Press Conference on General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on 'Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food'

6 April 2009

Press Conference on General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on 'Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food'

6 April 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York





Top United Nations officials today stressed the importance of putting the issue of the right to food back on the international agenda, because the global food crisis, contrary to what many believe, had not gone away.

Briefing correspondents on the General Assembly’s thematic dialogue on the global food crisis and the right to food, held at United Nations Headquarters in New York today (see Press Release GA/10819), were the President of the General Assembly, Miguel d´Escoto, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Shutter, and the senior adviser to the President of the General Assembly on food policy and sustainable development, David Andrews, who agreed that concerted efforts were called for now to refocus the world’s attention on the issue.

Today’s dialogue brought together economists, agro-ecologists, human rights specialists and other experts to discuss necessary changes in the world’s agricultural production from the perspective of the right to food, as the food crisis among the world’s poorest continued to grow, the three officials said.  Today’s General Assembly discussion also followed the Madrid high-level meeting on food security for all, held on 26 and 27 January.

Mr. d´Escoto said people suddenly seemed to be paying much more attention and it almost looked like the world needed to have a real shake up and be faced with a real crisis, in order to act.  As a result, there was now a beginning of a reaction in the right direction, even though the number of people who were going hungry in the world had gone beyond the 1 billion mark.

Mr. De Shutter said that, in May 2008, the world’s headlines had been on the global food crisis and the fact that food prices had risen extremely high, so much that a large number of people were driven into further poverty and hunger, as a result.  At least 100 million supplementary people had been driven into hunger as a result of those higher prices.  The international community had reacted in a manner that was not particularly well coordinated and that did not particularly address the structural causes of the food crisis.  He explained that the good harvest of August/September 2008 had pushed the food prices down again and the hedge funds that had invested quite massively in the future markets of agricultural commodities retreated from that sector.  As a result, prices had gone down.

He said today’s meeting came at a moment when many Governments might have the impression that the food crisis had disappeared from the radar, and that there was no urgent need to think about the problem.  On the contrary, he was convinced that was not the case.  “We’re convinced that low prices are not a solution in the long term,” he said.  Low prices simply meant that developing countries that specialized in the production of agricultural commodities would have less revenues from exports.  Such prices also meant that the food producers had fewer incentives to produce and, therefore, it was not conducive for long-term solutions.

The crisis still existed for a number of reasons, he continued, but particularly because the structural causes of the global food crisis problem remained entirely present: the dependency of agriculture on volatile prices of oil; the threat of climate change, which would make prices more volatile in the future; and an unfair trading system, which made it extremely difficult for developing countries to reap a fair share of the value of their produce.

Therefore, the meeting had been convened in order to put the issue back on the agenda, and to insist that States based their responses to the global food crisis on the right to food, which meant that it was not sufficient just to produce enough for prices to go down.  It was important to also ensure that such increase in food production benefited the most vulnerable and the poorest, and that the investments that were made in agriculture were targeted carefully, in order to achieve the objective of combating hunger and malnutrition.

“In a world such as ours, hunger does not result from there being too little food available.  Hunger is there because people do not have the purchasing power, because people are marginalized, because people are discriminated against.  And this is what the right to food has to bring to the debate,” Mr. De Shutter added.

Focusing his comments on the farmers, Mr. Andrews said most of the world’s work was agricultural, and most of it was done by women, a fact not very well appreciated or understood.  People often wondered:  How could it be that people who produced food were themselves hungry?  Also, why didn’t experts from whatever international organizations consult the hungry or the farmers in their solutions to the food crisis?

He wondered why it was that, recently, a high-level group of experts from around the United States had met in Chicago and issued a report on world hunger without consulting farmers.  “And then United States policy comes out of the Senate reflecting the ideas of that group of experts, but without consulting farmers who are themselves among the major portion of those who are hungry in the world,” Mr. Andrews said.  In attempting to seek answers to those questions, the solution he saw lay in the right to food, which included the participation from those who suffered from want in shaping policy, he stated.

A correspondent said that one of the solutions to the food price rises in the Gulf region had been to invest quite heavily in the agro-sector, buying up large tracts of land in places like Sudan, Pakistan and others, and use them to farm produce and bringing it back to their own markets, because they were net importers of food.  Was that part of the solution or part of the problem?  In response, Mr. Andrews said he viewed it as part of the problem, because it paid no attention to the global circumstances.  Additionally, the direction of large scale or agro-business companies was still, in terms of a market orientation as a priority, not appreciative of the role of the right to food.

Expanding on that answer, Mr. De Shutter described as a very important development the attempt to achieve food security, not by depending on international markets, the volatility and unpredictability of which everybody had now been able to witness, but by acquiring and indeed buying or leasing, for long terms, large areas of land in countries that had that land to offer.  The projects that existed in Madagascar, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, could be added to those already mentioned, he explained.  “So, it’s a phenomenon which is quite widespread indeed.”  The phenomenon raised several essential questions.  One was whether those who were currently using the land were protected from being evicted from the land they cultivated.

He said that, unfortunately, in many countries, particularly in Africa, the rights of land users to the land they cultivated were not formally recognized and, in many cases, they did not even have any legal title to the land they cultivated and had no remedy in cases of expropriation.  That was why it was absolutely vital to protect land users from forced evictions.  There were standards in international law that could help States move in the right direction in ensuring there was legal protection.  A second concern that arose was, in those “deals” that were negotiated, either between sovereign States or between one private investor and a sovereign State, there were very little transparency and no participation of national parliaments or civil society in the evaluation of the benefits for the country.

If such a deal could ensure that technologies were transferred, that employment was created and that the population benefited from the arrival of the foreign investor, then it might have positive impact, he continued.  However, the reality was that the population often was not provided the information it needed to evaluate whether the deals were beneficial.  Further, in many cases, there was simply no guarantee that the revenues for the selling Governments were spent for the benefit of the population.

A third concern raised by those agreements was what was referred to in international law as the right to self-determination.  The right to self-determination was not only what it was often reduced to, the right of colonized people to gain their independence.  It was also the right of populations to benefit from the exploitation of their natural resources, he asserted.

Asked what effect, if any, the recent coup in Madagascar had on the land deal with a South Korean firm, he said that, to the best of his knowledge, the deal ousted Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana had negotiated with the South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics was for the moment “on hold” and had not been concluded.  He did not know how the new leaders of the country intended to proceed on that issue.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.