Posted by: APO | 3 May 2008


2 May 2008




Olivier De Schutter, the newly appointed Special Rapporteur on the right to food, called today for the convening of a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of the international community’s effort to address the world food crisis.


At a Headquarters press conference, he likened the global food crisis to a “silent tsunami”, saying it had overtaken everyone and its consequences were immense.  The world was losing between 5 and 10 years in meeting poverty reduction strategies and, according to the World Bank, 100 million people were now threatened with food insecurity.


International food prices had almost doubled in three years, he said, with considerable consequences for Governments, particularly those of net food-importing countries; international humanitarian agencies, for whom providing relief was more expensive than ever; and populations whose family budgets were unable to cope with the rising prices.  The Human Rights Council should convene a special session and, speaking a single voice, bring into the debate the human right to adequate food, which had been absent from the macroeconomic solutions and humanitarian aid that had been prescribed or promised.


He said the human right to adequate food, as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, should be treated as equal in importance to the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention or the right to free expression.  The Council was perhaps the most relevant actor, because the crisis was not simply a humanitarian one, or one threatening peace and security.  It was, first and foremost, a massive violation of the human right to adequate food.  That message arose out of fear that the world would react to the crisis with emergency and quick policy measures.  While desirable and important, such measures “should not blind us to the fact that this crisis has structural causes on which we should act”.


Noting that some countries had restricted or prohibited food exports, while others had lowered import tariffs to make food affordable, he said States had reacted by strengthening social safety nets and distributing food to their neediest populations.  However, those reactions sometimes annulled one another.  At the moment, when Indonesia was restricting food exports, for example, the Philippines was finding it very difficult to buy food on the international markets and was paying twice the price it had paid in early 2007.


He said his priorities were linked to the five causes on which it was possible to take immediate action.  First, it was irresponsible to continue the blind pursuit of bio-energy policies.  New investment in first-generation agri-fuels should be frozen immediately and transparent discussions should ensure whether current production levels should continue.  Rather than placing too much hope in those technologies to meet rising energy needs, ways should be found to reduce the consumption of energy and not just produce more.


The second priority was to identify and act on the structural cause of the current crisis, which concerned support to agricultural and developing countries, he continued.  For 25 years, that had been neglected.  Not only had there been underinvestment in the agriculture sectors of developing countries, but it had also been made much more difficult for their agricultural producers to make a living from their crops.  That must change.


He said a third cause on which to act concerned international trade regimes.  The success of the Doha negotiations was imperative if agricultural and developing countries were to meet the needs of all their peoples in the future.  The stumbling block was agricultural subsidies, which distorted competition and made it extremely difficult for producers in developing countries to compete on an equal footing.


Explaining the complexity of that equation, he said what was less recognized was that many developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, were net-importing countries.  For them, subsidies made food affordable for their populations, and an immediate phasing out of subsidies would create shocks if safety nets were not put in place and prices on the global markets increased as a result.  Subsidies were the ruin for many developing-world agricultural producers, but it was also important to consider the needs of those who were not food producers and who might suffer the effects of price increases resulting from the removal of subsidies.


The fourth cause of the food crisis concerned the concentration of power in the food production and distribution sector, he said.  A limited number of corporations provided producers all over the world with seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs, all of which were protected by patents under an intellectual property rights regime.  The corporations exercised immense economic power in the food production and distribution chain.  They were not price takers, but price makers, dictating the prices of inputs, particularly to small producers.  Hopefully, it would be possible to explore with them in an open dialogue their plans to act responsibly by respecting the human right to adequate food in their activities.


Speculative investment was the fifth cause of the crisis, he said, noting that, in 2006, such investment in food commodities like wheat, corn, soybean and livestock had amounted to $10 billion.  Investing in commodities purely for speculative purposes had increased to $47 billion today.  There were ways to insulate food prices from the resulting risk and volatility, but that required acting as “one single community; alone, each country may do little about that”.


He said he would explore ways to limit the impacts of speculative investments, and hoped, to the fullest extent possible, to go beyond the current polarization and depoliticize the food crisis.  “In the end, if we analyse seriously the current crisis, the deeper causes reside in the fact that we live on a planet with limited resources.”


Responding to a series of questions about his call for a special session of the Human Rights Council, he explained that the 47-member body’s President must convene a special session if one third of the members –- or a minimum of 16 States — requested it.  Hopefully, 16 States could be found to support the appeal and it would be possible to transcend ideological and geographical lines.  The right to adequate food was far too important to be politicized.


He also expressed the hope that a Council session would be convened on the 22 or 23 of May, just ahead of the Rome summit, a high-level conference on world food security called by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Several Heads of State and Government were expected, and many countries would be represented at the ministerial level.  The Council should speak in advance of that meeting to define adequate food as a human right, because the institutional consequences that would follow from such a qualification had been “completely absent” thus far from the dialogue among Governments and agencies.


He said he sought strong support from the Human Rights Council for recommendations by other human rights bodies, such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and for implementation of FAO’s 2004 voluntary guidelines on the realization of the right to food.  Had States followed those, they would have been much better equipped to address the needs involved in a crisis like the present one.  Only a handful of States had national strategies in place for the adequate protection of the human right to food, and the Human Rights Council could at least put some pressure on all States to develop serious national plans, which were complementary to trade policy approaches and social safety nets.


Asked how realistic a freeze on new agri-fuels would be, he said that was one way to encourage more research and discussion on second-generation agri-fuels, which would require lots of water -– not a renewable resource in that renewal took “much more time than we can wait”.


Responding to another question, he stressed that only a limited amount of good land was available for food production, whether the world constructed buildings or produced sugar cane.  In Brazil, soybean production was exploding because producers in the United States had switched to corn due to the demand for bio-ethanol.  As a result, the demand for soybean had been rising on international markets and to meet that demand, the Brazilian supply of soybean had been expanding.  That had led to massive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which, of course, contributed to climate change, itself a very important threat to world food security.  For now there was no reason to make a distinction between sugarcane, on the one hand, and corn, palm oil and grape seed on the other.


Turning to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) appeal for increased food aid for Somalia, he said food aid sometimes arrived too late to save those who were starving and, at a moment, when new harvests sometimes hit the market, international assistance actually competed with the food local producers were trying to sell.  The crucial three or four months from the first signs of an emerging famine to the response in terms of in-kind food aid were crucial months that, if lost, led to extremely adverse consequences.  Hopefully that would not be the case again with Somalia.


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