For Whom Do the FAO and Its Director-General Work?

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast?

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”

Prominent amongst the signatories were La Via Campesina (the international peasants’ movement), GRAIN (an international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems), Friends of the Earth International, Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC), World March of Women, the ETC group (which monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture, and human rights), and the Latin American Articulation of Movements Toward ALBA.

Blunt and direct, the statement protesting the impropriety of the head of the FAO taking such a pro-agribusiness stance also refuted his claims.  Those who really have the capacity to feed the world are the world’s men and women farmers and peasants, said the statement, adding that the expansion of agribusiness has only exacerbated poverty, destroyed the potential for dignified rural livelihoods, increased pollution and environmental destruction, and brought back the scourge of slave labor and a series of recent food and climate crises.

That was 2012 September.  Less than three months later, the FAO’s Secretariat is discussing with its Governing Bodies a strategy to — as it puts it — guide its partnerships with the private sector.  The FAO has said that the “strategy would serve, among other things, to ensure FAO’s neutrality and impartiality in its dealings with the private sector.”  The inescapable suggestion is that neutrality and impartiality of the FAO vis-à-vis the food industry has not been taken as a given and that the FAO finds itself under some pressure to restate these principles when in fact many of its actions are to the contrary.

Consider the Committee on Food Security (CFS) for example, which like the Governing Council is now following a similar process to develop what is called a complementary set of guidelines, more menacingly known to farmers’ and peasants’ movements as the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI).  And then there is the director-general’s quickening turn towards the global food business.  “My personal experience with the Zero Hunger Strategy in Brazil [he headed the Organization’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean between 2006 and 2011] shows that perhaps the greatest contribution the private sector can give is something else: the political support to food security.”  Again he added: “Increasingly, the private sector is giving signs of this political commitment.  This can be seen in the World Economic Forums, in the business meetings held in the G20 and G8 and in its participation in the Committee on World Food Security.”

How dangerous to smallholder farming households the world over is such a statement, one that comes from the head of the FAO and that views political commitment and support — a necessary ingredient for the FAO to reach its objectives — as being fostered by the private sector, and not by peasants’ and farmers’ groups, by consumer unions, by organic (or biodynamic) farmers, by trade and labor unions, by national agricultural research systems that are still proud to be publicly funded and that see themselves as servants of the farming communities?  How did this change come about and so swiftly?  What do Graziano da Silva and his colleagues (on 11 Governing Bodies and 10 Statutory Bodies) see as being the role of government and provincial agriculture and food ministries and departments in the future — as peons of a hydra-headed corporate structure that controls all aspects of cultivation and food consumption in every market?

We cannot answer partly or substantially any of these questions without a full scrutiny of the way the FAO’s mind has been worked upon for the last decade.  Graziano da Silva is less than two years into a role that has seen, since 1945, only seven directors-general before him; and the FAO’s records stacks are voluminous.  However, we do know that promoting agriculture for development presents a serious challenge of managing multiple agendas and collective interests of formal and informal institutions (the state, the private sector, and civil society).  Their inter-relationships, their obligations, processes, mechanisms, and differences are just as important, as pointed out to us so succinctly in “The Top 100 Questions of Importance to the Future of Global Agriculture” (International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 2010) which emphasized that “it is precisely at this interface that governance, economic investment, power and policy making converge and play their respective critical roles.”  Roles are several, and that of the private sector may be the smallest, as it was for the FAO of old, and may be again for an FAO of years to come provided this ominous and destabilizing bias is corrected quickly.

What however does the FAO mean when it says “private sector”?  Using its own exhaustive terminology, for the FAO the private sector includes individual enterprises, special purpose coalitions and consortia, financing institutions, international industry associations, other representative business organizations, intermediary organizations of private or mixed ownership, and private foundations and research institutes.  “This applies to all actors from small and medium-size enterprises to the largest international corporations,” the FAO has explained.

The latitude is generous and provides ample overlap with the new parallel powers on agriculture and food which are exerting so much influence on this, the premier amongst the three Rome-based institutions devoted to the sector (the other two are the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the UN World Food Programme [WFP]).  One such power is the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture initiative” which is described as engaging leaders of business, government, civil society, farmers organizations, development partners, and other groups “to work together to achieve sustainable agricultural growth.”

It is here that we see the power of the corporate hydra that is leavening the FAO’s mandate with “private” and large instead of “public” and small.  The 28 “global partner companies” of the World Economic Forum “who provide strategic leadership and championship of the initiative” include Agco Corporation, Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bayer AG, Bunge Limited, Cargill, CF Industries, the Coca-Cola Company, Diageo, DuPont, General Mills, Heineken N.V., Kraft Foods, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Maersk, Metro AG, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Rabobank, Royal DSM, SABMiller, Swiss Reinsurance Company Ltd., Syngenta, The Mosaic Company, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and Yara International.  This selection encompasses the range of activities, cloaked in corporacy, that control the seeds, the growing of food staples, their movement and trade, their conversion, milling, and processing, their packaging and retail — just about everything from bio-technology and genetic engineering to fertilizers and pesticides to stores and shops.

Is such a group then — densely inter-linked, patrons in their turn of dozens of “initiatives” and “programs” and camouflaged as development organizations or even civil society — the political commitment that Graziano da Silva has referred to?  Studying the official documents of the FAO Council (it has just sat for its 145th session in early December 2012), it is difficult to reconcile the FAO’s stated intention with the burgeoning number of new partnerships and alliances that the FAO is striking every week.  However, there is a different clarity concerning political commitment.

Political commitment is a prerequisite to appropriate policies being put in place, and investments made to enable people to realize their right to adequate food, both in the short term through various social protection instruments, and in the medium and long term, through measures that empower poor and vulnerable people to be self-reliant, resilient, food secure and well-nourished.  Political commitment not only refers to the responsibility of government, but also of civil society, the private sector and the wider development community.

So said a relevant paragraph from the Council’s “Reviewed Strategic Framework and Outline of the Medium Term Plan 2014-17” document.  Thus we see there are three kinds of actors other than those mentioned by the FAO head.  Why then is such importance being accorded to one kind?

Some of the answer, a small part, can be found in a qualifying statement of the same document: “Agricultural and food systems are becoming more complex.  More than 80 percent of the total value of food production corresponds to the industrial and commerce sectors.  These food systems are also more concentrated and integrated into global value chains which provide new opportunities for small farmers and new challenges from the point of view of maintaining fair and transparent markets.”

Complexity breeds tools of domination, and at 67 years old, the FAO contains within itself a vast library of institutional memory which can educate contemporary policymakers about the patterns that domination seeks out.  If food and its cultivation, its supply and transformation, are not to continue to be misused as social and political (and above all economic) weapons, it will be left to the FAO’s members to root out the designed complexity that surrounds agriculture and food policy in every producing country and to replace it with the simplicity of smallholder organic cultivation.

Can such a motive take shape in the contemporary FAO?  From here in late 2012 and considering the traction in the direction of global agribusiness applied by the current director-general, it appears unlikely.  Within the FAO and without, the proliferation of alliances, partnerships, research initiatives, knowledge fora, academic exchanges, and so on has become bewildering.  There is moreover a profusion of programs and groups whose aims are technology creation and diffusion, which the FAO of today appears to find valuable.  Three such groups are the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).

These are at the forefront of the organizations the FAO has decided — indeed as its Council has been advised — will serve as partners to help the Organization adapt to “this more complex and competitive environment.”  It is the influences operating inside that environment, which the FAO has provided sweeping legitimacy to as factors providing political commitment, that must be questioned.  These partnerships have already labored at fixing into place the groundwork for the commercialization of Southern agriculture (the cultivation of the smallholding household in the less industrialized regions of the world, those same regions once described, perhaps alongside the FAO of the time of Sen and of Boerma, as the Third World) and its painful integration into global circuits of food produce accumulation and transformation.

How such labor works and the effects of its outcomes can be seen from the partnership, in its turn, between NEPAD (an FAO partner organization) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which have as their aim the linking of African governments’ commitments to agricultural development with programs that include seed, land use, food and agricultural policy, and the shaping of and behavior of markets.  It is a partnership that has been watched with deep unease and foreboding by Africa’s independent farmers’, peasants’, and growers’ movements and federations.

“The shadow of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and other seed and agrichemical multinationals, and equity funds lie[s] just behind the scenes of AGRA’s show,” a critique of AGRA, prepared by the African Center for Biosafety (ACB), stated.  “Small enterprises are a breeding ground for the potential extension of circuits of accumulation.  Capitalism is known for ongoing absorption of ‘organically’ developed innovation, initiative and profitability by larger entities. AGRA and other capitalist interests have identified a profitable (‘bankable’) investment opportunity in smallholder agriculture in Africa, linked to Green Revolution technologies.  They are now acting on that.”

Here is real voice, contemporary voice, given to describe the effects on the ground of the partnerships the FAO may foster, if it is not careful enough.  Building new markets and infrastructure only for the growth of agricultural GDP, promoted through ever more cutting-edge technology creation and diffusion practices, is already leading to growing gaps in rural and urban incomes, to the accelerated divergence of agricultural interests from cultivation concerns.  Would Graziano da Silva trade a “successful” FAO which deepens the commodification of peasant agriculture for one that places the cultivating household above all?  It is time the FAO’s Council — and those populating its 11 Governing Bodies and 10 Statutory Bodies — take fresh stock of leaf and seed.

Rahul Goswami is a social science researcher with the National Agriculture Innovation Project, India, and is an associate with the Centre for Communication and Development Studies, India.  He may be contacted at <>.

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