By Matheus Alves Zanella and Jessica Duncan

Published simultaneously in the Food Governance blog

The world food price crisis of 2007/08 shook global food governance. The pressure to find solutions to the unexpected price increase of several food products resulted in the launching of many global initiatives. One of which 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 the private sector.

cc.Neal Sanche

cc.Neal Sanche

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 relevant 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).

Five years after the reform, the CFS has now held its 42nd Plenary last week. We, as well as many other participants at the event, sensed a change in the air. 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. Its members continue to disagree about which direction the CFS should take. This is illustrated by the relatively weak decision on Monitoring and Evaluation, and the mild debates on the positioning of the CFS vis-à-vis the new development agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The decision does not envision a prominent featuring of the CFS in the SDG agenda for another two years, as some have expected. Thirdly, the multi-stakeholder format of the reformed CFS has been 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 debatable whether the CFS will lose influence or importance, or whether it had much to begin with. Considering that undermining one of the most inclusive UN bodies would in effect further less-inclusive governance mechanisms to occupy its space, we prefer to see a strong and active CFS for years to come. In order to remain relevant, the CFS should 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 the CFS at a crossroads.

Fading CFS ambition?

Firstly, it is important to recognize that in the last five years, many aspects of the external context framing CFS reform have changed. Food prices have reduced since the peaks in 2011and markets are less volatile. As commented above, the sense of urgency caused by high food prices is no longer present, resulting in a lower political prioritization of the food security issue, and a retreat from from more nuanced approaches that aim to address structural causes of food security.

But the external context does not explain the full picture. CFS42 moved through a non-ambitious agenda, especially compared to previous years. We recognize that the gravity of the issues addressed , ranging from policy recommendations for food security and nutrition, to the endorsement of a framework for action for food security and nutrition in protracted crisis. Negotiations and discussions were intense on many topics, such as those on connecting smallholders to markets, and the linkages between the Sustainable Development Goals and the work of the Committee, but many governments, perhaps tired from the previous years of work on the CFS, pushed a an agenda of wait-and-see.


Growing misalignment

One reason for this atmosphere might be explained by the growing misalignment amongst delegations with respect to how the CFS can best contribute to improve global food governance. Some actors, including Canada, United States and Australia, have always been sceptical of the value of CFS.Their reticence for supporting CFS activities has remained. But reticence was also expressed , at least between the lines of their statements , by some delegations that have played a very significant role in supporting and advancing the reform and an ambitious CFS agenda in the past. The EU, for example, which has been one of the leaders in post-reform initiatives,showed signs of internal struggle. Statements declaredon behalf of all EU countries were followed by that of a single EU country with alternative statements.

Latin Americian countries ,another group that pioneered CFS reform, also showed division as to whether the Committee should address controversial issues, or if should try to put into practice what has already been agreed. Civil Society continued to push for a stronger CFS, but is increasingly frustrated that some countries are unwilling to adopt a rights-based approach, but instead redirect focus and time to re-negotiating rights-based language each time anew, , even though elements of this language were agreed upon in previously endorsed texts. One of the few constituencies that seem to be getting more engaged is the private sector, a point that we come back later.

This misalignment has impacted at least two key issues: a weak decision on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and a no decision on how to position the CFS in the SDG implementation debate. The final decision achieved on M&E “invited volunteer member countries” to “pilot the implementation of voluntary in-depth country level assessments”, in order “share experiences and best practices” in events organized by the Committee, including one to be held next year during next plenary meeting. To “voluntarily share experiences” looks rather like a genteel tea party than a real monitoring mechanism. And as the French delegation rightly pointed out, to not have a coherent and strong M&E mechanism in force by the next year might put “the very credibility of the Committee at stake”.

Within the CFS discussion on the matter, delegations basically repeated the qualities of the CFS format as some sort of mantra, without really discussing the whether the CFS should get more involved in SDG implementation.

Multi-stakeholder vs multi-actor governance

The previous point relates to another challenge presented between the lines of official statements: the participatory format of the CFS achieved under its reform, and the culture of participation, is proving to be a challenge to negotiators at the CFS.

From the perspective of the member states, the nature of diplomatic positions have to be considered. Most governmental diplomats engaged in the reform have left. This means new negotiators are arriving at the CFS without the history of the pre-reform inactiveness or the process of engagement with non-state actors. Some see the CFS as a space where states have the same rights to engage as civil society and private actors. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to expand discussion and debate, many negotiators with whom we spoke alluded to an annoyance with the deliberative nature of the CFS.

Concerns surrounding the participatory structure were not only expressed by states. The Civil Society Mechanism made a strong statement at the very end of the final session, that the CFS should not aim for multi-stakeholder governance, but rather multi-actor governance. As they have explained many times before to the plenary, the issue is not only an issue of terminology. According to actors engaged in CSM, multi-stakeholder governance recognizes the same rights for all actors (states, civil society organisations and private sector), while multi-actor governance recognizes that all actors have the right to discuss and contribute, but only states have the right to decide. Further, it recognizes that not all actors share the same stakes. In multi-actor governance, by taking a rights-based approach, states would then be able to play a decisive role in balancing the power asymmetries existing among all actors, in particular between large corporations and small and medium size enterprises, and between smallholder and larger farmers, as has been attempted in the CFS in various ways. According to their argument, the CFS reform aimed for multi-actor governance, but by not paying sufficient attention to power dynamics and a failure to frame negotiations with a rights-based approach, CFS governance was being directed towards multi-stakeholder governance. The accompanying risks is related to the enormous power imbalances between the actors that participate in CFS negotiations.

While the strong statement by the CSM does reveal possible limitations of the current CFS architecture, it does not address the growing concern shared by civil society that can be identified between the lines of their many interventions. Private sector, in particular large corporations, are becoming more active and engaged at the Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) and consequently at the CFS. While this shows that the CFS has become an important organization on the world stage, otherwise corporate actors would just ignore it, it also raises an alarm for those aiming for balanced decisions and discourse representation. It remains to be seen how stakeholders will react to these new power imbalances. A key battlefield is the private sector’s proposal to open up seats for farmers in the CFS’s Advisory Group. That could consequently shift the balance of power from 4 CSM seats and 2 private sector family seats (including philanthropic foundations), to parity, depending on what category of farmer is engaged.

Going deeper:

Understanding the intricacies and changing nuances of the CFS requires that we dig deeper into the internal politics of countries and other constituencies to better understand their positions. For instance we must know with more precision how the private sector is engaging at the CFS, and to put this into perspective with other global initiatives that rely on private sector support. It would also require that we look at how other actors are planning to react. Many researchers are doing just this, through a variety of perspectives and fronts.

Here we suggest a some individuals and projects that one could read or follow, in order to be updated on the academic debate of the CFS:

Matheus A. Zanella (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and the University of Bern) is looking at the deliberative capacity of the CFS.

Jessica Duncan (Wageningen University) has recently published a book analyzing the civil society engagement in the reformed CFS and continues to examine the effectiveness of the CFS in sustainable food security governance at the global level.

Nora McKeon recently published the book “Food Security Governance: Empowering communities, regulating corporations”, with two chapters specially dedicated to the CFS.

Both Jessica and Nora reflected on the relevance of the CFS in a recent special issue of the journal Canadian Food Studies, Mapping the Global Food Landscape.

Josh Brem-Wilson (Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University) recently published a paper at the Journal of Peasant Studies “interrogating the peasant voice” at the CFS. Also on similar issues, Ingeborg Gaarde ( École Des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris) is examining the engagement of Via Campesina in the CFS.

In sum, a good number of people are working to better understand this interesting Committee, from looking specifically at the private sector to more broad debates on deliberative democracy and multi-stakeholder governance.

Keep in touch and happy reading!

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