UN food systems summit leaders must not remain silent on its inadequate rules of engagement with commercial actors   

The pre-summit to September’s United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), held in Rome at the end of July 2021, confirmed the fears of a broad range of international actors that the UNFSS model allows for corporate capture of international policy on healthy and sustainable food systems. Coverage in the BBC Food Programme demonstrates that concerns have moved into the mainstream, despite the hopes of many that the UNFSS could still help fix a broken food system.

The pre-summit programme included sessions with representatives of international food companies and organisations representing tobacco, alcohol, and food industries. This reflects the involvement by the organisers of Davos and other industry representatives in the pre-summit. At Davos multinational companies are not so much held to account for their impact on public health and the environment, but celebrated for headline grabbing initiatives, without mechanisms in place to ensure follow-through. While taking the stage at the pre-summit, representatives of corporate interests cast doubt (again) on the definition of healthy diets and congratulated themselves for educating consumers on nutrition. Relatively few public health advocates were given the floor, except for a handful of health ministries, and representatives of small island nations, who highlighted their devastating burden of diet-related non-communicable diseases—NCDs. Aside from this, there were limited voices challenging the voice of the food industry. 

Meanwhile, the alternative summit—the People’s counter mobilization to transform corporate food systemsreinforced how the process for the UN food systems summit has failed to ensure authentic inclusion of many unheard voices, despite being referred to by the UN as a “people’s summit.” The voices of First Nations people, peasants groups, landless peoples, and food workers have been particularly neglected, and the summit has been all the poorer for it. Traditional custodians of the lands’ voices risk yet again being dismissed and erased, thereby missing a wealth of knowledge and expertise. The UNFSS leadership’s response to these critiques has maintained the line that “everyone has a seat at the table”, and stressing the large number of people who remain “in.” UNFSS special envoy Agnes Kalibata, wrote a letter in the Guardian stressing that the summit will consider all stakeholder’s interests. 

But, arguing that everyone has a seat at the table and portraying people as simply “in” or “out” are rhetorical flourishes which obscure the fact that many individuals and organisations involved in the UNFSS processes (including some of the authors of this Opinion) harbour concerns about how the UNFSS is proceeding and the precedent it may set for future food system action. Many organisations have worked tirelessly with limited resources and in good faith to try to co-produce truly inclusive and meaningful outcomes. But the UNFSS exhibits blindspots in areas most challenging to “big food,” including growing evidence of the significant health and planetary consequences of ultra processed foods, and deafening silence on food system governance, including power imbalances, unethical lobbying, and inappropriate marketing to children.

Portraying critics as anti-business is also a tactic that closes down debate on the right way for UN agencies to interact with the private sector where conflicts of interest need to be addressed. There are a number of different rules derived from UN agencies’ principles of engagement (e.g., the Private Sector Engagement Policy of the former UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition, or the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights), or those from other international summits that can keep more difficult issues on the agenda, while holding corporate actors to account. 

A broad coalition of organisations, including some of us still involved as members of UNFSS Action Tracks, held a public consultation and wrote to the UN Secretary General and summit leadership ahead of the pre-summit to suggest a number of improvements based on the aforementioned good practice. Despite the letter being signed by over 100 food systems actors across five continents, along with considerable support from public health leaders working across the nutrition spectrum, from infant feeding to diet-related NCDs, there has been no response.  

UNFSS “rules” are restricted to a set of platitudes in the official Principles of Engagement, such as “build trust” and “be respectful,” based on no prior principles that we can find. Such vague entreaties are neither practicable nor monitorable. They point to a new way of doing business at these summits that are designed to avoid difficult conversations and upsetting powerful actors. Given the role of ultra-processed food and drink producers in driving global morbidity and mortality, particularly from NCDs, this is the UN system shirking collective responsibility. 

Securing a truly transformative, evidence-informed agenda for the health of people and the planet requires actively tackling conflicts of interest, promoting accountability, and ensuring coherence with existing governance mechanisms to promote meaningful engagement of communities, self-determination, and rights-based approaches. Indeed, as Member State-led coalitions emerge toward the UNFSS, established to deliver on promises such as zero hunger, it is crucial that mechanisms are in place which protect their interactions from harmful vested interests. 

In sharing drafts of our letter, we were encouraged to see support coming from leading multilateral organisations, with some unable to voice their concerns publicly, but advocating behind the scenes nonetheless. Other public health actors airing similar critiques have seen strong support. Might this be a turning point?  

Ahead of September’s UNFSS, and future summits designed in this vein, we ask other public health actors to support those working from inside the planning process to advocate for a set of meaningful rules of engagement and protective mechanisms from vested interests, for transparency and accountability, and, as a UN summit, bringing the UNFSS back in line with conflicts of interest protocols designed by UN organisations, for example by the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international summits. Member States, with their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights remain at the heart of the multilateral system, have been disappointingly quiet on this gradual abrogation of their responsibilities to big food, and some even complicit. The UNFSS could be a game changing cog in the wheel to improving the health of people and the planet, but it will only do so if we are all invested in ensuring its legitimacy which hinges on the integrity of its process. 

Nicholas Nisbett, Leader, Health and Nutrition Cluster, Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

Kent Buse, Director, Healthier Societies Program, The George Institute for Global Health.

Jeff Collin, Professor of Global Health Policy, University of Edinburgh & SPECTRUM research consortium.

Lesli Hoey, Associate Professor, Urban and Regional Planning Program, Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, University of Michigan.

Lucy Westerman, Policy and Campaigns Manager, NCD Alliance.

The authors declare no interests other than NN, LH and LW membership of the UNFSS Action Tracks mentioned in the Opinion; NN also declares a previous funding relationship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, India.