In recent years industrial agricultural corporations and financial actors have taken control over many aspects of the global food industry including land, production processes, and even the pricing. At the same time governments and multilateral organizations increasingly are embracing and promoting private sector solutions in the struggle against hunger and malnutrition without adequate public regulation of existing conflicts of interest. As all of this unfolds, concerns escalate that the people suffering from hunger and malnutrition will have even less access to food and to the resources to grow food for themselves. Moreover, these very people may even lose their voice in the political decision making process around food policy. The following article in the November-December 2012 NewsNotes looks at recent attempts to identify and address these concerns as hunger around the world only increases.

Since the food crisis of 2009 faith-based groups in Washington have been watching the U.S. response to global hunger and food security. Agricultural programs in less industrialized countries around the world have suffered in the past 20 years, first through cutbacks made through structural adjustment programs, and then with the global financial meltdown in 2009. Small holder farmers need new investment, but the type of investment is as important as the investment itself.

In recent years the U.S. response has shifted. What was once publicly funded increasingly is being replaced with private investments, first through public-private partnerships and more recently through private-only sources with initiatives like those proposed in the G8’s New Alliance, announced in May. The Maryknoll discussion paper Public-private partnerships: Working together to reduce global hunger, released in September, highlights a set of principles designed by faith groups and allied organizations that give public-private partnerships the best chance of success, while detailing the historical trends that led to the New Alliance announcement.

First, at the most basic level, public-private partnerships and private investment should complement, not substitute, public investments in agriculture. Public investments and public commitments to invest in agriculture – like the U.S. commitment made under the L’Aquila accords – are generally more accountable to the public at large. Second, public-private partnerships and private investment should reflect a "right to food approach" and enhance smallholder farmers’ capacity to meet their immediate household food and nutrition needs. Third, these investments should provide measurable benefits to smallholder farmers and rural consumers. Fourth, they should encourage socially and environmentally sustainable farming practices. Fifth, they should ensure transparency and provide mechanisms for civil society participation so that the people who are most impacted by hunger and food insecurity actually have a place at the table in decision-making and a means to hold both private and public sector actors accountable for delivering on their commitments. And sixth, such investments should prioritize and strengthen local economies – the global private sector should not be prioritized at the expense of the local private interests.

At the same time, in Europe, the Right to Food and Nutrition Network was looking at similar issues, and in October 2012 released a report entitled Who decides about global food and nutrition? Strategies to regain control. Members of the network (including staff at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns) looked mainly at the human right to food as a framework and tool that can be used to help those most impacted regain some control over the food system. This report is much more comprehensive in looking at the roles of speculation, private and public-private investments in food accessibility; and how strong agribusiness interests are becoming extremely powerful in young democracies and weak nations. This concern is especially alarming as land grabbing continues on a global scale. In many cases it is the industrial agribusinesses themselves who are convincing legislators in less industrialized countries to write the laws that will benefit their business interests – creating "enabling environments" for business to flourish. The conflict of interest issues are tremendous.

One ray of hope for using the human rights approach to balance the trend toward private investment and control in food security projects is the first version of the new Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition (GSF) issued by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in mid-October. The CFS was set up as an intergovernmental body and was reformed in 2009 to be more inclusive of all stakeholders; it is a forum for review and follow-up of food security policies. It reports annually to Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).

This newest draft of the GSF was crafted with the extensive input of farmers’ organizations and other civil society groups through the CFS’s Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) and was built on the human rights approach, women’s rights and the recognition of the central role in food and nutrition security played by smallholder farmers, agricultural food workers, artisanal fisher folks, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, landless people, women and youth. Once finalized, the new GSF will act as the primary global reference for coordination and coherence in decision making on food and agricultural issues; and with its new rights based approach, may serve as a tool to hold accountable states, intergovernmental institutions and the private sector for their actions and omissions regarding their obligations under international human rights law.