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This week, IATP Executive Director Sophia Murphy is in Rome at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for the 51st plenary of the Committee on Word Food Security (CFS) from October 23-27. In an interview from the atrium of the FAO, Sophia reports back on the happenings of this year’s plenary. For those unfamiliar the multilateral system, Sophia explains what the FAO is, how it relates to the other two U.N. agencies dedicated to food (the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development), and how the three agencies come together in this important space called the CFS.

While several events on food security, such as the Food Systems Summit, have sprung up in the past several years, the CFS remains the sole space with a mandate to create legally binding commitments, which are crucial for advancing public policy reform, holding governments accountable to commitments made, and the realization of the right to food and end of hunger.

Learn more about the pivotal role CFS plays in shaping international food policy and fostering collaboration among governments and civil society in the video interview above, also transcribed below. 

Why is IATP Executive Director Sophia Murphy in Rome for the Committee for Food Security this week?

I'm sitting here today in the atrium of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, known as FAO. This organization, the first of the U.N. special agencies, was founded in 1945, even before the end of the Second World War. And it's the largest and biggest of three agencies that deal with food here in Rome. It’s the reason I'm here.

The three agencies have slightly different responsibilities. FAO tends to deal more with production of big commodities, and it also has a mission to end hunger everywhere in the world. It's home to an office that does important work on the Right to Food.

The second agency that's here, founded in the 1960s, is the World Food Program, and that was founded to deal with emergencies and crises arising from weather, but also war and conflict, primarily a humanitarian space.

And the third agency was founded in the food price crisis that occurred in the early 1970s. And that, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD, is, as it sounds like, a financing mechanism that invests in all of rural developments, not just in the production of food, but its processing and its distribution through a value chain.

What is the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS)?

Those three agencies come together in a space called the U.N. Committee on World Food Security. This week is the 51st session of that committee, known in shorthand as the CFS, and the CFS has a very interesting space in the multilateral system. Founded in the 70s and relatively quiet and neglected, it was brought back to life in 2009, in the wake of one of the most serious food price crises of our time. Very high spiking prices and poor harvests, especially for rice, caused a lot of knock-on effects in the food system and put many more people into either precarious positions or outright hunger.

So, the Committee on Food Security became a place with the work of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and with the work of a big group of different civil society organizations and especially social movements of pastoralists and small-scale farmers and fisherfolk, farm workers, women's organizations, as well. It became a space where the U.N. was going to look in a consistent and consolidated way at what food policy needed, and it was going to do so with the assistance of civil society, also, philanthropy and the private sector.

It created a quite unique structure for multilateralism, in which the members would have the decision-making power ultimately, but they would also have participants and create a space in the decision making to hear from civil society, social movements and the private sector.

What’s on the agenda for the 51st plenary of the CFS?

This year, the CFS is dealing with two big issues.

One is data, which of course links to digitalization and links to some of the biggest challenges facing us in this century. And it started as a fairly small project, I think, in people's minds where it was about, you know, collecting data and what do we know. But of course, data is not simple, and it turned into a really important conversation on: who decides what we count, how do we decide it, who has access, who owns the data when it's collected? And although it's still quite tentative, the agreement now has a positioning for governance and deciding how that data is going to be used.

The agenda this week also includes a framework on gender empowerment and food security and nutrition, and it's no surprise to anyone that it's very important to center women in food systems if you want to see the realization of the Right to Food.

But it remains a big, big struggle with many national governments to recognize women's rights and to recognize what empowerment encompasses. But we have an important framework now that's been agreed and will be one of the documents going forward that civil society will be able to make use of.

IATP has a 10-year history with CFS. Why are we at this year’s plenary?

We come because it is the place where we have a voice, and we respect that.

It's a place where we come to learn from all of our friends and allies. It's really a rare occasion to meet with so many social movements with representatives from every part of the world. The Coordinating Committee of the Civil Society and Indigenous People's Mechanism (CSIPM) is the conduit and the organizing place for those of us engaged in the policy from a public interest point of view that has constituency representation from all of the groups that I mentioned. It also has regional representation, so IATP, for example, we’re part of the North America discussion for the Civil Society and Indigenous People's Mechanism as well. And so we're able to use this space as a way to organize in our regions as well. And then to bring our regional experience and understanding into the global conversation and to bring that to the attention of governments, other U.N. agencies and other actors in the world of food security and nutrition.

Why is the CFS important?

I think as the final point, you know, there're rival events — there have been a number of U.N. summits on food security — to answer a question on why we think this piece of the U.N. with a slightly cumbersome name is so important: It is that it creates legally binding outcomes. There's a tendency for multistakeholder places to organize more around the kind of “show and tell,” you know, bring us an initiative you have, share information about it, invite people to come and learn from you — something that's really important to do, of course. But those spaces, like the U.N. Food Systems Summit, have no legal mandates and therefore no possibility of a legally binding outcome.

And so, for those of us trying to get public policy reform, to get governments to be held accountable to commitments they've made, to get new and better commitments for ensuring the realization of the right to food and the end of hunger, it doesn't really advance us all that much to be part of that kind of exposé. And we're much more interested in engaging where we can actually have a meaningful conversation about who's going to do what and what will happen if they don't and how do we remind you and maintain the pressure on you to implement the commitments that you have? So, if you look at the CFS website, you will see a fine array of documents that can be used as legally binding commitments.

Watch the interview on YouTube.

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