Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Right to Food

24 October 2011

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Right to Food

24 October 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Right to Food


An overhaul of inequitable agricultural business models was needed to reduce global poverty and ensure long-term sustainability for farmers and farm systems, said an independent United Nations food expert at a New York Headquarters press conference today.

“We need to allow small farmers to climb up the value chain,” said Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.  Too often, he added, current agricultural purchasing schemes led farmers to face debt, vulnerability to volatile food prices and over-reliance on a single crop.  They rarely encouraged them to move into packaging, processing and marketing – activities which could help them sell their produce under better circumstances.

“In the long term, only economically viable schemes beneficial to all parties involved can be durable,” he stressed as he briefed correspondents ahead of his annual address to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian) (see Press Release GA/SHC/4018).

At that meeting, he was scheduled to present his annual report, which this year focused on the practice of contract farming – the development of long-term relationships between commodities buyers and farmers - through which buyers purchased produce at predefined prices.  While the practice was often touted as an improved alternative to the private purchasing of large tracts of land for produce “plantations”, he stressed that there were both benefits and problems associated with it.

“We should not idealize contract farming,” he warned.  Instead, Governments and the private sector should work to ensure that those arrangements were profitable to both parties and helped to fight poverty.  Other business models should be considered, said Mr. De Schutter, including setting a minimum price to be paid to farmers, and establishing farmers’ cooperatives.

Many small farmers who entered into contract farming arrangements received credit and reliable access to markets for their produce, while buyers benefited from security against erratic global food markets.  However, farmers might not be as well shielded from volatile food pricing as their buyers.  Additionally, the farmers were vulnerable to falling into debt to their buyers, and were frequently forced into the position of only being able to sell through one buyer – a situation in which produce buyers could essentially dictate their own purchase price.

The report outlined a series of recommendations to help avoid such risks, among them, he said, small farmers should be encouraged to form self-organized groups, or cooperatives, that drew together collective bargaining strength.  In that regard, he cited the example of the Divine Chocolate brand, a London-based enterprise that was jointly owned by some 68,000 Ghanaian cocoa farmers.  The cooperative was responsible for the marketing of its own produce, he said, and reaped the benefits, including fixed prices, a fair-trade premium, ownership dividends and a large support programme.   

Further, he noted that contract farming schemes were often negotiated by the head of the household – namely, men – and husbands therefore often became the de facto decision-makers in a family, choosing everything from how to spend money to what a family ate.  In that context, he suggested that Governments and the private sector should enter into agreements with express terms requiring women to be co-signatories in any produce purchase contract.  “We need to make sure that women are not sidelined,” said Mr. De Schutter, adding that empowering women would have the added benefit of improving the nutrition of families around the world.  In fact, he said, one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study had found that, when women were in charge of food choices, the rate of malnutrition for children under the age of five dropped by a dramatic 20 per cent.

The Special Rapporteur also responded to several questions.  Addressing one correspondent, who wondered what role non-governmental organizations could play in organizing small farmers into cooperatives, Mr. de Schutter said that farmers might learn from advice on the risks and benefits of their negotiations.  Additionally, non-governmental organizations could help to access remedies in cases where a farmer was cheated by a buyer.  Governments should also work to provide cooperatives with access to legal advice, he stressed.

To a question about the morality of “getting involved in the cultural affairs of farmers” – in particular, with regard to mandating women to be co-signatories in business transactions, he said that such model contracts “might run contrary to cultural traditions”.  But “these are traditions which we must question,” he added, and which might be eradicated over time if more attention were paid to the gender dimensions of agriculture.

Among questions that focused on particular cases around the world, one correspondent asked whether there was evidence that trade sanctions imposed on Côte d’Ivoire earlier this year had negatively affected cocoa growers in that country.  While such country-specific questions often rightly fell under his mandate, responded Mr. De Schutter, he was unable to take a position on them without first verifying reports through first-hand information.  He noted, however, that in many such cases, “we have sanctions imposed on countries that are insufficiently attentive to the human rights impact”.

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