Q&A | A Brief History of Food Governance – with Pat Mooney

[15 Jul 2020] IPES-Food spoke to panel member Pat Mooney for a brief account of the forces and politics that have shaped the modern history of food governance. With multilateralism increasingly under attack, Pat provides a brief overview of the events that have chipped away at coherent multilateral decision making in food systems – a timely reminder as we approach the proposed World Food Systems Summit in 2021.

 Credit: ©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico

Q: Much has been made of the urgent need to transform food systems, but what would a World Food Summit do for us?

“The proposed World Food Systems Summit now offers a timely and important opportunity to rectify what we might call the “disaggregation” of the multilateral systems underpinning food. These systems have been under threat for quite some time. Notably due to a series of decisions that sloppily restructured multilateral food and agricultural institutions into separate fiefdoms – something that has created more problems than it solved.”

Q. Why is this? When was the turning point?

“To answer this properly, let’s take a look back to the first quarter century of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (the FAO), and move forwards. Of course, we could cast our minds back to the beginning of the twentieth century for the origins of the idea of an FAO (with the efforts of David Lubin and so on), but the seminal point was in 1943 when Franklin D. Roosevelt invited allied governments to Hot Springs, Virginia, for a United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture. This led to the creation of the FAO in October 1945.

Let’s remember that in its first quarter century, the FAO operated as the effective and undisputed hub of multilateral systems in food and agricultural policies and programmes. Resources were limited, but the FAO led the way in a number of areas. These were: stimulating financial flows for national and regional agricultural development; pioneering important national, sub-regional and regional technical assistance and scientific research, and; co-ordinating intergovernmental food aid.”

Q. Is this when new dynamics came into play?

“Yes. At the end of the 1960s, the apparent success of semi-dwarf cereals led to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations aligning with the World Bank to shift and expand previous technical and scientific work by forming the CGIAR in 1972. And notably, the food crisis of the early 1970s – that led to the first ever political conference on food in 1974 – allowed the United States and other OECD states to separate the finance/investment work of the FAO into IFAD. They also began the removal of the World Food Program from the FAO.”

Q. So what happened in 1974?

“In a nutshell, the Kissinger-dominated, 1974 Food Conference broke off IFAD and the World Food Program. It also established the World Food Council of agricultural ministers – slightly aside from the FAO. It also agreed to the formation of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The ministerial Council never functioned, and the CFS was quickly marginalised. The end result was a fragmented multilateral food and agriculture system with overlapping bureaucracies and creeping mandates.”

Q. Where does that leave us now?

“Fast forward a quarter century later. The first UN Food Summit in 1996 failed to reconcile these disparate initiatives – despite a concerted effort by civil society organisations to call for ‘Commitment 8’ establishing a “New Roman Forum” that would increase collaboration among the Rome-based agencies. It was only during the food price crisis a decade later that governments and the Rome agencies accepted civil society’s proposals to build upon the old CFS, turning it into a viable forum for multilateral food issues.”

Q. What are the lessons from the past, and what’s the way forward to 2021?

“This event could and should learn from past World Food Congresses: Roosevelt’s 1943 World Food Congress (as he called it); the 1963 World Food Congress convened by John Kennedy, and; the 1970 World Food Congress in the Hague.

If we recall the so-called second World Food Congress hosted by Kennedy in 1963, it was primarily for governments but also brought in humanitarian organisations and academics – allowing more flexibility and participation without compromising national sovereignty. As for the third World Food Congress hosted by the Netherlands in 1970, it was deliberately made to be as wide open as possible. Although governments participated actively, civil society organisations, academics and scientific institutions as well as other UN agencies attended in full force. And this included several hundred young people from around the world – who even led some sessions. It was seen to be the first time the United Nations opened itself up to such public participation, and was followed by the UN conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 which was an even bigger event.

So a global gathering in 2021 really is an opportunity to rectify the disaggregation of the multilateral systems in food that began in the 1970s. It could continue the reform process that began with the food price crisis to ensure a coherent and collaborative system. Among many possibilities, governments should look closely at the civil society proposals laid out in 2008 to 2009, pressing for the consolidation of food and agricultural work through an expanded CFS.”

Pat Mooney is leading IPES-Food's 'Long Food Movement' project, which will map out the changes that civil society win in global food system governance over the next 25 years. Pat is the co-founder and executive director of the ETC Group, and is an expert on agricultural diversity, biotechnology, and global governance. The ETC group is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada with offices in Mexico, Philippines, Nigeria and the United States. ETC group has consultative status with ECOSOC, FAO, UNCTAD, UNEP, UNFCCC, IPCC and the UN Biodiversity Convention. Pat Mooney has almost half a century of experience working in international civil society, first addressing aid and development issues and then focusing on food, agriculture and commodity trade. He received The Right Livelihood Award (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") in the Swedish Parliament in 1985 and the Pearson Peace Prize from Canada's Governor General in 1998.