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Food Security & Agriculture

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The Right to Food
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Producing an ever-larger volume of agricultural commodities will not address the systemic fragility in our food system. To address the structural causes of hunger, governments must place human rights at the centre of any response to the global food crisis, says Olivier De Schutter.


28th January 2010 - Published by the Harvard International Review

Nine hundred seventy-five million people are hungry in the world today, up from 852 million in 2003-2005, and 820 million in 1996. Previous policies have failed. The world food crisis, characterized by sudden increases of prices of agricultural commodities on the international markets which peaked in June 2008, took states and the international community by surprise. The crisis had devastating human consequences, with particularly severe impacts on women and children because of inequalities within households and the specific nutritional needs of children for their physical and mental development.

For many families, particularly in developing countries, the sharp increases we have witnessed made food unaffordable, leading them to cut back on expenses in education or health, to switch to less varied diets, or to have fewer meals. But the crisis reaches much further, and it is much deeper, than the question of prices alone would suggest. The crisis illustrated the unsustainability of a global food system which may be good at producing large amounts of food, but that is neither socially nor environmentally sustainable: while the incomes of small scale farmers in developing countries are below subsistence levels, often leaving them no other option but to leave their fields and seek employment in cities, the current methods of agricultural production deplete soils, produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, and use vast quantities of water, threatening food security in the long term, and making the repetition of crises such as the one we"ve seen unavoidable if we do not act decisively.

The global food crisis has shed light on the fragility of our food system. This system has proven unable to resist in the face of shocks such as a peak in the prices of oil, a sudden shift in demand, for example as a result of the diversion of food crops for the production of fuel, or speculative behavior on the commodities markets. As a result, international agencies, governments, and the private sector, have all recognized the need to invest more in agriculture. Largely due to the structural decline of prices of agricultural commodities since the second oil shock of 1979, itself the result of the OECD member states dumping cheap food on the international markets, this sector has been neglected in both public budgets and official development assistance since the 1980s, and it has failed to attract private investors. This is changing: this is one benevolent result of the crisis of 2007-2008.

Yet, in this context, there is a real risk that we mistake opportunities for solutions. Producing more food shall not serve to combat hunger and malnutrition if the poor are unable to buy the food which is available on the markets. Low prices are not a solution if this perpetuates the addiction of many developing countries to cheap food, leading them to sacrifice their long-term interest in developing the capacity to feed themselves against their short-term interest in buying processed foods from abroad at prices lower than if they were produced at home. And neither low prices and larger volumes produced are an answer for the 500 million households in developing countries, comprising over 2.1 billion individuals, who depend on smallscale farming for their livelihoods. And it is within the ranks of those farmers that we find the majority of those who are hungry.

Unless the right to food is placed at the very center of the efforts of the international community to address the structural causes which have led to the global food crisis, we will repeat our past mistakes. We will produce more out of fear of producing too little. But we will forget to ask the decisive questions which, because of their political nature, governments all too often do not want to hear: whose incomes will rise as a result of production increasing? Will the poorest be able to afford the food which is available on the markets? Are safety nets in place, shielding the poorest from the impacts of high prices? Are stabilizing measures in place, insuring farmers against to low prices? are initiatives being taken to narrow the gap between farm prices and prices paid by the consumers, which has so significantly increased over the last few years? Do victims of violations of the right to food have remedies to challenge the actions of governments and their omissions, which cause such violations?

A "Third Track"

Producing enough food is of course essential. Population growth, shifting diets, climate change, and increased competition between crops for food, feed, and fuel, all challenge our ability in the future to meet the growing demands of the planet. But that is only part of the equation. It is equally important to ensure that the right to food be guaranteed to all. The right to adequate food is not simply about being fed. It is about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires that each household either has the means to produce its own food, or has a sufficient purchasing power to buy the food which it needs.

The implication for states is that they should identify those who are hungry or malnourished, so that support schemes are targeted effectively, and that no household in need is left out. As recommended under the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Voluntary Guidelines for the progressive realization of the right to food, which the 187 member states of the FAO General Council have agreed to in 2004, states should also put in place national strategies clearly allocating responsibilities across different branches of government, setting benchmarks and imposing timeframes, and empowering independent institutions, including courts, to enhance accountability.

The idea is gaining ground that the right to food, as an enforceable human right, should be at the center of our efforts to reform the food system. The FAO now considers adding governance and the right to food as a third track in their efforts to combat hunger, in addition to providing emergency help in times of crisis and to promoting investment in agriculture. The right to food was also central to the January 2009 High-Level Meeting on Food Security for All: closing remarks to this conference, which sought to assess the progress made seven months after the 2008 Rome High-Level Conference on World Food Security, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleaded for inclusion of the right to food in the work of the High-Level Task Force on the global food crisis "as a basis for analysis, action and accountability."

There is a risk, however, that we end up reducing this "third track" to improved governance or to the removal of institutional obstacles to the implementation of strategies to achieve food security which would risk failing, for instance, because of corruption at the local level or because of an inability of the central government to impose its will on autonomous provinces. This would be a serious mistake for two reasons.

First, it devalues the notion of the right to food as a human right. The right to food means that victims must have a right to recourse mechanisms; that governments must be held accountable if they adopt policies which violate that right; and that courts are empowered to protect this right. It is not merely about good governance. It is about empowerment and accountability. It is about participation of those directly affected in the design and implementation of the policies that affect them.

Second, in the current efforts to address the global food crisis, the right to food should not simply be a "third track" supplementing the two other tracks. Instead, it should constitute an overarching principle: it should guide our efforts, whether these relate to short-term support measures (the first track) or to rural development and support to agriculture (the second track). In responding to the global food crisis, it is easy to move from the symptom-prices which have suddenly peaked, as a result of a tension between supply and demand, high oil prices, and speculation-to the medicine-produce more, and remove as soon as possible all supply-side constraints. But once we define the objective as the realization of the right to food, we are led to frame the nature of the challenge before us very differently.

Focusing on the Most Vulnerable

An analysis of the global food crisis grounded in the right to food would start by identifying the vulnerable. These fall in three main categories: small scale farmers and other self-employed food producers such as pastoralists, fisherfolk, and persons living from the products of the forest; landless agricultural workers; and the urban poor. Considerable emphasis has been placed, since the Spring of 2008, on the need to support smallholders. This is understandable: poverty remains an essentially rural phenomenon, and it is among the small scale farmers that we find the majority of the hungry.

Comparatively less attention is devoted to the urban poor, although all acknowledge the need to establish robust social protection schemes: indeed, the 1.2 billion slumdwellers are among the worst affected by high prices of food, since they buy all the food they consume. By contrast, very little has been said about agricultural laborers, though the ILO estimates that the waged work force in agriculture is made up of 700 million women and men producing the food we eat but who are often unable to afford it: 20 percent of the hungry are landless laborers, and this number may be even larger if we consider that many small rural producers are in fact dependent on a seasonal or temporary wage for basic survival.

A rights-based approach to the global food crisis would require that we pay equal attention to all these categories, and that we ensure that their entitlements are adequately protected: since hunger is a result, not of too little food being produced, but of marginalization and disempowerment of the poorest, who lack the purchasing power they need to procure the food that is available, guaranteeing such a protection should be a top priority. This implies, for instance, asking how the relevant ILO conventions could be better implemented in the rural areas-which all too often labor inspectorates are unable to monitor effectively-and how those working on farms, often without any formal employment contract, can be guaranteed a living wage, and adequate health and safety conditions of work.

Competing Models of Agricultural Production

An analysis of the answers to the global food crisis grounded on the right to food should similarly inform our approaches to agricultural production. In April 2008, fifty-eight governments approved the conclusions reached by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This review notes that "technologies such as high-yielding crop varieties, agrochemicals and mechanization have primarily benefited the better resourced groups in society and transnational corporations, rather than the most vulnerable ones. To ensure that technology supports development and sustainability goals strong policy and institutional arrangements are needed."

The first Green Revolution-as developed in Latin America after 1943 and as launched in the 1960s in South Asia-was very successful in improving yields. But it sometimes came at a high social and environmental cost; and the productivity gains themselves were not always sustainable in the longer term. Much care is now being taken to avoid repeating the mistakes of the first Green Revolution, and the IAASTD conclusions are an indicator of this new awareness. At the same time, less attention has been paid until very recently to the comparison between Green Revolution concepts and alternative models of agricultural development. But failing to consider the diversity of models that can be supported could lead to miss great opportunities.

As stated by the 2009 Windhoek High-level Meeting held in Namibia: "Governments, in cooperation with the research community and with support from the international donor community, should undertake rigorous comparative assessments of alternative agricultural models and cropping systems." This should be seen as complementing the 2003 Maputo Declaration target of raising the share of national budgets devoted to agriculture and rural development to at least 10 percent. Indeed, agricultural development and the progressive realization of the right to food are not merely an issue of raising budget. These objectives also require that we opt for the right orientations, by carefully balancing the existing options against one another.

A framework of analysis grounded in the right to food can guide such choices. Greater attention should be paid in the future to public policies which may significantly increase yields, thus raising the incomes of farmers, without further dualizing the farming system, and without contributing further to climate change or to soil depletion. In Tanzania, the Western provinces of Shinyanga and Tabora, used to be called "The Desert of Tanzania" by President Julius Nyerere. Yet, starting in the late 1980s, the use of agroforestry techniques and participatory processes allowed some 350,000 hectares of land to be rehabilitated. The agroforestry system (Ngitili) led to an increase in incomes of US$500 to each household every year, a large sum in rural Tanzania. The increased use of trees in agroforestry schemes improved the resilience of farming systems, which is especially important in the context of climate change.

In Malawi, some 100,000 smallholders in Malawi were benefiting in 2005 to some degree from the use of fertilizer trees: where maize is intercropped with a nitrogen-fixing tree, an average 3.7 tons a hectare can be produced-compared to just 1.1 tons on plots without such trees; and yields could reach 5 tons with small additions of mineral fertilizer. 2007 saw the launch of Malawi"s Agroforestry Food Security Programme, targeting over 42,000 farming households. It will benefit around 1.3 million of the poorest people in Malawi whose ability to produce food will be increased with a minimal investment of scarce cash.

The Role of International Trade

The role of international trade in ensuring food security also must be reconsidered in an approach which is grounded in the right to food. There exists a consensus that the current multilateral trading system is heavily skewed in favor of developed countries, and that it is in urgent need of reform. In particular, the Agreement on Agriculture, which was part of the achievements of the Uruguay round of trade negotiations leading to the creation of the World Trade Organisation, did not result in the removal of trade-distorting measures such as obstacles to market access for developing countries, domestic support schemes for OECD countries" farmers, and export subsidies. These measures have severely penalized agriculture in developing countries, a situation we are now paying a high price for.

At the same time however, simply removing the existing distortions will not do. First, while further trade liberalization, i.e. the removal of trade-distorting measures and the lowering of import tariffs in agriculture, will undoubtedly benefit the highly competitive large-scale agricultural producers in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Thailand or Uruguay, the impacts on other developing countries which depend on agriculture, and particularly on least-developed countries, are ambiguous. The difficulties smallholders in these countries face result from insufficient storage facilities; poor access to markets, due to a lack of infrastructures, and to credit; insufficient rural extension services; and, for many, insecure rights on the land they cultivate. These farmers are far less competitive than OECD producers before the current round of trade negotiations was launched in Doha in November 2001; they will remain so after Doha. These developing countries must be allowed to protect themselves from import surges, which have had so damaging impacts in the past on the viability of their agricultural sector, and which will continue to have damaging impacts in the future if they cannot shield their farmers from such competition.

Second, even if trade liberalization in agriculture were to benefit countries which have a comparative advantage in agriculture, it may only reinforce the current international division of labor. And the overspecialization of countries this leads to presents its own problems. It results in a situation in which certain countries remain locked into the production of raw commodities from agriculture, and have to buy from abroad not only the manufactured products they need, but even processed foods.

The example of sub-Saharan African countries is illustrative. Due in part to the highly penalizing structure of tariffs in OECD countries through tariff peaks and tariff escalation, and in part, to the presence on international markets of highly subsidized foods produced in industrial countries, sub-Saharan Africa has remained dependent on traditional non-fuel primary commodity exports such as coffee, cotton, cocoa, tobacco, tea and sugar, and was essentially unable to develop into an exporter of processed food: South Africa, the largest African exporter of processed food, had a global market share of only 1 percent in the period 2000-2005. This is highly problematic. Since the returns in agriculture are declining while they are increasing for industry, we may have a situation where these agriculture-based countries will be specializing in losing, while other countries specialize in winning. Trade will remain asymmetrical; the terms of trade will continue to fall for these countries; dependency on foreign aid will persist.

Third, the benefits of trade for the country as a whole are not all that matters. An approach to international trade based on the right to food instead leads to shift the perspective from aggregate values to the impacts of trade on the most vulnerable and food insecure. Increased cross-border trade in agricultural products implies that, as the production of food is reorientated towards serving the foreign markets rather than the domestic markets, the role of the role of transnational corporations-commodity traders, food processors, and global retailers-increases. These corporations serve an indispensable function in linking producers, particularly from developing countries, to markets, particularly to the high-value markets of industrialized countries. But since these corporations have activities in different countries and can choose the country from which they source, they may be difficult to regulate, particularly as regards their buying policies.

This constitutes a source of dependency for the farmers who supply them. And it encourages the segmentation of the farming sector, increasingly divided between one segment which has access to high-value markets and, as result, to the best technologies, inputs (including land, water, and state support), credit, and political influence, and another segment which is left to serve only the low-value, domestic markets, and is comparatively neglected and marginalized.

On the one hand therefore, the expansion of global supply chains creates opportunities by giving farmers from developing countries access to high-value markets, particularly where these farmers have certain comparative advantages such as lower land and labor costs and longer growing seasons, and where they are relatively close to those markets-as are Sub-Saharan producers to European markets. On the other hand, however, global sourcing increases the number of suppliers and, thus, the competition between them, leading to pricing policies by buyers which reduce the share of the final value of the product which goes to the producers.

Given the increased concentration of market power in the agricultural commodities system, commodity buyers and large retailers impose their prices on producers; they impose standards which many smallscale farmers are unable to meet particularly for crops like wheat or soybean where economies of scale represent important productivity gains, and where smallscale farmers are unable to compete and relegated to the low-value, local markets. This puts them at a strong disadvantage in the competition for land, water, or other productive resources unless they end up working as badly paid agricultural laborers.

Certain strategies could be developed to avoid small scale farmers being squeezed out by the development of global supply chains: they include cooperatives, outgrower schemes, public-private initiatives and regional initiatives. However, these strategies are still underdeveloped and clearly not sufficient at present to counteract the trend towards more concentration and increased dualization of the farming sector. This is particularly the case since large buyers seek to minimize transactions costs, which are high when they seek to source from smallscale farmers who are dispersed geographically and are far removed from centralized collection facilities. In addition, large agricultural producers are better equipped to adapt to shifting demand and to comply with volume and traceability requirements, as well as with environmental and food safety standards which global retailers increasingly seek to monitor compliance with.

More trade liberalization in agricultural products may therefore further increase the dualization of the farming system, and thus negatively impact the right to food: even as the prices of foods rise, small scale farmers will not see their revenues increase in similar proportions, and many of them, unable to survive in an even more competitive environment, may still be unable, as they are today, to move beyond subsistence farming.

The right to adequate food is not a slogan. It imposes obligations on states and non-state actors alike which are grounded in international law. Putting it at the center of our response to the global food crisis not only enriches our toolkit, providing us with a policy tool additional to trade and fiscal policies, the regulation of markets, or the development of social safety nets. It also leads us to fundamentally rethink the nature of the challenge we are facing, and what it requires to make progress towards addressing it.


Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

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