6 April 2009


6 April 2009
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-third General Assembly

Thematic Dialogue on the

 Right to Food (AM & PM)




Special Rapporteur, High Representative for Most

Vulnerable Countries Call for Rights-Based Approach to Reducing Hunger

Calling for a new type of “food democracy” that would start from the bottom and nourish those facing hunger in the midst of abundance, President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann today opened the General Assembly’s Interactive Thematic Dialogue on the Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food.

“Why do we continue to tolerate hunger and malnutrition now affecting a billion people in a world of abundance?” he challenged the economists, environmentalists and human rights experts participating in the gathering.  “The hungry cannot wait till tomorrow.”  The global food crisis was a symptom of a broader breakdown among selfish governance models, which converged with -- and further aggravated -– the climate change, finance and energy crises.  Without innovative and broad change, hunger would once again spread.  Beyond necessary increases in food production, however, it was of critical importance to address how to guarantee universal and sustained access to food.

In seeking change, he urged the world community to build on analyses by a range of United Nations bodies -- the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) among them -– which argued for the creation of a new global architecture for agriculture and food.  Indeed, amid the global economic downturn, it was even more urgent to promote a rights-based approach to food policy that would address the needs of small-scale farmers, many of whom -– astonishingly -- did not have enough to eat.

Underlining that call, Olivier de Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, said that right should be understood as the overarching principle in the global response to the food crisis.  It should also take centre-stage in longer-term efforts to reform the world’s current food system, which had proved over the last two years to be particularly fragile in the face of such shocks as peaking oil prices, sudden shifts in demand and speculation on commodities markets.

He said that, as an enforceable human right in international law, the right to food would mean that merely producing more food or increasing food aid no longer sufficed in combating hunger and malnutrition.  The main thrust of anti-hunger policies would instead have to ensure that the hungry or malnourished were identified and specially targeted by agricultural and social support schemes.  It would also mean that no hungry person would be left out.

To that end, he said, FAO was considering the addition of governance and the right to food as a third, additional track alongside providing emergency food aid and promoting agricultural investment in the efforts to combat hunger.  Twenty States -– including Brazil, India, South Africa, Ecuador and Bolivia -– already recognized the right to food in their constitutions.  A growing number of States had also adopted a framework law protecting that right.

He said that, beyond having symbolic value, those developments represented a shift from the proposition that “we need to have policies that achieve food security” to the proposition that “each individual must be granted a remedy if his or her right to food is violated”.  They were also rooted in a recognition that hunger was not created by insufficient food production, but by the lack of purchasing power among the most vulnerable -- small-scale farmers, landless agricultural workers and the urban poor -– to procure available food.

It was for that reason, he argued, that the most effective response to the food crisis required building a new system on the ruins of the old one, whose limits had become clear.  While returning to business as usual might mean more food and lower prices, it would only perpetuate unsustainable inequalities both between and within countries, with an impoverished countryside providing cheap food to the cities, even as a rural exodus occurred.

Cheick Sidi Diarra, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said the crisis presented an opportunity to revisit past policies.  Tools derived from a rights-based approach would undoubtedly strengthen the global response to the food crisis by supporting the most vulnerable, the poorest and most marginalized.  Such an approach would better prioritize activities, increase State accountability and, ultimately, contribute to reducing poverty.

He said that, alongside the rights-based third track, the two tracks outlined in the Comprehensive Framework for Action adopted in July 2008 by the Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on Food Security -– meeting the immediate needs of vulnerable populations and shoring up global food and nutrition security by building resilience -– should guide assessments and strategies developed at the country level and support international coordination efforts. 

Moreover, he said, it had been recognized at January’s High-Level Meeting in Madrid –- convened to review progress made since the Rome High-Level Conference in June 2008 -- that a coordinated and adequately funded response was required.  In that response, short-, medium- and long-term actions should be devised to mobilize adequate, predictable and flexible funding while addressing food security by increasing production and developing protection systems.  Possible funding mechanisms should also be identified so as to minimize the balance-of-payments and exchange-rate risks of least developed countries.  The possibility of creating a global food bank to avert food crises should also be explored.

Rounding out the day’s dialogue, two interactive panel discussions focused on policy choices in the context of the food crisis and sustainable models of agriculture.  During the first, panellists and delegates alike emphasized how international trade had exacerbated certain inequities in the global food system and played a role in the current food crisis, with some representatives calling for enhanced market access for the agricultural products of developing countries.  Other speakers stressed that casting the food crisis as a human rights issue could bring a new dimension to the traditional approach to hunger reduction.

Discussion during the second panel ranged from how much control farmers, States, trade regimes and transnational corporations had over access to food to what opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship could ensure in terms of “pro-poor” progress.  One panellist discussed how the socio-political norms governing agricultural production favoured the largest-scale producers and increased the concentration of wealth in the food system, while some delegates asked how Governments could meet the increased demand that would result from enforcing the right to food, especially in poor countries already lacking resources.

Panel I

David Andrews, Senior Adviser to the President of the General Assembly on Food Policy and Sustainable Development, moderated the morning panel, on “Policy choices and the right to food in the context of the global food crisis”, which featured four panellists:  Sanjay Reddy, Assistant Professor of Economics, Barnard College, Columbia University; Daniel de la Torre Ugarte, Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Tennessee, and Associate Director, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center; Jim McGovern, Vice-Chairman, House Rules Committees, United States House of Representatives and Chair, House Hunger Caucus; and Pedro Medrano, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Mr. REDDY, emphasizing how international trade had aggravated certain inequities in the global food system and played a role in the current food crisis, said a singular focus on more cost-efficient allocations of production sites and the resulting gains for individual countries risked a failure in evaluating how that reallocation would be experienced by individuals.  But while the so-called “food sovereignists” -– those favouring a secure support system for people providing food for themselves -- often argued that such preservation was impossible in the presence of trade integration, “food globalists” also had a point -- food trade could improve income levels and facilitate export to food-deficit areas.  Given the valid arguments on both sides, it seemed clear that an adequately balanced approach would give sufficient weight to both camps. 

Unfortunately, the world trading system had given outsize weight to the food globalists, resulting in an imbalance in approaches to food policies, he said, adding that it was hard to identify the mechanisms by which State, corporate and individual actions translated into real-world outcomes.  That was clearly illustrated by the difficulty of ascribing responsibility for the rapid increase in food prices.  Given the clear existence of “imperfect obligations” and the lack of sufficient rules in the world system, there was a need for a mechanism to adjudicate obligations as well as national-level mechanisms to implement a rights-based approach.  Standing social safety nets were one type of mechanism that could meet expanding needs.  They would require minimal political reprioritization in times of crisis.  Since countries with greater financial resources might be able to establish such schemes, while poorer countries with more concentrated risks might face real obstacles in erecting them, a global reinsurance mechanism could be put in place.  Better global management of common property resources, such as global fish stocks, was also crucial.

Mr. DE LA TORRE stressed the importance of understanding which major factors made the agricultural sector different from others -- particularly the ones that made agriculture, at its base, unfair.  The sector depended on land allocation, weather, soils and topography, among other things, but only a few countries -- such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom, United States, China and India -- enjoyed truly beneficial land allocation.  Moreover, those countries had enhanced their agricultural production by investing in infrastructure.  Agriculture had historically undergone price crises due to extreme weather events, but today’s crisis was driven by certain policy choices made under the illusion that a level agricultural playing field could be created.

Decisions resulting from the belief that trade could improve economic growth had added to agricultural inequality, he said.  As poor, developing countries reoriented their agricultural production towards goods that could be sold in high-income countries, other areas of their economies had gone without critical investment.  Many of those countries had also eliminated domestic support policies and, after 1996, replaced their strategy of holding food stocks that could help during price crises like the current one with trade-based policies.  The resulting pattern, compounded by a higher oil price and the use of food crops for biofuel production, was not sustainable.  To move forward -– and to incorporate the right to food into sustainable agricultural policies -- an international system of grain reserves should be created, with the purpose not of fixing food prices, but regulating them.  By avoiding extremes, it would promote a band of reasonable prices and circumvent the environmental trap in which high prices prompted farmers rapidly to raise production at any cost, and low prices caused them to forgo reinvestment in natural resources.  The new system would, for the first time, solicit global participation in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

Mr. MCGOVERN said hunger was a political condition that could be ended, but the political will to do so was lacking in the United States and the global community.  While the percentage of hungry people in the world had been reduced in the past decades, the sheer number suffering from food insecurity had increased.  The food, money, infrastructure and even models to end hunger already existed, but hunger had not risen to the top of the agenda.  If today’s event was to be just another opportunity to produce great papers but few results, participants should instead “go catch a show on Broadway”.  But if something was to be done, participants should go back to their leaders and advocate for comprehensive anti-hunger plans sufficient for their national reality.  However, that was difficult to do.  With 36 million people in the United States hungry, or one of every eight, good intentions must clearly be translated into reality.  Donor nations must better connect the dots so their citizens could see that ending hunger was more than a nice thought, but something that could be achieved.  To that end, the global crisis had created an opportunity, with more people conscience of the impact of hunger around the world.

In the United States, there had been a dramatic expansion of social safety nets to reduce domestic hunger, he said, adding that they must now be fully funded.  A dedicated, comprehensive plan with benchmarks for ending hunger must be created and grass-roots commitments enlisted in the national effort.  Globally, the United States was committed to the United Nations plan for addressing hunger, food security and agricultural development, he said, stressing that he was working with other members of Congress to develop a national plan for cutting global hunger.  While the United States was already spending millions on food and agricultural aid, that assistance was uncoordinated.  The congressional plan should seek to enhance coordination and support the aspirations of small-scale farmers, particularly women.  Overall, the United States needed to be a better, smarter, more generous and more humble partner.  Because there could be no national security without food security, the effort should be seen as a global task and the world’s leaders should be held accountable in their efforts.

Mr. MEDRANO said the current food crisis should draw attention to the underlying chronic crisis of hunger and poverty that had existed for decades.  Casting the food crisis as a human rights issue would also bring a new dimension to the traditional approach to hunger reduction.  Its focus on the most vulnerable would mean that their needs would be met without discrimination.  Promoting accountability, transparency and the rule of law would improve the efficiency of public action.  Empowering the poor and promoting participation would ensure that the hungry could become agents of their own development.

For their part, the United Nations agencies were pushing for a more coordinated and bolder process to respond to the food crisis, he said.  The Rome-based agencies were working to strengthen programmes to feed the hungry and expand support to farmers in developing countries.  The World Food Programme was ramping up its activities to provide essential food assistance to more than 100 million beneficiaries.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Initiative on Soaring Food Prices of December 2007 was currently supporting smallholder food production in 96 countries, supplying improved seeds, fertilizers and other inputs for different planting seasons.  The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) had made $200 million immediately available to boost agricultural production in the developing world, while other support initiatives had been fast-tracked.  But even on top of that, mainstreaming the right to food into the global response to the food crisis would not be enough.  The structural architecture of the global food system must be tackled and the well-being of every human placed at the centre.

In the ensuing discussion, a number of delegations emphasized that successful strategies to defeat hunger should involve stronger institutions with better accountability; greater stability of the global markets; enhanced market access for agricultural products from developing countries; and sustainable and targeted investments.  Several representatives also underlined the persistence of the food crisis, with dozens of countries still being affected, with the least developed countries among the hardest hit.

Other delegates pointed out how the financial crisis had aggravated the situation by making it harder for farmers to access credit to increase and enhance agricultural inputs.  As a result, millions of people risked falling below the poverty threshold.  Several speakers called for substantial and immediate measures to continue to meet the needs of hungry populations.  One delegate said all discussions to address the food crisis in both the short and long term should be pragmatic and maintain a development focus.  A few speakers called for a global partnership that would coordinate the actions and interests of States, civil society, business and consumers.

Mr. DE LA TORRE, responding to various interventions, stressed the need to react to recent events in such a way as to lower the chances of their recurring.

Mr. REDDY said certain obligations were shared by agreement, but it was hard to identify precisely how they should be attached to specific actors.  It was in that context that there was a need for institutional rules to allocate responsibilities.

Mr. MCGOVRN said that, despite the enormous amount of consensus in the room, he continued to “wrestle” with how to move towards a common plan.  What would be different in today’s plan as opposed to those envisioned five years or a decade ago?  With no country currently hunger-free, everyone must identify what could be done in their own countries.

Mr. DE SCHUTTER said countries should abstain from policies that prevented the right to food while exercising their influence over private actors in that regard.  More political imagination was clearly needed as were innovative proposals for a global reinsurance mechanism to boost social safety nets, a fund for agrarian reform and an emergency food reserve.  There was also a need for reforms to address speculation in futures markets.

Mr. MEDRANO stressed that the development perspective must be taken into account in efforts to address hunger, which carried a high price, as high as 6 per cent of gross domestic product in some cases, according to some studies in Latin America.

Panel II

Barbara Ekwall, Senior Officer in the Agricultural Development Economic Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization, moderated the afternoon panel, titled “Answering to the Poor:  Right to food and sustainable models of agriculture”, which featured presentations by Henri Saragih, Peasants’ Union of Indonesia; Molly Anderson, Wallace Senior Fellow at the Wallace Center at Winrock International and coordinating lead author for the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi; and Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agro Ecology at the University of California at Berkley, and adviser to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Mr. SARAGIH kicked off the afternoon panel, saying that the international peasant movement was working to address the global food crisis, and the role of the United Nations was particularly important in that respect.  Peasants were heavily discriminated against in their access to food and water and all were urged to pay attention to their vulnerability and encourage their right to education.  The June 2008 Declaration of the Rights of Peasants could be among efforts made to institutionalize the right to food, and would provide a powerful approach to protecting and promoting peasants’ rights.  Oppression was a daily experience for peasants as many were expelled from their lands.  “We can’t earn an income that provides life and dignity.”

Peasants were forced to buy seeds from transnational corporations and, in fact, the number of cases involving land control and the imposition of industrial food on communities was increasing, he said.  “The question is:  who controls our food?”  Access was increasingly controlled by a monopolistic system.  Rather than supporting export-oriented agriculture, States should adopt an approach based on food sovereignty.  The battle over food was not between developed and developing countries.  Rather, it was unfolding in the World Trade Organization and the Doha Round of negotiations represented a struggle to keep the agency out of agriculture.  The international market needed regulation, international food reserves must be bolstered, and a mechanism must be created to stabilize prices on the international market.  The influence of transnational corporations must be limited.

Ms. WAKHUNGU said that her centre assessed the impacts of agricultural knowledge, science and technology on hunger and poverty reduction, improved rural livelihoods, and improved nutrition and human health.  It was an intergovernmental process, with a multistakeholder bureau of Governments and civil society organizations.  Over the years, agricultural knowledge, science and technology had led to substantial increases in agricultural production, but people had benefited unevenly, in part because of different organizational capacities.  Pro-poor progress would require the creation of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurshipDemand for food would double in the next 25 to 50 years, mainly in developing countries.  Moreover, the projected impacts of climate change showed that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius would create significant decreases in water availability, particularly in the Mediterranean.

Achieving development goals involved creating space for diverse voices, she said, adding that, “Food production is about the environment, the economy and social virtues.”  It was also about recognition of traditional land use.  Regarding sub-Saharan Africa, the region had one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, but food production had not kept pace.  The farm population was ageing, rural-to-urban migration of male family members was very high, and the consequences of hunger and malnutrition were felt across all sub-sectors.  In the short-term, there was a need for increased “knowledge, science and technology” focus on drylands and fisheries, and on “orphan crops”.  States must also strive to increase national public investment, build rural safety nets, and enhance basic sciences to address water and land problems.  Medium-term measures should include a shift in focus, from production technologies to understanding and enhancing production.

Ms. ANDERSON said violations of the right to food were caused by socio-political norms governing access to food, resources for food production and markets -– not a lack of technical ability to produce food.  Such norms, which favoured the largest-scale producers, increased the concentration of wealth in the food system, and as such, hurt small-scale producers, among others.  The food crisis was exacerbated by environmental “stressors” -- such as climate change and land degradation -– as well as structural ones.  At the same time, a parallel system of farmers and consumers who were not globally integrated lived under different pressures.  A rights-based approach to producers that focused on rapidly incorporating the world’s rural hungry into the globalized food system was a mistake, given the current stressors on the system.  Problems that might remain local in a more fragmented system became national –- or even global -– in a tightly connected global one, causing food contamination and the spread of disease.

She went on to say that a rights-based approach to food systems meant rethinking governance questions to consider “governance for whom…and for what”?  To meet sustainability goals, five directions should be pursued, the first of which required redirecting and increasing overall investment in agriculture, particularly towards women.  Next, it would be important to improve knowledge use, and institute both democratic decision-making and equitable access to resources and markets.  To move towards agricultural production and distribution reforms, ever-expanding consumption could no longer be a growth driver for economies.  Reorienting to a sustainable economy would require wealthy countries to consume within limits set by moral and environmental constraints, instead of the ability to pay.  Finally, sustainable agriculture was in fact the only kind that could feed the world, given current stressors.  The past focus on increasing production had been at the cost of “natural capital” -– the abundance and quality of resources needed to grow food now and in the future.  That must be changed.

Mr. ALTIERI, focusing first on Latin America, said the green revolution had not reached the region’s small farmers, and biogenic crops were not feeding anyone but “cars and cattle”.  The question was how to produce healthy food for the poor in a non-petroleum-based manner that harnessed technologies that farmers found acceptable.  In that context, there was a need to promote techniques that incorporated indigenous knowledge.  Examples could be found in Latin America, Asia and Africa of small farms that were successful; they had biodiversity and the use of local resources.  In country after country, small-scale farms were showing that they could be more productive than large ones, in part because they used resources more efficiently.  They were proving that half a hectare could produce everything a family needed for one year, with a surplus.

Citing examples, he said a review undertaken after Hurricane Mitch had moved through Central America showed that monoculture farms had suffered the most.  In Honduras, where the impacts had been heaviest, the ecological resiliency of approaches had proven vital.  In southern Brazil, farmers using diversified systems had moved into “institutional” markets, providing schools and hospitals with major social services.  Venezuela, which had previously imported 80 to 90 per cent of its food, hoped to dedicate 70 per cent of its territory to the process of agricultural conversion.  The only model available within the context of the energy and climate crises was an ecological approach incorporating small farmers.

In the ensuing discussion, participants stressed that the food crisis persisted although media coverage had shifted to other issues.  The current food system was unsustainable and a peaceful environment was needed to eradicate food insecurity.  That was especially critical for developing countries, and policy options must focus on increasing both the production of, and access to, food.  Moreover, the global financial crisis should not be used as an excuse for diluting official development assistance.  Food-related aid should ensure that the partner was “in the driver’s seat”.

Some delegates focused on the need to correct distortions in the global trade system, saying that the elimination of export subsidies and non-tariff barriers would lead to a more balanced global agricultural market.  The food crisis had revealed the need to address the mismatch between regulation and product innovation in using food commodities as capital market investment instruments.

Other delegates asked how Governments could ensure the right to food, especially in poor countries lacking the funds to procure it.  How could food production meet the increased demand that would result from enforcing the right to food?  Nigeria’srepresentative asked the extent to which the United Nations had succeeded in mobilizing the $8-10 billion outlined for the African “Green Revolution”.  While agricultural growth was essential to overall development, how could Africa ensure the right to food when it was at the level of subsistence farming; when “tractors are hard to come by”.

Taking the floor in response, Ms. WAKHUNGU welcomed the Benin delegate’s comments on that country’s efforts for women farmers, and Nigeria’s focus on the need to work closely with smallholder farmers so they could absorb the latest agricultural techniques.

Mr. SARAGIH underscored that, last December, FAO had reported that the hungry numbered nearly 1 billion people and those suffering from malnutrition nearly 2 billion.  At the same time, food production had increased, particularly for biofuels.  The right to food could be implemented if countries maintained food sovereignty and showed a willingness to change production models.

Ms. ANDERSON pointed to biofuels as an example of the failure to examine the human rights impacts of a policy before it was put in place.  In the United States, the primary need was to work towards sustainable consumption, and the answer was not to be found in agrofuels.

Mr. ALTIERI said he appreciated the interest in promoting investment in agricultural research, pointing out that the question was where funds would come from, and whether they would support existing agricultural models.  There was a need to think about new institutional arrangements.  At the same time, new actors -– including the Gates Foundation -– were promoting research in genetically modified organisms, for example, and in doing so, changing the panorama of agricultural research.

Ms. ECKALL closed the panel discussion by noting that the global crisis revealed the fragility of food systems and presented an opportunity to examine governance.  “We need to focus on the right to food if we want to address the root causes of hunger.”  As for how to do that, it was necessary to “look at the hungry”:  target support, allocate responsibility to different actors and put needed institutions in place.  National efforts must be supported by an enabling global environment.  The hungry needed choices.  Ensuring respect for human rights and good governance would lead to better opportunities for them in the future.

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