The human right to food and contemporary globalization

(October 11, 2008) The proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 was an essential part of the globalizing vision of the United Nations Charter. This vision was formed during World War II, heavily influenced by the Roosevelt administration in the United States and deeply inspired by the famous message by President Roosevelt to the U.S. Congress in January 1941 – the ‘Four Freedoms Speech’ in which he envisaged a new world order to be promoted when World War II had come to an end, ensuring four basic freedoms to everyone– freedom of speech, freedom of faith, freedom from want and freedom from fear – everywhere in the world.

It was a vision of global cooperation for common security and common wealth, through multilateral cooperation intended to replace unilateral self-assertion and power games. The vision in the Four Freedoms speech in January 1941 was repeated in the Atlantic Declaration between the United States and the United Kingdom in August 1941 and then built into the United Nations Declaration in January 1942, which inspired the drafting of the United Nations Charter, adopted in San Francisco in June 1945, and later elaborated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The establishment of the United Nations implied a commitment by states to work together to maintain international peace (UN Charter Article 1.1), to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace (Article 1.2) and to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion (Article 1.3).

This vision of a global cooperation for the maintenance of peace, equal rights and self-determination of peoples and for global solutions of problems of an economic, social, cultural and humanitarian nature underpinned by respect for human rights, was further elaborated by the adoption in December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which spelled out the whole range of human rights that should guide the globalization process: Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It was intended to be a cooperative process involving all nations and peoples on an equal level.

The process of globalization has unfortunately sixty years later (in 2008) become deeply controversial. This is mainly because the main pursuit by dominant actors has been to globalize the market without paying sufficient attention to the other elements required for sustainable global cooperation. There should have been cooperation rather than dominance, and priority should have been given to the broad package of human rights including economic and social rights for the vulnerable. Instead, priority has been given to vast accumulation in the hands of few under the name of economic growth.

The right to food

The right to food which has formed part of internationally recognized human rights from their inception in 1948 has received increasing attention in recent years, not the least as a consequence of the food crisis. By internationally recognized human rights we refer in particular to those rights that are included in the International Bill of Human Rights –the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and the two Covenants on Human Rights, on of them on civil and political rights, the other on economic, social and cultural rights, both adopted by the international community through the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. These rights are recognized in the sense that the community of states have agreed that these are the valid human rights. It does not mean, of course, that all states respect all these rights in practice. It remains a continuing struggle to ensure that all rights are respected and enjoyed by all.

One illustration of the growing recognition of the right to food as a human right is the adoption by the FAO Council in 2004 of the guidelines for states to realize the right to food in the context of food security (see Arne Oshaug’s contribution). Another example is that the UN Human Rights Council convened a special session in May 2008 to emphasize the importance of the right to food in the context of the soaring food process, and another is that the Parliament of the European Union adopted on May 22, 2008 a resolution calling for the full implementation of the right to food.

In spite of this growing recognition and also the solemn commitments made by leaders of the world at the World Food Summit in 1996 and at the UN Millennium conference in 2000 to halve the number of hungry people, the stark fact is that there are more hungry people now than at the time of the World Food Summit. This is a dismal failure of the efforts made by world leaders to fulfill their commitments, and give grounds for suspicion that the commitments were not seriously intended to be followed up.

Realistically, we have to be aware that reduction of hunger does not have a high priority among influential decision-makers, particularly not if it conflicts with other aims that are considered more fruitful or beneficial from their perspective. Land reforms providing small plots for the landless and improvement of productivity for smallholders would substantially reduce hunger, but it would not provide much income into the coffers of the state, and it would be an obstacle to foreign or city-based capital investments in land. Economic growth through facilitation of large-scale investment and the expansion of international trade is more highly valued not only to ambitious entrepreneurs but also to national authorities, even if the benefits accrue to a limited number of persons and make others further impoverished. Significant tax incomes or royalties from investors are required to finance military expenditures, the national administration, and other expenses which are seen as desirable for national authorities. Modest but essential improvements for smallholders and the landless could significantly reduce hunger, but it will not provide taxes and other opportunities for central authorities and are therefore not encouraged. This is one of the reason why hunger is so persistent is so persistent in rural areas of developing countries

On contemporary globalization

Globalization in its present form is both a threat and a range of opportunities. As noted above, there was initially a vision reflected in the United Nations Charter of cooperative globalization for the solution of social and economic problems for all and for the realization of human rights, and there were efforts to follow it up by constructive developments in the early decades after World War II. It was severely hindered by the onset of the Cold War, when human rights of all kinds were frequently violated.

When that hindrance was slowly faded away new problems arouse: A narrower, purely market-oriented globalization gained grounds in the 1980s, benefiting those who were already economically strong but distributing the benefits extremely unevenly and aggravating the situation for many vulnerable peoples. I have described the process in a more extensive article to which interested readers are referred[i].

The dominant trend in present processes of globalization is to expand the global reach for investments and to broaden market for profit. Corporations are the main tool used by investors in this process. International financial institutions mainly serve to promote this process. There is a relentless pressure for unrestricted global trade and investment, which in general terms can be beneficial if carried out between equal partners, but can be very harmful between highly unequal partners. The distributional impact within national societies is also highly unequal: Expanding international trade benefits some segments of national societies and is harmful to others.

Paradoxically, it is only in developed countries that groups such as farmers and organized labour, due to their political impact in the democratic process, manage to resist through subsidies and trade barriers some of the negative impact for them of free international trade. In most developing countries the truly vulnerable groups do not have the strength to resist the pressures of market globalization. For them, international trade can be doubly negative: They are neither protected against the harmful negative consequences arising from international trade on their established sources of livelihood, nor do they achieve the positive benefits that could have resulted for them had all trade barriers and subsidies in developed countries been eliminated.

This is sad, but at closer inspection it should not be surprising. Vulnerable groups in rural areas have little or no political influence even in political systems where formal democratic rules are applied, in spite of their significant numbers. It might be expected that they in a functioning democracy would have substantial impact, but they do not. Not only are they hungry which leaves them little energy beyond what is required for mere survival, but in many countries most of them are illiterate or semi-literate, with very little communication possibilities and with low levels of information about decisions made elsewhere which impact their livelihood.

Most members of the elite live in the urban areas – and it is the elite that determine the policy of their government.

In the present process of globalization, the international financial institutions are dominated by the developed countries, a fact which is also reflected in the voting rules for these institutions. To the extent that representatives of developing countries are given a voice in the decision-making of those institutions, they tend to be recruited from the national elite and have little motivation to protect the interests of the vulnerable but politically and economically insignificant groups. Should a bang of bad conscience occur, they can always fall back on the credo that in the long run the expanding investments, market and production will trickle down to the poor. But, as Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead, and what is very clear is that in the long run hundreds of millions will die from hunger while the markets expand.

Evictions and marginalization in the rural areas of developing countries

Taking into account the factors mentioned above, there should be no surprise that little attention has been given to rural development except in the form of encouragement of large-scale investments or capital-intensive production which is beyond the reach of most of the smallholders. The kind of agriculture that has been promoted in the past has been of little or no help for the rural poor. In order to pay foreign debt (often recklessly incurred by political leaders) and in order to be more competitive in international markets, several governments of developing countries have encouraged the export of national resources and agricultural products such as sugar, flowers, and coffee, in addition to timber and minerals. The new fascination is to go into production of liquid biofuel production.

In order to produce such agricultural products quickly, efficiently, and for a low and therefore competitive price, national governments have often encouraged the eviction or marginalization of indigenous peoples, smallholders and peasants (often women) and have made the land and resource extraction to investors and their corporations, to facilitate an economy of scale and more ‘modern’ forms of production.

Measures to help smallholders such as farm subsidies and cheap credit policies has been opposed by international financial institutions and has fallen out of favor at the national level of many developing countries because it does not serve the interests of those who influence the government. Large parts of the rural population either become landless people who can be exploited for seasonal labor, or who migrate to the urban areas where they hope to have a better life, often in vain because there in many countries there are very limited employment opportunities available. The double effect of the push factor – forcing the indigenous peoples or peasants out of their livelihood – and the pull factor, the dream of a better life with low food cost in the urban areas – are among the main factors in the rapid urbanization in the south.

To the extent these new urbanites in their shantytown dwellings are able to influence their governments, their main interest is to get cheap food, requiring the state to maintain artificially low food prices or to import from abroad at prices which cannot be met by the local producers. This further aggravates the situation of smallholders.

The situation has been aggravated during recent years by the soaring food prices which have seriously affected the urban poor and the landless rural people, but with no benefit to the smallholders who are not able to pay the higher costs of seeds, fertilizers and petrol. On the contrary, since the benefit of higher food prices can be obtained through an economy of scale, the attraction of higher food prices have further intensified the removal of smallholders in favour of investors going into large-scale, plantation-type production.

Biofuel production is likely to accelerate the trend towards concentration of land and the eviction of vulnerable groups. The production of biofuel has a much more drastic impact than other forms of intensive agriculture. Economy of scale is a key to its profitability, which implies that it will mostly be carried out on large-scale plantations. Smallholders are likely to have a minor space in this production, which requires an integrated industrial/agricultural organisation of production, factory processing, transport and distribution.

Plantation-type production is also much more attractive than other agricultural activities to non-local investors who are only interested in large-scale production which can be controlled from afar. Unless stringent regulations are put in place, it is likely that such production will speed up a negative process of evictions and marginalisation and to which there are no socially adequate safety nets, unless there is a full recognition of the problems and a willingness to take the necessary steps to minimize the risks.[ii]

A related factor is that of speculations in the commodities market involving futures on food commodities: This has contributed significantly to the soaring food prices. Speculators base themselves on political decisions such as the establishment of high quotas for biofuel consumption. Speculators have predicted that this would lead to higher prices for food and have therefore gone into speculative transactions which indeed has pushed the price upwards, with very harmful consequences for poor people.

Is there reconsideration under way?

The present global policies for poverty eradication have failed miserably. The number of hungry people has grown. The high food prices are only to a very limited extent caused by temporary shortfalls in production, they are mainly the result of long-range policies including diversion of food resources to biofuel, the growing dependence on costly inputs such as fertilizers and petrol for motorized machinery in food production, and speculation in land aimed at increasing profit for large-scale investors and in future food commodities.

The current crisis has generated soul-searching and increasing willingness to discuss and even to recommend significant changes in polices. The fascination with liquid biofuel for transport has significantly decreased in some quarters. Many have recognized that it neither reduces global warming nor improves in any significant way the access to renewable energy and that, on the contrary, biofuel production in the developing countries will have serious negative social and environmental consequences. Investors still persist, however, and many governments encourage them to do so. As long as there is a demand and they can make a profit, investors will continue until social and environmental objections become strong enough to stop it.

A highly important study, initiated by FAO and the World Bank called International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, was recently completed[iii]. It contains significant pointers towards a new orientation of agricultural policy. It emphasizes the need to promote small-scale agricultural systems through development-oriented local government and through institutions such as cooperatives, farmer organizations and local business associations and unions to support small-scale farming systems, and to ensure greater and more effective involvement of women and the use of their knowledge, skills and experience.

Among the tools that could be used to bolster this reorientation is the human right to food, set out in Article 11 of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights whereby states recognize the right of everyone to the right to adequate food and to be free from hunger and to take steps to ensure that everyone can enjoy those rights, and also Articles 24 and 27 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child whereby the right of every child to sufficient nutrition and adequate standard of living are recognized and the obligations to take appropriate measures are set out. All states in the world are parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with the two exceptions of the USA and Somalia.

There is a growing number of nongovernmental organizations focusing on economic and social rights. Some of them, in particular FIAN, focus particularly on the right to food. These organizations are becoming increasingly active and with an expanding network in developing countries.

The adoption in 2004 by states through the FAO Council of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food is another important contribution, and it has been greatly strengthened by the establishment of the Right to Food Unit of the FAO Secretariat.

Another positive factor has been the activities of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, appointed by the Human Rights Council. The annual reports of the first Rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, helped significantly by specific examples to raise the awareness of the need to overcome the obstacles to the realization of the right to food, and his successor appointed in 2008, Olivier De Schutter, has shown his ability to move forcefully on this issue by convincing the UN Human Rights Council to hold a special session on the theme of the right to food in the context of soaring food prices (May 2008).

Real progress in the elimination of hunger will not be achieved, however, before states fully commit themselves to a human rights-based approach to development. Some states, including the United States, have not even ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and are therefore not legally obliged to implement the right to food. Some of those who have ratified have done very little to implement their obligations, and there are hardly any sanctions which can pressure them to do so.

Economic growth in itself is no guarantee that hunger will be eradicated. India has had a fabulous economic growth in the last decade, but the conditions of the ordinary people have not improved much. India is a democratic country, and its experience demonstrates that landless and small landholders cannot through their democratic participation significantly improve their own situation – a commitment by the elite to economic and social rights for all is required. While democracies can prevent mass starvation, it cannot without deliberate and targeted action prevent extensive, perennial, but silent hunger – which is still widespread in South Asia and in many other developing countries.

The improvement of conditions in European countries during the late 19th century and the 20th century was not due simply to economic growth. To a large extent, the dynamics was the opposite: Because economic and social rights were recognized (safe tenure for smallholders, labour rights, rights of everyone to education, universal health services) economic growth was accelerated. Why so? Because more people became more productive and creative, with higher education and less hindered by hunger and diseases.

When political elites recognize that promotion of human rights including economic and social rights such as the right to food actually enhances sustainable economic growth, we can start to expect that freedom from want will become a matter of the past. In his Four Freedoms speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that this was not something to be left to a distant millennium but something that could be achieved within his own generation. That did not happen –but we are now in a new millennium, and it is high time that his vision is transformed into reality.

Asbjørn Eide is presently Senior Fellow at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo, where he was the Director from 1987 to 1998. He was for 20 years member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and in charge of various studies for that body, including “The Right to Adequate Food as a Human Right” (Sub-Commission, 1987).


[i] Asbjørn Eide: The importance of economic and social rights in the age of economic globalisation. Chapter 1 in Wenche Barth Eide and Uwe Kracht (eds.): Food an Human Rights in Development, volume 1 (2005). Intersentia, Antwerp and London.

[ii] For a detailed examination of these issues, see Asbjørn Eide: The right to food and the impact of liquid biofuels (agrofuels). Study prepared for the Right to Food Unit of FAO, May 30, 2008. Found on (visited July 4, 2008)

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