Responses to the world food crisis in light of the human right to food

(February 11, 2009) Soaring world food prices, the increasing competition of biofuel production with food production1, and the growing awareness of the impacts of climate change have put the world food problem squarely back on the global development agenda. This is therefore a rare opportunity to mobilize human rights, and the right to adequate food in particular, as the guiding framework for policies and action. Nonetheless political leadership all over the world is still locked in patterns of action that have led to persistent and growing world hunger, with too much emphasis on technological fixes, on “breadbasket” areas to feed the poor, and treating food as a commodity little different from other traded commodities.

Advancing the right to food

Over the past ten years, progress has been made in advancing the right to food.

Several governments and elements of civil society now see the realization of human rights, including the right to adequate food, as means to economic, social and human development.

We also have several practical tools with which to address the right to food, including:

  • General Comment No. 12 on the right to food, a UN-based expert assessment from 1999 which defines the content of this right
  • The 2004 Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food developed by governments themselves in support of those that wish to address food and nutrition security from a human rights perspective.
  • Various initiatives for monitoring the realization of the right to food, such as those undertaken by FIAN 2and the FAO publication Methods for Monitoring the Right to Food, Volume I and Volume II.
  • A significant expansion of information on the right to food, especially that published by FIAN and FAO

These are promising beginnings giving rise to the hope that future work with food and nutrition policies and programs will increasingly adopt a human rights based approach and consistently apply human rights principles when designing analyses and practical activities.

Initiatives to address the global food crisis considered from the right to food perspective

But the challenges ahead are many. What are the prospects of a breakthrough for the right to food movement? Even though there are both better tools and a broader interest in the right to food than ten years ago, it is not clear if there will be greater adoption of the right to food or more of the same failing policies. Most developments in 2008 do not illustrate a change in direction.

UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis

Probably the most visible manifestation of the global concern triggered by the soaring food prices was the establishment, by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 28 2008, of a UN Task Force on the Global Security Crisis. The primary aim of the UN Task Force is “to promote a unified response to the global food price challenge, including by facilitating the creation of a prioritized plan of action and coordinating its implementation”. The Task Force prepared a Comprehensive Framework for Action intended for discussion at the subsequent High Level Conference in Rome in June on “ World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy” .

Special Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council held a one day special session in May 2008 to discuss the food crisis from a human rights perspective and direct recommendations to the June conference on world food security. (See statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter). Although this initiative by the Council turned out to have little impact on the final results of the June conference, it was important in its own right in that it placed food centrally on the Council’s agenda. De Schutter was asked to prepare a new report for the Council’s meeting in September. The report, Building Resilience: a Human Rights Framework for Food and Nutrition Security recommends a range of national and international measures to redress the negative effects of the food crisis on the enjoyment of the right to food. “Solutions to the food crisis will only be sustainable if our strategies are grounded on human rights,” De Schutter said, and urged all actors to take human rights into account in their efforts to tackle the impact of the increase in food prices. Then in the end of October he presented his annual report to the UN General Assembly where the same messages were brought forward.

The High Level Conference on World Food Security

It is a fact that, in spite of the early initiative to get a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to discuss the issue and send signals on the importance of using right to food principles and guidelines, the June 2008 Conference on World Food Security adopted a Declaration on World Food Security that leaves little room for enthusiasm concerning the treatment of the right to food. One hazy sentence was squeezed into its introductory paragraph

“We reiterate that food should not be used as an instrument for political and economic pressure. We also recall the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security. We reiterate that it is unacceptable that 862 million people are still undernourished in the world today”

without any further return to a rights-based approach.

Indeed the delegates might be accused of having forgotten their countries’ historical endorsement of the 2004 Guidelines as an operational tool developed by themselves in an intergovernmental working group, and subsequently its final adoption through the FAO Council. An equally likely reason would be that some few of them were simply unwilling to accept a more substantive place for the right to food in the Conference Declaration. One may therefore initially sense a backlash for the right to food advocates.

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

The Rome Conference also endorsed the creation of a new “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” – AGRA – between the three Rome-based food agencies FAO, IFAD and WFP. Attention was focused almost exclusively on boosting food production in potentially productive areas to increase food supplies, a disappointment to those who hoped for a stronger emphasis on access to food. A common feature of the announced programs for both AGRA and the UN Task Force is the absence of any reference at all to a rights-based approach to food and food security. This was unexpected, as AGRA will be chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a devoted human rights advocate. It remains to be seen whether Annan will seize the opportunity to help operationalize his earlier global visions on human rights in the context of food security and agriculture.

International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development

Short of an explicit rights-based approach, it is indeed also possible to work for changes in agricultural and food policies in the interest of the poor and thus in the spirit of human rights principles, without necessarily labeling them as human rights based. This has been the approach of another UN-based initiative, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Originating with FAO and the World Bank in 2002 at the “World Summit on Sustainable Development” (WSSD), a global consultative process was set in motion for an assessment of the role of agricultural science and technology in the context of hunger, poverty, the environment and equity. The initiative was carried forward by a multi-stakeholder group of UN organizations, representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific institutions from around the world. The final report by over 400 scientists from all over the world was considered in Johannesburg in April 2008 by representatives of 64 governments, all UN agencies including the World Bank and around 50 NGOs.

The assessment’s main message is that:

  • modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production. But the benefits have been spread unevenly and have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment
  • thus, the way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.

While the report was strongly welcomed by NGOs for its calls for immediate radical changes in international agriculture, not all governments were on the same wavelength, notably the USA, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. After these had first watered down several key findings, the US in particular claimed that the report was ‘unbalanced’.

While it may seem a paradox that it was the same agencies and governments who selected the authors of the report and decided on its preparation in the first place, resistance to the concluding proposals can be found also elsewhere. A few months before the launch of the report, major private sector stakeholders, notably Monsanto and Syngenta, resigned altogether from the IAASTD project in October 2007 as the conclusions were clearly going against their interests. It does not need too much imagination that they also may have found ways of silencing other stakeholders especially those of the UN family: all in financial shortages and therefore continually vulnerable to the interplay between important member contributors and larger corporations whose continued profit depends on processes that contribute to make the poor poorer and the rich richer.

This can perhaps explain why none of the documents emerging from the subsequent events referred to above–starting with the UN Task Force communiqué through the Declaration from Rome and the AGRA program–have the slightest reference to the IAASTD report!

The Task Force communiqué even pledges various new assessments including “of the diverse impact of the crisis”. But such impacts were not happening for the first time. The IAASTD had by that time already documented the continuing and systemic marginalization of the poor and the reasons for it, traceable to failed agricultural policies which will not be reversed by emergency food assistance or by new assessments. Thus it appears as if the more than 2000 pages of scientific evidence in the IAASTD report about failures in global agricultural development had been dismissed before it had even reached the desks of policymakers!

The July 2008 G8 Summit in Hokkaido – a disillusion?

On June 27 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, in a speech in New York in advance of the meeting of the “Group of Eight” in Hokkaido in Japan in early July, that these have “a moral obligation to support the UN’s efforts to address the food crisis, in the short-, medium-, and long-term”, also because they had “a self-interested motivation in that high food prices may drive more than 100 million more people into poverty. If the crisis is not brought under control, it risks unleashing large population movements, instability and inflation throughout the world” .

The G8 leaders issued five statements from their summit, one of which was on Global Food Security. Void of any deeper analysis, it speaks in support of the UN Task Force, the Declaration from Rome, and AGRA, and makes certain financial commitments along well-trodden paths. But it also announces, with total disregard for the work of IAASTD, the formation of a global partnership on agriculture and food “involving all relevant actors, including developing country governments, the private sector, civil society, donors, and international institutions”. Declaring that the UN should facilitate and provide coordination, it stipulates that “a global network of high-level experts on food and agriculture would provide science-based analysis, and highlight needs and future risks.” Thus precisely what IAASTD was mandated to do – and did!

Call for urgent action

It must be acknowledged that in the current food and hunger crisis, right to food principles have up till now played a rather limited role. But three important developments came to fruition on the Human Rights Day, December 10, 2008, the 60th Anniversary of the UDHR.

On the invitation of the Federal Government of Germany, the VII Conference on Policies Against Hunger, which focused on the Right to Food, ended in Berlin. Hosted by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, the conference was attended by a large audience of decision-makers and interested stakeholders in national and international civil society, members of political decision-making bodies (parliamentary committees, ministries in Germany and abroad), scientists and experts from the fields of human rights, food security, rural development/natural resources, representatives of national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the fields of world food affairs and human rights and representatives of international organizations (FAO, other UN organizations). They adopted forceful recommendations to all stakeholders concerned with the global food security crisis, that they should in the future work under the overarching principle of the promotion of the realization of the Right to Adequate Food, as further specified.

Also launched on that day was “The Cordoba Declaration on the Right to Food and the Governance of the Global Food and Agricultural Systems”, developed through the so-called “Cordoba process” which started at an international seminar on the right to food at CEHAP – Chair of Studies on Hunger and Poverty (a collaborative initiative between the University of Cordoba and the Diputacion de Cordoba) in Cordoba, Spain in October 2007. It was further pursued at the FAO Right to Food Forum in October 2008, and completed in its present version following a second meeting convened in Cordoba in late November 28-29, 2008. It will be subject of further consultations and possible revisions during 2009, and may mean a renewed mobilization of civil society and academics all over the world who will all have a critical role to play in using the opportunity currently available: not only to further pursue the right to food, but also to do so in a climate of some collective despair – where many people are looking for a new direction as they have begun to realize that business cannot continue as usual.

Last, but not least, Human Rights Day on 10th December 2008 was the day when economic, social and cultural rights – thus also the right to adequate food – finally got their official global stamp as legal entitlements rather than charity. The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was officially adopted by the General Assembly plenary with consensus. In a joint communiqué all the thirty-six UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts on various human rights issues stated: “This marks an essential step towards the establishment of a long-awaited mechanism that reinforces the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights, and the guarantee of dignity and justice for all”, and called on all States to sign and ratify the instrument swiftly so as to secure a speedy entry into force and wide application. “Allowing individuals and groups of individuals to submit complaints on alleged violations to the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights represents a promising tool for all victims of violations of these rights to speak out and be heard,” underlined the group.

This implies a new inspiration for civil society to assist vulnerable groups to do just that–speak out and be heard on human rights violations including the right to food.

Wenche Barth Eide is an Associate Professor of the Department of Nutrition, University of Oslo. Uwe Kracht is an independent development consultant, focusing on food, nutrition and the elimination of poverty. For the past two decades, he has played an increasingly active role in international and national efforts to pursue these issues within a framework determined by ethical and human rights principles, in particular contributing to advancing the conceptual framework and implementation of the right to food.

This article does not necessarily reflect the view of Hunger Notes or WHES.


1. Donald Mitchell. June 2008 “A note on rising food prices.” World Bank

2. See FIAN, its document page and case page, and for an up-to-date summary (in 2008) of nine country situations.

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