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At ICN2, civil society charts alternative path to nutrition based on food sovereignty

The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), an intergovernmental conference organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to address malnutrition in all its forms, was held in Rome, Italy, on November 19-21, 2014, 22 years after the first ICN.

Nutrition is considered a technical matter by most. Indeed, the conference negotiations attempted to de-root nutrition from its intimate relations with the nature of food systems as well as its broader social, economic and political determinants. In contrast, nutrition is a profoundly political issue not only for its deep implications on people’s rights, livelihoods and health, but also because of the consequences that choosing among alternative paths to nutrition may have on the nature and pattern of globalization. It is indeed one of the underlying framing issues of our times and the critical battlefield of the struggle between the hegemonic form of economic and cultural globalization and the alternatives offered by the solidarity and social economy as well as the philosophy and practice of Buen Vivir.

Nutrition is deeply embedded in many domains of life and the human right to adequate food and nutrition can only be realized if women’s, peasants’, workers’ and sexual and reproductive rights as well as the right to health, safe water and sanitation, among others, are fulfilled. The centrality of human rights therefore involves profound consequences on the nature of the food and nutrition policy space:

1. The public policy space needs to respond to right-holders rather than stakeholders:

Being a public policy space that aims to protect, promote and fulfil human rights, it is imperative that States, as duty-bearers, meaningfully respond to right-holders rather than stakeholders. Such space, whether national or international, should therefore be protected from undue corporate influence and promote direct participation of those most affected by food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms.

This projects significant shadows on the role of the recently so-fashionable multistakeholder partnerships, as they can actually provide potentially mechanisms for corporate encroachment on key policy decisions pertaining to public health, food and nutrition. Initiatives such as the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa and Scale up Nutrition need to be interrogated as, under the aegis of public-private sector partnership, may promote the open violation of accepted principles of participation (for instance, those enshrined in the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests) and redirect scarce public resources towards private sector servicing.

In the name of private-sector led development and the increasing blending of public and private resources, emerging global value chains that relegate primary producers to powerless conditions of dependency with uneven terms of trade, the corporate grabbing of land, oceans, lakes and aquatic resources, infrastructural developments that promote import/export rather than domestic market development and lack of investment in local markets and value chains, have all contributed to displacement and impoverishment of small-scale producers all over the world.

The increased domestic resource mobilization, which increasingly focus of the expansion of the tax base by also targeting informal sector activities while insufficiently addressing corporate privilege, may therefore translate into the transfer of resources to promote corporate hegemony and consolidate current inequalities.

2. The national policy space needs to be protected and enhanced:

Civil society expressed deep concerns regarding the increasing evidence that, under current trade and investment regimes (both bilateral and multilateral), the governmental policy space for advancing public health, food and nutrition related measures is significantly shrinking. International trade and investment agreements increasingly limit national sovereignty and impose an unacceptable normative hierarchy of trade and finance over human rights.

As stated in the CSO Vision Statement on Nutrition, “[…] an informative example in this regard is the inclusion of investor-state-dispute-settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in free trade agreements (FTAs), which allow private investors to bypass domestic legal systems and sue governments for potential losses in profit caused inter alia by enactment of public health regulation […], and deter countries from engaging in national food and nutrition security programmes. Such mechanisms severely undermine States’ sovereign rights and obligations to regulate in the public interest.”

It is therefore urgent to protect the public policy space for food, nutrition and health by ensuring that trade and investment agreements are compliant with existing international obligations in relation to the right to adequate food and nutrition, the right to health and other human rights. It is equally imperative to promote transparency, public participation (particularly of groups most affected) and accountability in relation to trade and investment negotiations.

In order to do this, governments will have to secure significant involvement of all relevant civil society actors in these national or regional processes; ensure that all treaties include explicit clauses to respect and protect the human right to adequate food and nutrition and the right to health; and encourage societal scrutiny over the development and implementation of such agreements.


3. Policy coherence and the need to reverse the normative hierarchy of trade and finance over human rights:

Lastly, it is imperative to build coherence among different policy domains as the food and nutrition policy space is intimately connected with and dependent on consistent policies and programmes in public health, women’s empowerment, agricultural development, environment, and trade and investment, among others. It is therefore imperative to reverse the above-mentioned normative hierarchy to ensure that rights-based policies rule over interest-based ones within trade, finance and other economic domains.

ICN2: An assessment

In all these respects, ICN2, as an intergovernmental process, exposed merits and demerits. Public interest civil society organizations welcomed the conclusions of the ICN2 negotiations, but considered the outcome as inadequate to confront the scale of the malnutrition challenge. The Rome Declaration and Framework for Action are based on an incomplete and superficial analysis of the root causes of malnutrition, leaving out critical dimensions such as the violations of women’s rights, the role of ‘commerciogenic’ malnutrition – induced by the emergence of a global food system driven by strong commercial interests that promotes the decrease in diversity and quality of diets –and the abusive practices of the corporate sector.

Similarly, the implications of trade rules, the impact of land and ocean grabbing, and the urgency of climate change are glanced over in a rather apolitical manner. Furthermore, the re-affirmation of the centrality of the human right to adequate food and nutrition and other related rights is notably weak if not absent. While including some valuable recommendations, the Framework for Action does not contain any binding resolutions, places poor emphasis on the necessary policy re-orientation to challenge the hegemony of the current unsustainable food system and does not provide any prominent support to alternatives based on food sovereignty, agro-ecology and biodiversity.

Despite all this, the ICN2 outcome is important step in ensuring that the global governance of nutrition rests firmly within the government-led normative and regulatory frameworks provided by FAO and WHO. Furthermore, there is a strong call by public interest civil society organizations, social movements and a growing number of Member States, to recognize the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) as the critical space where policy coherence for food security and nutrition needs to be established. The ICN2 outcome, albeit weak, prevents the establishment of a potentially dangerous vacuum of governance and opens a new path to strengthen the indivisible policy nexus between food, nutrition and health.

The ICN2 process generated another important outcome. Over the past year, an increasing number of public benefit organizations came together to dialogue and coordinate their positions and advocacy strategies. Since September 2014, civil society spoke with a consensus voice and provided substantive collective input to the negotiation process, despite the very limited, if not completely insignificant, spaces for engagement. This process culminated into a two-day Civil Society Forum with 200 participants.

The Forum preceded ICN2 and witnessed the confluence of many rivers: public benefit civil society organizations working in health, food, and nutrition as well as broader development policy issues met with representatives of all main constituencies of social movements.

After intense discussions and fruitful dialogue, a powerful declaration was democratically developed and presented to the closing plenary of ICN2 as a part of its formal outcomes. It marked the emergence of a new powerful coalition that may advance the agenda to address malnutrition in all its forms, promote a people-centred and convivial alternative to the current hegemonic form of globalization, and foster a democratic and accountable global governance of nutrition.

Stefano Prato is Managing Director at the Society for International Development and member of the CSO Liaison Group for ICN2.


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