March 2, 2021

The Biden administration’s promises to re-engage the United States in global cooperation has brought some hope and optimism for many of us, as we deal with worsening global crises. However, despite our enthusiasm for opportunities to seriously address global problems, we are dismayed by the actions and agenda of the U.S. delegation to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome. Not only did they undermine the recent negotiations of the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition, but they also are not showing any evidence or potential for a change in policy direction. That change is urgently needed. For too long, U.S. policy positions on food and agriculture at the UN have not been considered important by previous administrations. President Biden must make the U.S. delegation to Rome a priority and deal with it immediately.

The Food Systems and Nutrition Guidelines represent the first attempt to codify a holistic and systemic approach to food systems through an intergovernmental negotiated agreement. They are meant to provide guidance to governments to move towards sustainable food systems with a special emphasis on food, agriculture, and health – while also addressing social, environmental, and economic sustainability issues.

After five years of negotiations, the guidelines were endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in February. But what should have been a milestone became a source of conflict. With the pandemic, the negotiations had to be virtual. This unfortunately excluded many social movements because they either did not have reliable access to internet – or any access at all – or they lived in time zones that made it impossible to join the meetings. 

Because of these challenges, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) – a space for social movements, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and non-governmental organizations to collaborate within the CFS – expressed serious doubts and concerns about endorsing the final document. In addition to our dissatisfaction with the process that excluded so many organizations, we found these guidelines risked undermining internationally recognized human rights agreements.

The U.S. delegation has been one of the worst actors in these UN spaces, leading the effort of agri-exporting countries to oppose the inclusion of both human rights and agroecology. They have opposed any meaningful mention of agroecology, even though the High-Level Panel of Experts issued a report in 2019 recommending agroecology as a way to ensure food security – and even though the CFS is engaged in a process to produce policy recommendations to foster a transition to agroecology. The U.S. delegation’s inclusion of approaches like “sustainable intensification” is a repeated attempt to legitimize practices that do not actually help people or the environment but will continue to make things worse.

On rejecting human rights

The U.S. has shown its most aggressive attitude when dealing with human rights.

The U.S. does not recognize the human right to food even though it is now part of binding international law and is at the cornerstone of the CFS and the wider UN system. The U.S. delegates have used all means to water down the process, rejecting the mention of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, which is recognized as a human right and is pivotal for the achievement of the right to food. This fragmented vision of human rights disregards the indivisibility, interdependency and interrelatedness of all human rights and other core principles recognized by the UN. 

During the negotiations for the Food Systems and Nutrition Guidelines, the U.S. contested the Universal Declaration of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018. The U.S. also insisted on including the following sentence to the text:

“Treaties in the list below are only relevant for the parties to each respective treaty; other documents listed are not legally binding and reference to them shall not be interpreted as a sign of support or acknowledgment by countries that abstained or voted against their adoption and have not since then expressed their support.”

Though denied, this attempt had the potential to undermine the entire international legal system. It was denounced by the CSM, backed by the authoritative opinion of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Although rephrased, the current paragraph poses the same problem of questioning the nature of human rights treaties and agreements, and the fact that U.S. kept the entire CFS Plenary on hold for hours with their request to add reservations, including on the paragraph dealing with human rights international agreements, shows that nothing has changed.

The U.S. continues to disregard human rights and align with agribusiness and powerful exporting countries blocking any normative progress that supports the achievement of the right to adequate food for all, especially the most affected and marginalized.

Shifting towards justice

With the election of President Biden, we continue to demand a shift towards re-engagement in multilateral cooperation and a renewed commitment to advancing rights, social justice, and food security globally. We reiterate our call to President Biden to appoint a new ambassador in Rome who is able to lead this change.

Too often, this role has been covered by diplomats who put forward the interests of big agribusinesses and present a vision that does not represent rural America. Food is produced in the U.S. by millions of small- and medium-sized family farmers, migrant and landless workers, and communities that have faced constant discrimination, persecution, and oppression. They continue to produce food for their communities even as they are squeezed by increased globalization, liberalization, and market concentration and consolidation. And yet, the U.S. delegation never presents their reality at the CFS.

Protecting the work of the CFS is so important because it is the only space at the UN where governments can discuss and agree on guiding frameworks that can help them design policies to achieve the right to food. At the end of March, the CFS will gather to negotiate the policy recommendations on “agroecological and other innovative approaches.” The U.S. has an opportunity to demonstrate real change. Committing to diplomacy and multilateral cooperation at the global level is critical as much as addressing the transition at home, where complete erosion of political norms have exposed system racism, inequality, and the recent insurrection at the Capitol.

Allowing the interests of the few to prevail over the common good at the CFS and allowing peoples’ rights to health and food to be ignored and trampled, will lead to another disaster. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us the price the human community has paid for not working together to support everyone’s fundamental rights. The poorest and most vulnerable pay the highest price, and it’s time for the U.S. to stands up and reverses this dramatic trend.


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