Participants of the first panel discussion.
Photo: © BMEL/Ingo Heine

Responsible investment – a hard row to hoe

The principles for responsible Investments in agriculture are currently being negotiated on the UN Committee on World Food Security. They were the focus of this year’s “Policies against Hunger” conference in Berlin.

It was the food price crisis of 2008 that finally put agriculture back into the spotlight of national and international policymaking, now seen as the key factor in combatting hunger and poverty. While the subsequent investment boom in this sector is to be welcomed, investments can come with side-effects that are very unwelcome. This has been shown in recent years by the large-scale land transfers in developing countries. To minimise the downside of the investment surge, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is currently engaged in a multi-stakeholder process aimed at drawing up a set of principles: the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investments (RAI), which are to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in October 2014. These principles also formed the background of this year’s “Policies against Hunger” conference, held in Berlin at the end of June/beginning of July. The annual event, which has been hosted by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture since 2001, brings together international experts to discuss crucial aspects of global food security. 

“We don’t want investment at any prices,” emphasises Christian Schmidt, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, in his opening address. Rather, these investments should be making sustained improvements in the food situation on the ground and contributing to rural development. They must respect the existing rights of the local population to land, water and other natural resources, while also being profitable for the investor. Schmidt notes that two things are particularly important as the UN fleshes out the details of the RAI principles: investment principles must be aligned to the human rights obligations of the Member States, above all the right to food; and they must explicitly define the respective roles and responsibilities of government and the private sector. 

Making governments take responsibility

The first panel discussion at the conference centred on the question of what course should be taken in the next round of the CFS’s RAI negotiations. For Cheik Mouhamady Cissokho, President of the West African Farmers Network ROPPA, the first thing is to ensure that the right framework is put in place. In particular, national governments must be reminded of their duty to make the necessary public investments. In West Africa, for example, some 35 per cent of gross domestic product is generated by agriculture; yet, on average, only 4 per cent of the national budget flows back into this sector. Public investment is in fact critical to supporting farmers, especially small farmers, who are themselves still the main investors in agriculture. Instead, criticises Cissokho, governments are promoting foreign investments that often impact negatively on natural resources, such as the clearing of forests to make way for large-scale cultivation projects. 

Investments in agriculture obviously involve differing interests. So, as the negotiations continue, a central question for the UN committee must be: Whose interests should be prioritised? This problem of conflicting interests was taken up by Maryam Rahmanian, Vice Chair of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the CFS. It is not always possible to achieve the widely heralded “win-win situation”, said Rahmanian, giving the example of the seed sector: “If Bayer wins, the farmer loses because he must pay for seeds that might not be appropriate for his specific environment.”

Call for safeguard clauses

Discussions in the individual workshops, attended by around 250 participants from forty countries, dealt with the different responsibilities of governments and investors. It became apparent that expectations placed on the RAI principles differ widely – not only between the individual stakeholders but also within individual groups. Although conference contributions widely emphasised how important it is for investments to take into account the interests of women and young people as well as those of small farmers, many participants also saw the key role being played by large-scale commercial agribusinesses. 

The participants did agree on a number of points: that the CFS-RAI principles should include a do-no-harm clause regarding human rights, legitimate tenure rights and the environment, and strong provisions on monitoring as a prerequisite for accountability, along with access to effective remedy through corresponding grievance mechanisms. Moreover, it was thought that every government should introduce safeguard clauses in international agreements to avert the danger that an investment agreement can be better protected than the rights of the local population.

The conference also touched on the fact the countries concerned often underestimate the costs ultimately incurred by the attractive incentives they offer for investment. In the case of the Sierra Leone, for instance, foreign investors have been granted tax exemptions for up to ten years that are leading to enormous losses for the local communities. 


A summary of the key positions and expectations regarding the CFS-RAI principles is available at the  conference website

Silvia Richter
, editor, Rural 21