetings for the SDGs and Urban and Rural Transformation.

The food spaces within and between rural and urban communities are simultaneously interconnected and contested in part due to increasing distances between smallholder producers who provide most of the world’s food, and urban eaters who are now in the majority and increasing in numbers.

In opposition to the globalization and industrialization that creates these rifts in our food system, and in tandem with increased explicit attention to urban-rural linkages by the CFS, recently launched initiatives such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP),  New Urban Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the City-Region Food System project offer local pathways to more coherent regional sustainable food systems and increased capacity for urban and rural transformation that respects the Right to Food.

Nevertheless, being outside of CFS debate, these initiatives might call into question the capacity of the CSM and its constituent groups to engage based on:

  1. inadequate funding for the CFS,
  2. a lack of joined-up policy; and;
  3. the threat to agro-ecological farming systems from high technology.

The MUFPP, launched in 2015, now has 133 signatory cities that together include more than 460 million people. The Pact draws direct connections between rural and urban communities “Recognizing that family farmers and smallholder food producers, (notably women producers in many countries) play a key role in feeding cities and their territories, by helping to maintain resilient, equitable, culturally appropriate food systems; and that reorienting food systems and value chains for sustainable diets is a means to reconnect consumers with both rural and urban producers” (MUFPP 2015: 1).

Enhanced direct links between producers and consumers offer the potential for better market opportunities for smallholder farmers and improved access to nutritional food for the urban food insecure. This level of integration is also key to addressing the 2030 Agenda goals. For example, the Report of the UN Secretary General titled ‘Agricultural development, food security and nutrition’ (2016) points to SDG 2 (zero hunger) that addresses food and nutrition security and its interconnections with production considerations including soil quality (Goal 15), water quality and availability (Goal 6), climate (Goal 13), gender equality (Goal 5) and production and consumption patterns (Goal 12).

While developed as an international initiative through UN-Habitat, the New Urban Agenda looks to integrate ‘urban and territorial planning’ to end hunger and malnutrition by making local food supply-consumption loops less wasteful and more affordable, coordinating policy at the food-energy-water-health-transportation-waste nexus, and conserving genetic (and presumably, though not explicitly) biodiversity. Paragraph 123 of the Agenda states:

 “We [Heads of State and Government, Ministers and High Representatives] will promote the integration of food security and the nutritional needs of urban residents, particularly the urban poor, in urban and territorial planning, to end hunger and malnutrition. We will promote coordination of sustainable food security and agriculture policies across urban, peri-urban and rural areas to facilitate the production, storage, transport and marketing of food to consumers in adequate and affordable ways to reduce food losses and prevent and reuse food waste. We will further promote the coordination of food policies with energy, water, health, transport and waste policies, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds and reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, and implement other policies in urban areas to maximize efficiencies and minimize waste.”

Continue reading “Winds of change, or more of the same? Urbanization and rural transformation in the context of emerging global initiatives”

Reflections on an epistemic road block in the CFS

by Philip McMichael

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Moving forward with the third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  Philip McMichael presents a review of how different actors in the CFS understand key terms and key issues. He also reflects on the implications of this for the future of the CFS.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:


As a member of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) technical support team in the preparation for the debate over a CFS version of Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems in 2014 and 2015, it became clear that this process involved some measure of windmill tilting. It revealed the substantial obstacles faced by the CSM in ensuring legal regulation of investment in land deals. Worse, CSM representations along these lines at the closing of this debate in October 2015 were dismissed by the then CFS Chair. But the debate also revealed substantial misunderstanding of the difference between small farming and industrial agriculture.

There was a clear epistemic standoff between the CSM and Private Sector Mechanism (PSM), which is not about scale preference, but really a distinction between farming culture and ‘agriculture without farmers,’ in the words of Vía Campesina. This distinction includes the claim made by the CSM on behalf of small producers for the ‘right to produce’ (as opposed simply to the ‘right to food’).

Small-producers produce about 50 per cent of the world’s food, yet account for about 50 per cent of the world’s hungry (ETC 2009). Further, they have experienced the dismantling of infrastructural supports and exposure to food dumping in their national markets in recent decades, as governments have come to serve markets instead of their citizens. Within this neoliberal milieu, UN/FAO member states and their private sector allies recast small producers as potential ‘smallholder businesses,’ waiting to engage in entrepreneurial agriculture if only provided with sufficient financial investments.

The focus here is on ‘productivism’, by which ‘smallholder’ farming is evaluated and found lacking, in terms of ‘yield gaps’ to be resolved via ‘improvements.’ Productivism imposes a standardized yield metric on farming, measuring only plant yields (but neither efficiency of water/energy use, nor environmental externalities), rather than what may be reproduced (eg, seed, soil fertility, water cycles, common resources, rural livelihoods) by low-input or agro-ecological farming.

This distinction between small producer farming and corporate agro-industrialization is routinely conflated in the CFS debates. Given the intensifying land deal context, in addition to the notion of land as an investment refuge, it serves investor interest to represent ‘smallholders’ as potential entrepreneurs, despite CFS documentation of the multifunctional character of small producer communities. Thus the CFS High-Level Panel of Experts’ Report on Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security defines small-scale farming in the following way:

Smallholder agriculture is practised by families (including one or more households) using only or mostly family labour and deriving from that work a large but variable share of their income, in kind or in cash… it includes crop raising, animal husbandry, forestry and artisanal fisheries… Off -farm activities play an important role in providing smallholders with additional income and as a way of diversifying risk… smallholders producing only or mainly for subsistence are not uncommon… smallholder’s families are part of social networks within which mutual assistance and reciprocity translate into collective investments (mainly through work exchanges) and into solidarity systems… smallholder agriculture is the foundation of food security in many countries and an important part of the social/economic/ecological landscape in all countries. (CFS 2013: 10–11)

Furthermore, the ‘potential efficiency of smallholder farming relative to larger farms has been widely documented, focusing on the capacity of smallholders to achieve high production levels per unit of land through the use of family labour in diversified production systems’ (CFS 2013: 12). The CSM claims a significant difference between labor, and financial, investment. Labor investment is the differentia specifica of small producer agriculture (Ploeg 2009), and, according to the CFS, small producers are the ‘main investors’ (2013: 16). But this point goes unrecognized in CFS debates because of the singular insistent understanding of ‘investment’ as financial.

Within the UN, the recent Special Rapporteur on the  Right to Food recommended deepening domestic production to reduce food dependency, observing that there are ‘approximately 500 million small-scale farmers in developing countries making them not only the vast majority of the world’s farmers but, taking into account their families, responsible for the well-being of over two billion persons’ (De Schutter 2011: 13). Reclaiming this right requires a power re-balance in order to restore integrity to domestic farm sectors and rights to producing communities. In the UN debates the persisting trade reflex (by which states secure their balance of payments) reproduces the notion that agriculture is a revenue operation and is best left to ‘entrepreneurial farming’ to ‘feed the world.’ One representative of the PSM, from an agro-food network, made the following observations in a CFS 41 debate:

While there is a consensus that farmers are at the center, farming needs to be understood as a profession, and food security is about economic growth, not just growing food— thus farmers need to break the subsistence cycle and become entrepreneurs, produce more with less land, and stabilize via land ownership, inputs (agro-chemicals), knowledge, and market access.

This representation of farmers echoes other such statements in the course of CFS debates regarding smallholders being at the heart of a ‘transition.’ Thus PSM representatives claim: ‘we invest in large and small’ – implying scale neutrality that obscures the incommensurability of small farming and industrial agriculture, and: ‘agriculture investments are wonderful job creators’ – suggesting either plantations or agro-industrial estates as job safety nets for displaced farmers where jobs are the currency of modernization. Job provision assumes that small-scale producers are better off earning a wage, and that small farming is no different from farm working.

The emphasis on a financial calculus similarly discounts local common pool resources, managed by self-organizing land users with shared rules which ‘differ from the logic of capital—they reflect, instead the interests and perspectives of the involved producers, ecological cycles and/or principles such as social justice, solidarity, or the containment of (potential) conflicts’ (Ploeg et al. 2012: 164). In sum, CSM’s ability to gain traction in this area of rights will require problematizing the epistemic reductionism of forms of farming, which obscures power differentials as well as incommensurability in the material and cultural meanings of agriculture.


McMichael.pngPhilip McMichael is Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell. His research is informed by a world-historical perspective and focuses on food regimes and food sovereignty, and rethinking the agrarian question. He has authored Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions (Fernwood, 2013), Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (Sage, 2016), and the award-winning Settlers and the Agrarian Question (Cambridge, 1984); and he has edited Contesting Development: Critical Struggles for Social Change (Routledge, 2010), and co-edited Biofuels, Land and Agrarian Change, with Jun Borras and Ian Scoones (Routledge, 2011). He is a member of the Civil Society Mechanism in the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security, has worked with UNRISD and the FAO, and has collaborated with La Vía Campesina, and the IPC for Food Sovereignty.


CFS. 2013. Investing in smallholder agriculture for food security. Rome: FAO.

De Schutter, O. 2011. How not to think of land-grabbing: three critiques of large-scale investments in farmland. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(2): 249–280.

ETC. 2009. Who will feed us? ETC Group Communique, 102 (November):

Ploeg, van der J. D. 2009. The ‘new’ peasantries. Struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an era of empire and globalization. London: Earthscan.

Ploeg, van der J. D., Ye, J., and Schneider, S. 2012. Rural development through the construction of new, nested markets: comparative perspectives from China, Brazil and the European Union. Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(1): 133–174.


The “Nepalisation” of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests

Assessing the impacts of a CFS output on the ground: Can a global governance instrument support struggles for tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security?

 By Katie Anne Whiddon

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Moving forward with the third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  Katie Anne Whiddon provides emerging insights into how the CFS-negotiated Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests are being taken up in Nepal. She sheds light on the key question of whether global governance instruments fulfil their objectives at the local level by examining the roles and leverage that CSOs/NGOs have gained through the VGGT process and based on a developing case study. She concludes by reflecting on what this means for tenure rights in marginalised communities.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

FIAN Nepal

Since its reform in 2009, the United Nations Committee on World Food Security and Nutrition (CFS) aims to become the foremost inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue platform dealing with food security and nutrition policies. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (henceforth Guidelines or VGGT), adopted in 2012, are the first output that reflects the breakthrough of post-reform CFS negotiations. They are an unprecedented international agreement on tenure of natural resources that guide countries in achieving food security.

A Global Thematic Event at CFS43 was an occasion to share experiences on the application of the VGGT, but also to highlight the challenges of monitoring CFS decisions. Today, civil society efforts to report on the use of the Guidelines reflect the need to draw lessons from country-level processes. Stakeholders question the contributions of the CFS to global food governance, and ultimately, to the progressive realisation of the human right to food and nutrition.

Through a political ethnography, my research aims to identify the factors that condition the impacts of the Guidelines on place-based struggles for food sovereignty in Nepal, and the roles played by state and non-state actors in the implementation process.

VGGT implementation process in Nepal: state and non-state actors meet at multi-stakeholder platforms

Between 2014 and 2016, Nepal received funding from the Food and Agriculture Organisation to organise VGGT National Multi-Stakeholder Workshops and a training programme. FIAN Nepal, a right to food NGO, brought together marginalised communities from remote areas and government officials to discuss conflicts around legitimate tenure rights. Further VGGT awareness-raising and capacity-building events across Nepal were also organised by ANFPa (All Nepali Peasants’ Federation), supported by La Via Campesina and the International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD).

Policy advocacy and justiciability were at the core of the VGGT workshops in Nepal, a country where power relations and skewed access to natural resources are the main causes of food insecurity. Non-state actors provided examples of how the tenure rights of rural dwellers and “climate refugees” continue to be violated, following decades of deforestation, evictions from conservation areas, displacement due to development projects and human-induced environmental stress.

In order to define the focus of my PhD, I attended the 2016 VGGT National Workshop in Kathmandu. I learnt that customary access to natural resources in conservation areas has become one of the key areas for utilising the Guidelines, as anticipated in an explicatory case study in the IPC‘s (International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty) VGGT Peoples’ Manual.

A ‘multi-actor’ discussion on the violations of tenure rights in Nepal’s protected areas

To kick-start the workshop, an interesting discussion emerged on how to translate the word “tenure”. The Nepali term “Bogh Chalana” (unwritten usufruct customs) places emphasis on informal tenure and customary practices, as addressed in Part 3 of the VGGT. This sparked a debate around the claims of indigenous peoples’ (IPs) customarily defined relationship to natural resources. Relevant normative provisions from the VGGT were discussed, including the right to prior consultation, and Free, Prior and Informed Consent, as defined in ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; both ratified by Nepal.

However, it was pointed out that such global instruments are often ineffective, partly due to legislative dysfunction and lack of coordination between government agencies. Participants queried the potential implementation of international norms, given the lack of political will even with national laws. A ‘multi-actor’ session provided an opportunity for grassroots communities from the buffer zones of protected areas to exert pressure on Members of Parliament from the Environment Protection Committee, following on from a previous consultation on FIAN Nepal’s findings. Women described cases of sexual abuse by security personnel and confiscation of fodder and baskets. Fishers shared complaints of physical harassment and confiscation of their catch and fishing gear (their only source of livelihood). They demanded an amendment of the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973, in order to foster effective participatory management, respect equitable benefit sharing, and provide compensation for the loss of crops due to wild animals.

FIAN Nepal

Can a global governance instrument support struggles for access to rivers and forests in the context of national food security?

 During the VGGT negotiations at the CFS, the safeguarding of tenure systems of indigenous peoples and other customary communities was one of the key battlefronts of civil society delegates. Whilst the CFS Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) now strives to develop participatory mechanisms for monitoring and accountability, in Nepal, the Guidelines have become a tool for holding the government accountable. The VGGT process has bolstered socio-economically excluded communities in asserting their rights to use rivers and forests in national parks.

However, contentious governance issues around ‘participatory’ processes in protected areas – which now occupy approximately 25% of Nepal’s landmass – are longstanding and closely linked to the political economy of natural resource governance in Nepal. An assessment of whether the VGGT implementation efforts can aid in resolving park-people conflicts calls for an evaluation of the dominance of interest groups in global and national conservation policies. The ideological underpinnings that frame technocratic ‘solutions’ to human-nature interaction should also be examined from a human rights-based approach. The National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 amendment has now been tabled in the Parliament, but it remains to be seen whether the legal reform has an impact on livelihoods.

As part of democratic (federal) state building since 1990, Nepal has ratified a raft of human rights-based instruments. Furthermore, the right to food and food sovereignty were enshrined in the Constitution of Nepal in 2015. Within this context, whether the leverage of CSOs/NGOs gained through the VGGT process can aid to restore tenure rights of marginalised communities is a question that requires empirical investigation at the interface of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’, both at the policy-making and the grassroots levels.

katieKatie Anne Whiddon is a PhD Student at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University. The core of her PhD is a collaborative research project with civil society organisations on the impacts of the VGGT on local struggles for food sovereignty in Nepal.  She is a qualified interpreter and translator and has a Masters in African Studies from SOAS (2007). She completed her MA research on post-colonial nation building in Mozambique, where she worked at a rural school of agriculture. Since 2010, Katie has been an activist-interpreter for La Via Campesina, the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty and the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) at the UN Committee on World Food Security.


On the growing participation of multinational corporations in food security global governance

What mechanisms to push such powerful players to change for transformative impact?

By Pierre-Marie Aubert

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

We continue with our second post of  ur third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  In this post, Pierre-Marie reflects on the rise of “multistakeholderism”in the CFS, and more broadly across food security and nutrition governance. He concludes with reflecting on ways to reinforce governance framework to ensure more appropriate participation in multistakeholder mechanisms for food security and nutrition.

This blog series is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:



If you participated to CFS 43, you must have noticed the strong participation of private sector representatives. Around 150 of them were there, representing companies from all over the world and from all segments of food chains: agro-chemical companies, seed companies, traders, food processors, retailers, investors…

The 2009 reform of the CFS supported the creation of two mechanisms to facilitate the participation of non-state actors in debates (but without voting power): the civil society mechanism, for civil society organization and social movements more broadly; and the private sector mechanism. While civil society organisations immediately seized the opportunity and massively participated in the CFS, the number of companies represented at the CFS has been slowly increasing year after year, from less that 30 in 2010 to a bit less than 150 in 2016.

What’s going on in the CFS / PSM can not be understood apart from broader evolutions that characterizes the global governance of food and nutrition security (but also more widely), which tend to rely more and more on a so-called “multistakeholderism”. Between 2008 and 2016, a good dozen multistakeholder initiatives have been developed in the field of food and nutrition security and agricultural development: the Global alliance for improved nutrition, the Alliance for a green revolution in Africa, the Global alliance for climate smart agriculture, the New alliance for food and nutrition security, the Amsterdam declaration against malnutrition, to cite a few.

All of them involve companies from different segments of food chains, along with States, international organisations, research organisations and non governmental organisations. More than 60 companies are involved in at least two of those initiatives, most of them being large and often transnational corporations. Hence, and although the term “private sector” encompasses a broad range of actors ranging from multinational companies to small and medium enterprises or even certain farmers (who for example feel more comfortable to participate in the CFS through the private sector mechanism than through the civil society mechanism), one can not ignore the fact that multinational corporations from upstream and downstream parts of food chains play a prominent role in most global governance mechanisms for food security.

Just to give an example, out of the 12 multistakeholder platforms related to food security we looked at, major transnational companies such as Unilever, Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, Pepsi, were involved in half of them or even more. So the question is: what drives those companies to participate in such mechanisms? What can be expected from their contribution?

In terms of participation, three main factors can be identified. A first is common to all development issues and relates to the growing demand expressed by States and international organisations towards private companies. Sustainable development is indeed deemed to necessitate more investments that the public sector itself is no longer able to supply, hence the need to increase the support from the private sector.

A second factor relates to the need for most companies to raise their sustainability profile in the face of growing public / societal demand.

A third factor has often to do with the company’s business model and takes different forms depending on the type of initiatives we are talking about. In a political space like the CFS, one of the issue for companies is to make sure that what will come out from intergovernmental negotiations will be compatible — or even favourable — with their business operations. In project-oriented initiatives, like the Global Alliance for improved nutrition (GAIN) or the Amsterdam initiative against malnutrition, the question is more about identifying new markets / customers through different kind of projects.

GAIN is an organization that mobilizes public-private partnerships to address malnutrition.

Given this context, what can we expect from this increased contribution of transnational corporations? A closer look at the projects developed under in those different initiatives allows to distinguish between four types of interventions: intensifying agriculture practices upstream by improving access to inputs (chemicals, fertilizers, improved seeds); generating more cash from agriculture by improving farmers’ access to (international) commodity markets; developing the demand and the availability of bio-fortified products downstream by working with marketers, food processors and retailers; and changing policy frameworks at all levels to favour the adoption of the three above mentioned types of actions.

All of those can be grouped under a similar heading, that of “agri-food chain modernisation”, which reflects to a great extent the agenda of most companies involved. One of the key reason behind that situation is that many companies are not willing to embark in initiatives that are not aligned with their own objectives, as reflected — for example — in their CSR policy. Since, on the other hand, the bearers of food security initiatives are keen on having “big players” on board, they tend to align the initiatives’ objectives and projects to what companies have already planned to do.

However, the project of “agri-food chain modernisation” has often been criticized by peasant organisations, social movements but also researchers for its many negative impacts on the ground. Yet, those groups are often under-represented in the different initiatives we talked about — apart from the CFS. This results either from their own lack of willingness to take part in those initiatives — often in the name of lack of accountability mechanisms (see here and there), or from the fact that they were not necessarily invited, or from a lack of resources (human, financial) needed to contribute to such initiatives.

Hence, while big corporations are indeed in a position to contribute to food security thanks to their great investment capacity, but also their position in most food chains, this is not likely to happen without certain changes. One concerns the kind of projects they want to invest in and the agricultural models they want to support. Such evolutions or innovations will however not be favoured by most multi-stakeholder platforms if they stay as they are. An other important change would thus be to reinforce their governance framework, in at least two different ways.

One is to recognize the fundamental differential of power that characterizes the different participants to such initiative. When the net profit of a company is worth the double of a country’s GDP, not to speak about the annual budget of a small farmer organisation, those power asymmetries can not be ignored and must be considered in the way in which discussions are organised and decisions taken.

Second is to endow such platforms with a stronger accountability framework, which involves the following key elements: the definition of a referential framework, which is to enable the assessment, ex-ante, in itinere and ex-post, of the potential and actual impacts of a measure or a project; and the creation of a reporting mechanism thanks to which those impacts can be attributable to actors who can, in turn, be held accountable.


Pierre-Marie Aubert is a research fellow in Food and Agricultural Policies at the Institute for sustainable development and international relations (Paris). Visit for more information!

Governing food systems in a multi-stakeholder era, an example from Brazil

Is the Brazilian CONSEA a “multi-stakeholder process” or a platform for participatory politics?

By Matheus Zanella

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

We quick off the first post of the year by continuing with our third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  In this post, Matheus brings us a national-level example, the Brazilian National Council on Food and Nutrition Security, aka CONSEA,  and argues that more conceptual precision is needed when comparing and assessing the transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

If you have been following the CFS and food security governance at the global level there is a good chance that you have heard about CONSEA. And if you have visited Brazil, I am almost sure that someone dropped this acronym in conversation, at least once.

In the past few years, CONSEA – the Brazilian National Council on Food and Nutrition Security in Portuguese – has become the showcase example of a successful “multi-stakeholder model” that promotes food security and nutrition. It has been featured in a number of international reports as an inspirational experience to other initiatives governing food policies. Members of CONSEA have been participating in CFS activities since at least the CFS 2009 Reform. At CFS43 last October, for example, the omnipresent David Nabarro delivered a video message in one side-event where he stressed the importance of CONSEA in influencing the CFS Reform process itself towards a “multi-stakeholder model”. The governance structure of the Council was also presented as a positive case to the plenary of CFS40 in 2013 and in a number of side-events.

CONSEA works; well, it has been working until now at least, considering that many of its members are highly suspicious of the new government administration intentions towards the Council – but that would have to be subject of a different blog entry.  The fact is that report after report confirms the importance of the Council in forging innovative, participatory and accountable food security policies that managed to take Brazil out of the FAO food hunger map already back in 2014.

So if CONSEA works, where is the problem?

The importance of CONSEA is unquestionable. Nevertheless, I fear that there is a conceptual misunderstanding when labelling this Council as an example of a multi-stakeholder model. For those that are more interested in the kind of policies that work for addressing food and nutritional insecurity, this might not be very relevant. But it is for those willing to understand the political economy that drives the adoption of a policy A instead of a policy B – that is, people concerned with the governance of food security.

First, CONSEA has little to do with the multi-stakeholderism that has been propagating in global governance circles (including the Agenda 2030 discussions). While the growth of multi-stakeholder platforms is associated with the changing nature of States and other non-state actors in the international system, the constitution of CONSEA reflects political changes within Brazil itself – re-democratization in the 90s and the left-oriented government of the 2000s. There are obvious interactions between the national and the international dimensions, but they do represent very different political disputes and power shifts.

Second, the composition of the Council is substantially different than other bodies that normally carry the multi-stakeholder label with pride – for instance the CFS. In terms of number of participants, CFS is still frankly dominated by Member-States, in despite of the 2009 reform that substantially opened space for non-State actors, including civil society and private sector. CONSEA has a much stronger presence of social movements, NGOs and small farmer associations, on the other side. In its 2013-2016 composition, out of the 40 seats, these groups had more than 30 seats, with just one seat assigned to the national large farmer association and another one for the agro-industry.

That implies that more critical and progressive thinking manages to flow more easily within the Council, shifting the challenge to the design and implementation of public policies that would be needed to make those transformative ideas reality. Indeed, the differences between the CONSEA model and the standard multi-stakeholder model are so evident that – still lacking a better terminology – I propose to consider CONSEA a platform for participatory politics or – if you prefer – participatory democracy.



More conceptual precision needed to assess the transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms

If you are not from Brazil, why is this relevant? Because conceptual precision is needed to compare and assess the real transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms, such as the CFS. Analytical tools can assist us in un-folding the actor composition, in classifying their discourses, in identifying the power relations and asymmetries between actors, among other elements that shed light on the political economy of these platforms. Very recently, colleagues and I tried to do this exercise using the theory of deliberative democracy, in a manuscript that is still under review by a scientific journal. This is just one example of bringing political theory to empirical analysis of multi-stakeholder platforms.

Like it or not, we live in the multi-stakeholder era of global governance. Only understanding these platforms better will allow us to answer if these are bringing us closer to normative ideals that are usually associated with them, from justice, to inclusivity, to democracy.


Matheus Zanella is Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Germany, visiting researcher at the UNDP World Centre for Sustainable Development (RIO+ Centre) in Brazil. and PhD candidate at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. He has worked at the FAO, the Brazilian Ministry of Rural Development and farmers’ organizations in his home country, always dealing with topics related to agricultural and environmental policies and their interaction with food security and sustainable management of natural resources. He is also a co-convener of this special blog series.

Credits for photos:


2_ Ubirajara Machado/MDS

Are equity and accountability a likely outcome when foxes and chickens share the same coop? 

Critiquing the concept of multistakeholder governance of food security[1]

By Nora McKeon

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

Last week Carolin Anthes reflected on the role of human rights in the CFS and across the UN system.  This week we launch the third thematic cluster of this series: CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter? In this post, Nora McKeon presents a  critique of the rise of multistakeholder processes in food security governance, warning that a failure to take power imbalances and interests into account is working to reinforce the corporate food regime. 

There is a popular aspiration today for governance arrangements that give voice to those most affected and hold governments to account. Such approaches require clear parameters to ensure effective participation by the marginalized and avoid corporate capture. There is an abyss between this kind of practice – often termed “multi-actor” in civil society circles – and what has come to be known as “multistakeholderism”, which ignores differences in interests, roles and responsibilities among the parties and negates power imbalances. The former can make an important contribution to defending the right to food. The latter is becoming a big part of the problem.

To make the distinction clear it is necessary to disentangle the knots of confusion the concept has accumulated over the past two decades. Multistakeholderism moved out of corporate boardrooms and into the space of global governance in the mid-1990s accompanied by the modality of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Today it has become an integral part of the implementation strategy for the SDGs. This evolution has been sustained by an astonishing ascension of the undemonstrated paradigm of the corporate private sector as a motor of development and food/nutrition security.

The political economy bedrock of this narrative is the advent of what has been termed a corporate food regime  (McMichael 2013) to which the public sector has sold out responsibility for ensuring food security worldwide. In discursive terms, the paradigm reposes on the abiding tropes of modernization and productivity. It profits also from the vagueness of the term ‘private sector’, which is opportunistically taken to cover anything from a family farm to a multinational corporation despite the great differences of size, operational logics and interests that apply across this range.

The rapid concentration of  transnational agrifood corporations along global food chains has benefited from the support of neoliberal  policies. The corporate private sector has a powerful motivation to gain access to global governance arena in which such policies are determined. ‘Business and industry’ was included as one of the nine Major Groups in the 1992 Rio Conference outcome document. This step was strongly contested by participants at the civil society consultations organized in parallel to the World Food Conferences in 1996 and 2002, who decisively refused to be placed in the same box as the private sector.

This logic prevailed during the reform of the Committee on World Food Security in 2009, the only institutional development in the UN system characterized by the direct engagement of social constituencies representing those most directly affected by the policies under discussion. Strongly contested points successfully advocated by social movements included the fact that the CFS deliberates from a human rights perspective; its recognition as the foremost inclusive policy forum promoting policy coherence; civil society’s right to autonomously organize its participation – independently from that of the private sector –and attribution of priority voice  to constituencies of those most affected by food insecurity; and government accountability as the ultimate decision makers.

Corporations ignored the CFS reform process, but in the same year the World Economic Forum convened an expert group to formulate a new system of global governance. The final report of this ‘Global Redesign Initiative’(GRI) calls for a move to redefine the international system as constituting a wider, multifaceted system of global cooperation in which intergovernmental legal frameworks and institutions are embedded as a core, ‘but not the sole and sometimes not the most crucial, component’ (WEF 2010, p. 7). Instead, coalitions of the ‘willing and able’ – TNCs, some countries, civil society bodies, parts of the UN – would take the lead in addressing unresolved global issues. The implications for global governance in this model are severe: TNCs heavily influence framing of global issues; the selection of participants is undertaken without public review; decision-making is conducted without concern for power imbalances or different  interests (Gleckman 2013).

The blueprint developed by the GRI is being replicated across a fast multiplying series of issue areas within and outside the UN system in ‘multistakeholder’ coalitions like  Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) or the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. The differences between this model and that of the CFS are notable.

The fact that the corporate sector and its allies are investing considerable attention in the CFS is a demonstration of the authority the Committee has progressively achieved. It is only to be expected that these actors are seeking to weaken the political significance and the human rights basis of the CFS.  But the Civil Society Mechanism is not without arrows in its bow.

The 43rd plenary session of the CFS witnessed a striking growth in political maturity and level of analysis on the part of civil society participants. The CFS remains one of the few global arena in which articulate testimony given by small-scale producers themselves provides a powerful antidote to the recipes that others invent for them, as demonstrated in the recent negotiations on ‘Connecting Smallholders to Markets’.

The relations between the interests of the corporate sector and the neo-liberal frameworks that support them are systemic, but also dialectic. The rules of the game seem “just the way things are” until the equilibrium on which they are based starts to wobble. The corporate food regime has promised cheap food coordinated by transnational corporate supply chains, legitimized with a food security – productivity – modernization narrative. Today food crises and health issues are putting into question its ability to feed the world and its high environmental costs are becoming increasing evident. The entry of new governmental players has upset the previous balance, while mobilization by social movements is increasing the pressure for change.  An interesting juncture in which to examine the promises and perils of multistakeholderism, and what better site than the Committee on World Food Security?



noraNora McKeon studied history at Harvard and political science at the Sorbonne before joining the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations where she worked for many years, opening FAO up to organizations of small-scale producers and civil society. She now engages in research, teaching, and advocacy around food systems, food governance, small-scale farmer movements, and UN-civil society relations. She closely follows evolutions in global food governance including the reformed Committee on World Food Security.  She teaches at Rome 3 University and the International University College of Turin. Publications include:  Peasant Organizations in Theory and Practice (with Michael Watts and Wendy Wolford, UNRISD 2004), Strengthening Dialogue with People’s Movements: UN experience with small farmer platforms and Indigenous Peoples (with Carol Kalafatic, UN NGLS 2009), The United Nations and Civil Society: Legitimating Global Governance-Whose Voice? (Zed 2009), Global Governance for World Food Security: A Scorecard Four Years After the Eruption of the “Food Crisis” (Heinrich-Böll Foundation, 2011), and Food Security Governance: empowering communities, regulating corporations (Routledge 2015).  She has co-edited a special issue of Globalizations on land-grabbing and global governance (Vol. 10, Issue 1, 2013), contributing an article on land grabbing, transnational rural social movements and global governance.

Works cited

Gleckman, Harris (2013). “Multi-stakeholder Governance seeks to Dislodge Multilateralism”. Policy Innovations.

McMichael, Philip (2013). Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions. Halifx & Winnepeg: Fernwood Publishing.

World Economic Forum (2010). Everybody’s Business. Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World.

[1] This piece draws on an article to be published in 2017 in a special issue of Globalizations on the SDGs.