On 8 November 2012, the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger at the UN organized a discussion entitled “The Committee on World Food Security: Civil Society Participation and Recent Policy Development.” Hosted by the Global Policy Forum, this event featured Nora McKeon as the keynote speaker. Ms. McKeon, who worked for 30 years at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is now a representative of the Rome-based CSO Terra Nuova.
She co-wrote the NGLS publication “Strengthening Dialogue – UN Experience with Small Farmer Organizations and Indigenous Peoples” in 2009 and is the author of a new book entitled “Food Security: From Crisis to Global Governance,” to be published in 2013.
The current Committee on World Food Security (CFS) plays an important role in addressing food security and filling up gaps in the food governance system. The CFS was first established in 1974 and underwent a major reform in 2009 to ensure that the voices of non-governmental stakeholders were also heard in the global debate on food security and nutrition.
To enhance this process even further, the so-called Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) was established. The purpose of this international mechanism of civil society organizations – one of the largest in its kind – is to facilitate civil society participation in agriculture, food security and nutrition policy development at national, regional and global levels in the context of the Committee on World Food Security. Acknowledged by CFS Member States during the 36th Session of the CFS in October 2010, the CSM is extremely active in CFS Plenary Sessions, Open- ended Working Groups, Task Teams, the CFS Advisory Group and other CFS mechanisms.
In her opening remarks, Ms. McKeon described food as the basic need and human right that is most directly related to people’s livelihood. Yet, the current world food system is globalized, privatized and concentrated since corporations own the food market, and land and agriculture are subject to speculation. Ms. McKeon provided examples on Goldman Sachs, a company that earned more than one billion dollars from food speculation, and on Monsanto, which controls around 25% of the seed market. She also reminded participants of the scale of land grabbing by referring to 2011 World Bank report – “Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits” – which showed that large-scale land grabbing equaled 60 million hectares in 2008-2009. Ms. McKeon continued by explaining that food is at the heart of geopolitical issues, especially since the 2008 food crisis. More and more voices are calling for a change in the governance of the food system, she noted.
In this context, civil society championed the reform of the CFS. From a civil society perspective, shared by many Member States and other stakeholders, the new CFS has a greater value since it has become the recognized global strategic platform for food security. This platform is also valued for following a human rights-based approach to food and nutrition issues and for addressing related challenges (such as biofuels production or people’s access to land) from a food security perspective. The Committee equally provides a strong basis for accountability, tracking international agreements and commitments made by governments and other stakeholders. Moreover, the reformed CFS is one of the most inclusive international platforms, gathering governments, CSOs and small-scale producers. Ms. McKeon stressed that civil society is indeed truly included in all discussions – taking place in plenary session and not in closed meetings – until the final decision is officially endorsed by Member States.
Ms. McKeon further emphasized that the reformed CFS also includes a high-level panel of experts to provide the Committee with an autonomous basis for contentious issues. The panel includes academics, researchers, practitioners and experts representing from farmers and indigenous peoples. The CFS is thus aimed at building bridges between global policy discussions and the reality on the ground. Multistakeholder platforms at national levels, as well as efficient strong alliances with peasants at the regional and local levels, help to ensure consistent monitoring and reporting, and reflect the consensus to make small-producers CFS’ priority focus.
As a result of the reform, the political importance and credibility of the CFS have grown over the years. In this regard, Ms McKeon stressed the example of the African Group at the UN General Assembly, which moved from a skeptical position regarding the Committee to an active and inspirational participant.
Enhanced civil society engagement and having an interagency secretariat (formed by FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme) are the most innovative aspects of the CFS, Ms. McKeon declared. Both played a key role in the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security in 2012. Although these guidelines have been much contested, they represent a victory for civil society as it includes text that recognizes customary tenure and communal rights to land, references to human rights and attention to women. The challenge is now to turn them into national laws, she stated.
After emphasizing the attempts of some governments to limit the Committee’s capacity, Ms. McKeon highlighted the agenda items tackled during last month’s session: climate change; investments on agriculture with a focus on small producers; adoption of the first version of a Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition (GFS) including a financial section.
Before opening the floor for an interactive discussion, Ms. McKeon stressed the need to strengthen the CSM as well as to better link global advocacy and grassroots initiatives. She also underscored the importance of developing a system-wide analysis and to share good practices in order to ensure greater coherence.
Responding to a question on the means to prevent the process from being hijacked by powerful private companies, Ms. McKeon emphasized the importance of inclusiveness and having both small farmers and large corporations at the negotiation table. She explained that in plenary debates small farmers are much more convincing than corporations – even if the latter lobby very efficiently outside the plenary sessions, she conceded. The balance can come from the strength of national social movements, she concluded.
Jorge Laguna Celis, from the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the UN, said the UN should learn from the Rome-based organizations and described the CFS as a very good example for ECOSOC or the high-level political forum for sustainable development. He urged FAO to ensure a wider broadcast of the CFS’s work, especially at UN Headquarters. He eventually underlined that Mexico, as a Chair, has attached great importance of the CFS’s work during G20 meetings.
Jeffery Huffines, from the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, focused his intervention on the Rio+20 follow-up, the establishment of the high-level political forum and the reform of the Major Groups system. He described the current processes as rushed and hurried and inquired about the way the CFS process was achieved. In her answer, Nora McKeon underscored that a whole decade of work was necessary prior to the actual reform of the CFS. Moreover, to achieve a real change in governance, it is required to first change the way the dialogue takes place, she asserted. She also advised civil society to organize itself better and emphasized that the appointments of organizing partners by the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) is a process that definitely needs to be changed.
As closing remarks, Thomas Forster, from International Partners for Sustainable Agriculture, reasserted that a strategic approach on food security has been built over the last few years and has already proven its efficiency. In the meantime, it is important not to think of the Rome-based process as an exception, he concluded, adding that it is now critical to gain stronger support from Member States on such issues.