The UN’s most inclusive body at a crossroads

By Matheus Alves Zanella and Jessica Duncan

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The world food price crisis of 2007/08 shook global food governance. Pressured to find solutions for unexpected prices increase of several food products, many initiatives were launched at the global level.  One of those was the reform of the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), who transformed itself from “the most boring UN body of all” – in the words of an experienced diplomat based in Rome – to the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for food security, with substantive participation of different actors including member states, civil society and private sector.

That was 2009 and there was a general sense of urgency in addressing claims that over 1 billion people were going hungry worldwide. The reformed CFS was well positioned in this debate, by giving voice to all actors, notably those most affected by food insecurity, and transitioning from an inactive talk-shop to a leading intergovernmental body. Through the Committee, member States were able to endorse key policy documents on two major food security issues: land tenure (the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Tenure of Land Fisheries and Forest in the Context of National Food Security – VGGT) and investments (Principles for Responsible Investments in Agriculture and Food Systems – CFS-RAI).

Now, five years after the reform, the CFS just had its 42nd Plenary last week and we, as well as many other participants, sensed a change in the air. First, the initial ambition of the CFS seems to be fading away, and it appears as though the CFS is now entering a phase characterized by a lack of clarity on the future relevance of its decisions. Second, members continue to disagree about which direction the CFS should take – illustrated by relatively weak decision on Monitoring and Evaluation and the mild debates on the positioning of the CFS vis-à-vis the new development agenda launched by the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The decision will not see the CFS featuring prominently in the SDG agenda for another two years, as some have expected. Third, the multi-stakeholder format of the reformed CFS is being put into question, as demonstrated by one very important intervention of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) in the closing session of the CFS plenary.

It is up to debate whether the CFS is losing influence or importance, or whether it had much to begin with. Considering that undermining one of the most inclusive UN bodies would consequently further open the door to less-inclusive governance mechanism to occupy its space, we prefer to see a strong and active CFS for years to come. In order to remain relevant, the CFS could avoid two major risks:

  1. Shifting back to the Committee’s pre-reform role of only monitoring international commitments, and
  2. Failing to address controversial topics, such as agroecology or bioenergy, as its strength is based on forging consensus such as those achieved on land tenure and on investment.

In what follows we provide some initial reflections on how the CFS currently finds itself at a crossroads.

Continue reading The UN’s most inclusive body at a crossroads

NEW BOOK: Food Security Governance: empowering communities, regulating corporations by Nora McKeon

A new and exciting book about food security governance is out and it is a MUST READ.  I have just received my copy and will follow up with a more detailed review but in the mean time, check out the summary and the reviews:

Today’s global food system generates hunger alongside of land grabs, food waste, health problems, massive greenhouse gas emissions. Nora McKeon’s just-released book explains why we find ourselves in this situation and explores what we can do to change it. It opens with a brief review of how the international community (mis)managed food issues from WWII up to the time of the food price crisis of 2007-2008. It moves on to contrast the ways in which actors link up in corporate global food chains as compared to the local food webs that we think of as “alternative” but in fact feed most of the world’s population. It unpacks relevant paradigms – from productivism to food security and food sovereignty – and points out the perils of “scientific evidence-based” decision-making when it intrudes on the terrain that properly belongs to political process and value-based debate. The author highlights the significance of adopting a rights-based approach to solving food problems whereby adequate food is not simply a desirable outcome but an inalienable right that governments are obliged to ensure for their citizens. She describes how people around the world are organizing to protect their access to resources and build better ways of food provision and governance from the bottom up, in what is increasingly referred to as a food sovereignty movement. She discusses how the Committee on World Food Security – a uniquely inclusive global policy forum since its reform in 2009 – could be supportive of these efforts. The book concludes with a call to blow the whistle on speculative capitalism by building effective public policy instruments for accountable governance and extending their authority to the realm of regulating markets and corporations.

To obtain a 20% discount visit the book’s page on the Routledge website and enter the code FDC20 at check-out.

‘Nora McKeon does a superb job at describing how governments have allowed markets and corporations to take control of food systems, and which tools could be used to provide healthier diets, ensure greater resilience, and empower communities.’– Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
‘At such an uncertain time in global food provisioning, Nora McKeon’s book offers an exceptional perspective… a lively account of food system crisis, competing paradigms and new questions of governance in an accessible and forward-looking analysis.’ —Philip McMichael, Cornell University, USA
‘This book is an overdue account of the fight over reform. It is a fine reminder that food democracy is the key to feeding everyone equitably, healthily, affordably and sustainably.’ – Tim Lang, City University, London, UK
‘..a wonderfully readable account of the world food crisis, distinguished by its grounded faith in the capacity of organizations – of people and governments – to prevent future hunger.’— Raj Patel, Research fellow at UCB and author of Stuffed and Starved, and The Value of Nothing
‘Nora McKeon understands the Byzantine world of global food politics better than anyone I know …. Everyone fighting for Food Sovereignty has to read this book.’ —Pat Mooney, ETC Group
‘Brilliant! An eye-opening tour of the march to democratize global food governance… A must-read for all who want to go beyond competing “issues” to governance itself — and real solutions.’ — Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet
‘A must-read for food activists seeking to go beyond slogans, techno-administrative fixes or business as usual into the realm of active, popular democracy.’ — Eric Holt-Giménez, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

Global Food Security Governance: Civil society engagement in the reformed Committee on World Food Security

I am most excited that my book Global Food Security Governance: Civil society engagement in the reformed Committee on World Food Security is now available for pre-order!

It is part of the  Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment

It is not exactly priced for accessibility so I encourage you to request your library to order it instead. That way you can access it for free!

You can do that at this using this link and click on “Recommend to Librarian”.

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Some reviews:

“In Global Food Security Governance, Jessica Duncan provides a timely and thoughtful analysis of the recent reform of the Committee on World Food Security and its evolving role in international policy-making on issues of hunger and nutrition. Both empirically rich and theoretically grounded, the book highlights the central role of civil society in reshaping food security governance and assesses the challenges facing the CFS as its work moves forward.”Jennifer Clapp, Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Canada.

“The Committee on World Food Security inaugurates a new breed of global governance: one in which civil society co-design institutions with governments. This is a superb assessment of this transformative moment.”Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014).

“The inadequacies of the world’s food system became only too clear when the banking crisis unfolded in 2007. Prices went volatile; hunger rose; politicians floundered. In this book, Jessica Duncan gives a wonderful account of the pressures in, on and around the UN’s Committee on Food Security, reformed as a result. The account she gives us both celebrates democratic attempts to make the food system more accountable, and points to tensions which remain. It’s a great read with sober messages.” – Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University London , UK.

“With global food security emerging as one of the issues of the twenty-first century it is essential that obstacles to improved food access be identified and addressed. In her timely and engaging account of the Committee on World Food Security, Jessica Duncan reveals how powerful global actors are undermining the Committee’s attempts to develop and pursue progressive policies aimed at assisting the world’s hungry. Importantly, she also demonstrates how civil society is confronting global neoliberalism and – through the Committee on World Food Security – is helping to create a new framework for improved food security governance. This illuminating and very well-documented book is a ‘must read’ for those who are hoping for, and working toward, a fairer, more food-secure world.”Geoffrey Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, The University of Queensland, Australia and President of the International Rural Sociology Association.

Biofuels industry strong arms governments at UN food security conference

Biofuels industry strong arms governments at UN food security conference 

Press release
11 October 2013

ROME, Italy – Today Civil Society movements blamed Governments negotiating on biofuels at the Committee on World Food security for defending the interests of the biofuels industry rather than the interests of people pushed into hunger by biofuel policies. They refused to endorse the recommendations on biofuels as any references to Human Rights, links with food price spikes and land grabbing have been systematically refused. 

Governments acknowledged that biofuels crops compete with food crops and influence food prices but did not have the courage to recommend any action to stop this. The domination of pro biofuel countries in talks has resulted in decisions heavily favorable for biofuels expansion. Governments who spoke expressing strong misgivings have largely been ignored.

“Small scale food producers have spoken powerfully here about the reality they are confronted with every day: that biofuels crops compete with their food production, for the land they till and for the water that sustains them. They called on this assembly to take action to defend the right to food from the impacts of biofuels; instead the recommendations overwhelmingly defend the interests of the biofuels industry and legitimise violations of the right to food.”

In June the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE), on the request of the CFS, released its report on  biofuels policies to inform the negotiations. The report clearly concluded that there is a link between the energy policy and food security and that biofuels have been a key driver behind steep food price spikes and food price volatility in recent years. Other independent research such as by the European Commission has confirmed such findings. 

Estimates suggest about six million hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa is already controlled by European biofuel companies and about 293 land grabs covering more than 17 million hectares worldwide have been reported due to biofuels. 
On Monday more than 80 civil society organizations sent a letter to CFS members warning that the current recommendations would fail to uphold the Right to Food or stop hunger caused by biofuels. 

Media contact: 

[1] The CFS serves as a forum in the UN System for review and follow-up of policies concerning world food security.  Civil Society participates at the CFS through the largest international mechanism of civil society organizations seeking to influence agriculture, food security and nutrition policies and actions. 

[2] The mandate and spirit of the reformed CFS is to create a body that includes all countries and stakeholders. A Global Strategic Framework rooted in the Right to Food is at the heart of the reformed CFS and provides clear guidance to coordinate actions on food security and nutrition. The HLPE provides scientific and knowledge-based analysis to inform governments on priority issues.

[3] Open Letter on Biofuels in the CFS 

[4] Civil Society intervention after the CFS Biofuels Decision Box is adopted 

Agroecology at the Committee on World Food Security

I have been a bit of a slacker these last few days, at least in terms of blogging about the happenings at the Civil Society Forum in preparation for the 39th Session of the UN Committee on World Food Security.

To see some pictures from the event, check out the FAO’s Flickr page

One of the cross-cutting themes at the forum has been the need to promote agroecological approaches. However, many participants have noted the challenges of using this term since there is a lot of confusion about what it means.

To try and change this, Civil Society organizations have organised  a side event “Food Systems Facing Climate Change – Agro.ecology provides the answers!” (Wednesday, Oct. 17th  at 12:30 in the Lebannon Room with interpretation in English, French and Spanish).

In a new article by Peter M. Rosset and Maria Elena Martínez-Torres titled “Rural Social Movements and Agroecology: Context, Theory, and Process” (Ecology and Society 17(3): 17) they provide some thoughts on agroecology that I thought I would share here.

Definitions: agroecology and diversified farming systems

Wezel et al. (2009) observe that the word agroecology is  variously used to refer to a science, a movement, and a practice. In a book written by, and largely for La Via Campesina, Machín Sosa et al. (2010:16, translated from the Spanish) similarly note:

For many, agroecology is a science: the science that studies and attempts to explain the functioning of agroecosystems. For others, the word agroecology refers to the principles—not recipes—that guide the agronomic and productive practices that permit the production of food and fiber without agrochemicals…

For the social movements that make up La Vía Campesina, the concept of agroecology goes much farther than just ecological-productive principles. In addition to these, LVC incorporates social, cultural and political principles and goals into its concept of agroecology.

In the movement’s position on sustainable peasant agriculture, LVC argues (LVC 2010a:2–3):

We can find examples of sustainable peasant and family farm agriculture all over the planet, though the names we use vary greatly from one place to another, whether agroecology, organic farming, natural farming, low external input sustainable agriculture, or others. In La Vía Campesina we do not want to say that one name is better than another, but rather we want to specify the key principles that we defend. Truly sustainable peasant agriculture comes from a combination of the recovery and revalorization of traditional peasant farming methods, and the innovation of new ecological practices… We do not believe that the mere substitution of ‘bad’ inputs for ‘good’ ones, without touching the structure of monoculture, is sustainable… The application of these principles in the complex and diverse realities of peasant agriculture requires the active appropriation of farming systems by peasants ourselves, using our local knowledge, ingenuity, and ability to innovate. We are talking about relatively small farms managed by peasant families and communities. Small farms permit the development of functional biodiversity with diversified production and the integration of crops, trees and livestock. In this type of agriculture, there is less or no need for external inputs, as everything can be produced on the farm itself.

Recruitment for the Secretariat of the International Food Security & Nutrition Civil Society Mechanism

The International Food Security and Nutrition Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is recruiting the following members  of its permanent Secretariat:

More information here: