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Good Governance and Renewed Multilateralism: Including Territories and Excluding Multinational Corporations

Notes from the Chair

October 5, 2021
Johanna Wilkes, Dr. Alison Blay-Palmer

As the devastating impacts of climate change and growing food insecurity become increasingly apparent, there is converging agreement among food systems actors that transformation is needed. However, division remains on what exactly transformation means and what is required to achieve it. Supporting place-based approaches to food systems could be key to a more equitable path forward. Recognized within Solution Cluster 6 of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (the Summit), territorial governance includes “encompassing rural and indigenous territories, landscape partnerships, city-regions, and other place-based approaches–to deliver integrated strategies for food systems transformation led by local stakeholders.” In addition, a truly integrated form of territorial governance can open space for genuine dialogue and action to ensure human rights, including the Right to Food, and establish agroecology (part of Solution Cluster 3) as a transformational pathway that centers on climate change, community resilience, and equity. As both a set of practices and a political movement, agroecology is local in implementation but global in impact, connecting across territorial networks and transnational civil society. Agroecologists are critical knowledge-holders, land stewards, and protectors of biodiversity at regional and community scales.

Good governance and place-based, inclusive decision making are at the heart of both agroecology and territorial networks. Billed as a critical event for food systems governance, the Summit organizers imagined the event as an inclusive and transparent “people summit”. However, as members of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism of the World Committee on Food Security (CSM) observed, “the Summit is ignoring human rights and sidelining the small-scale producers who produce 70–80 per cent of the world’s food, prioritizing instead the interests of corporations” (CSM 2021). Civil society action leading up to the Summit, such as the Civil Society and Indigenous’ Peoples Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems (Food Systems 4 People), the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems, and the withdrawal of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES Food), signaled a breakdown in the narratives of inclusive governance at the Summit. These deliberate acts of resistance are coupled with concerns shared by several Special Rapporteurs as well as key leaders from the Committee on World Food Security and the High Level Panel of Experts.

While there is no doubt important concepts have been discussed within the process of the Summit, its governance structures lacked transparency and concentrated power in the hands of those who could afford the financial means, privilege, time, and/or expertise to navigate the complex web of engagements arranged by the Secretariat (e.g. action tracks, dialogues, solution coalitions and game change propositions). Additionally, those who are responsible for upholding and implementing transformative concepts, such as agroecology, were never provided the resources or safeguards (such as a robust conflict of intertest policy for corporate participants) necessary to fully participate in the Summit process.

Territorial approaches, as a fluid intermediary scale and web of connected place-based networks, enable local actors to interact with, and hold accountable, decision makers at the international scale. A territorial approach also offers multiple avenues for resisting the ongoing erosion of good governance and accountability across international forums, including the Summit. Shifting to more place-based systems could help focus food production and processing on local capacity to protect small-scale producers and businesses, unite Indigenous people and local communities, and enable food security through human and ecological rights. In turn, these place-based territorial networks could feed into global discussions to create platforms for action. Organizations such as La Via Campesina (LVC) and the CSM already connect individuals across territories to resist corporate control over food systems and affect change at the international scale. Linking agroecological territories to national governments through international forums can provide the sustainable and rooted efforts needed to protect soil, water, seed and biological diversity, human health, and community well-being. Interestingly, there is growing consideration of territories, and their potential to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), by organizations such as UN-Habitat and the Organization for Economic and Co-operation Development (OECD). But, the question remains, how do we link the local to other scales of governance to protect people, their livelihoods, and their land? Three themes can help to respond to these questions: the need for a renewed approach to multilateralism, the importance of rights-based frameworks, and the role of science.

Renewed Multilateralism

Multistakeholderism, such as the approach taken in the Summit, often fails to consider power dimensions of engagement by creating space for corporations to lead discussions, leaving civil society organizations and low/no income people at a disadvantage. This erosion of accountability within international governance is concerning, both in relation to the Summit and a broader UN engagement with the World Economic Forum. Alternatively, inclusive multilateralism, with clear rules of engagement, puts power in the hands of states. This situates states as the end-of-the-line decision-makers, responsible to their collective publics. While multilateralism presents challenges of structural imbalance between countries, the one-country, one-vote model allows a sense of equity. Similarly, the “most-affected principle” used at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) ensures that small-holders, peasants, and Indigenous communities have a defined role in negotiations. Clear and adequately resourced mechanisms for equitable participation of civil society helps ensure that governments uphold their commitments and rise to the challenge of converging food crises. Additionally, the inclusion of sub-national governments (e.g. municipalities) could ensure implementation happens effectively across scales. Sub-national governments, as a key part of territorial governance, have already shown leadership on food systems reform through initiatives such as the Glasgow Declaration and the growing role of food policy groups.

Right-Centered Frameworks

Arguably, the Summit framed human rights as an option rather than a mandatory responsibility for governments to adhere too. In countries such as Canada, where monocrop rotation and intensive livestock rearing dominate farm landscapes, protecting industry and export markets continues to drive the agricultural policy agenda. This is contrary to a state’s role as signatory to international conventions on human rights, including the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Within these conventional frameworks, governments have a duty to protect citizens’ rights including the right to adequate food. Territorial approaches to human rights that include a strong role for the state could have significant lasting impacts as it maintains a clear line of accountability rather than an opaque form centred on the role of non-state actors. State responsibility also allows international actors, such as the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the ability to report back to the United Nations on any failure to uphold these basic rights. Complemented by other territorial approaches, strengthened local capacity can put the right to food at the center of the public policy agenda and increase consideration of how territorial food systems can meet community needs.  

The Role of Science

As part of international governance systems, evidence is central to decision-making as recognized through the involvement of the HLPE at the CFS and the ad hoc Scientific Group of the Summit in international forums. Ensuring that the evidence presented is inclusive and equitable across knowledge systems is essential to enacting transformation. Problematically, many states privilege Western science over the meaningful recognition and inclusion of traditional and Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous and traditional ways of knowing and community-led efforts are discounted as unscientific, disaggregated from, and compared to more technical forms of science such as crop science, economics, or data analytics. A 2019 report by the HLPE notes the importance of investing in agriculture and food systems, including publicly funded agroecological research that supports place-based and participatory forms of knowledge creation. In addition to need for inclusive and transparent science, a territorial approach to food systems governance could support this rebalancing of science and research to include trusted networks for place-based and community-led ways of knowing.

The current fracturing of food systems governance and shift towards multistakeholderism weakens multilateralism while splintering funding between forums. It is up to governments across all scales to recognize that rightsholders come before shareholders as critical participants in the world’s food systems. Each civil society network is part of a larger movement working across converging crises such as climate change, malnutrition, and biodiversity. Territorial governance within countries are sites of Indigenous sovereignty, traditional cultural heritage, and sustainable food systems.

Without addressing fundamental power imbalances within the food system, governance will fall short of the transformation required. As the Summit shifts towards follow-up and as CFS49 draws near, it is important to consider the complexities and interconnected nature of our communities while placing accountability back into the hands of people. Renewing an inclusive multilateralism that centers on a rights-based approach and transparent science is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Through the integration of territorial networks—rather than multinational corporations—into multilateral forums, place-based systems can act as a tool to reconnect the public with international governance and substantiate new norms for real food system transformation.

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Alison Blay-Palmer, Chairholder


Amanda Di Battista, Director of Programming, Education, and Communications


Heather Reid, Director of Operations and Projects