A New Paradigm Needed to Support the Right to Food

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #7763, 14 March 2014.  We thank SUNS for permission to re-distribute this article.

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A new paradigm needed to support the right to food

Geneva, 13 Mar (Kanaga Raja) -- A new paradigm focused on well-being, resilience and sustainability must be designed to replace the "productivist" paradigm and thus better support the full realisation of the right to adequate food, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Mr Olivier De Schutter, has said.

"Wealthy countries," De Schutter said, "must move away from export-driven agricultural policies and leave space instead for small-scale farmers in developing countries to supply local markets. They must also restrain their expanding claims on global farmland by reining in the demand for animal feed and agro-fuels, and by reducing food waste."

In his final report to the UN Human Rights Council following the end of his six-year term as Special Rapporteur, De Schutter stressed that the eradication of hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal.

"Reaching it requires, however, that we move away from business as usual and improve coordination across sectors, across time and across levels of governance. Empowering communities at the local level, in order for them to identify the obstacles that they face and the solutions that suit them best, is a first step," he said.

"This must be complemented by supportive policies at the national level that ensure the right sequencing between the various policy reforms that are needed, across all relevant sectors, including agriculture, rural development, health, education and social protection."

In turn, he added, local-level and national-level policies should benefit from an enabling international environment, in which policies that affect the ability of countries to guarantee the right to food - in the areas of trade, food aid, foreign debt alleviation and development cooperation - are realigned with the imperative of achieving food security and ensuring adequate nutrition.

"Understood as a requirement for democracy in the food systems, which would imply the possibility for communities to choose which food systems to depend on and how to reshape those systems, food sovereignty is a condition for the full realisation of the right to food," said De Schutter.

The Human Rights Council is currently holding its twenty-fifth regular session here from 3-28 March.

In his final report (A/HRC/25/57), presented by him at the Council earlier this week, the Special Rapporteur underlined that most stakeholders agree, in general terms, on the urgent need for reform.

"Measured against the requirement that they should contribute to the realisation of the right to food, the food systems we have inherited from the twentieth century have failed. Of course, significant progress has been achieved in boosting agricultural production over the past fifty years. But this has hardly reduced the number of hungry people, and the nutritional outcomes remain poor."

De Schutter noted that small-scale food producers and the landless rural poor, including many farmworkers who barely survive from their labour on large plantations, represent a majority of those living in extreme poverty.

"Yet, the promotion in the past of export-led agriculture, often based on the exploitation of a largely disempowered workforce, operated at the expense of family farms producing food crops for local consumption. This resulted in a paradoxical situation in which many low-income countries, though they are typically agriculture-based, raw commodity-exporting economies, are highly dependent on food imports, sometimes supplemented by food aid, because they have neglected to invest in local production and food processing to feed their own communities."

De Schutter further said that it also led to increased rural poverty and the growth of urban slums, and to the inability of governments to move to a more diversified economy. Whereas such a diversification requires adequate infrastructure, a qualified workforce, and a consumer market allowing producers of manufactured goods, or service providers, to achieve economies of scale, none of this can happen when half of the population is condemned to extreme deprivation.

Improving support to smallholders is therefore essential in achieving local food security, said De Schutter, adding that he had explored different tools to achieve this.

On the one hand, he said, "food systems must be reshaped in order to be more inclusive of small-scale food producers, who have generally been disadvantaged in the past, both as a result of inequitable food chains and because agricultural technologies have not taken into account their specific needs."

With this aim in mind, the Special Rapporteur noted the importance of addressing imbalances of power in food chains, in particular by regulating buyer power in situations where dominant positions may be a source of abuse: this has been an entirely forgotten dimension of the reforms that have been promoted since 2008.

In this context, De Schutter, amongst others, called for reforming a regime of intellectual property rights on plant varieties that can make commercially-bred varieties inaccessible to the poorest farmers in low-income countries.

On the other hand, the right of small-scale food producers not to be forced or co-opted into the dominant food systems must be recognised, he said, underscoring that respect for their access to productive resources is key in this regard.

Calling for the design of a new paradigm that better supports the full realisation of the right to adequate food, the Special Rapporteur noted that firstly, certain types of agricultural development can combine increased production, a concern for sustainability, the adoption of robust measures to tackle unsustainable consumption patterns, and strong poverty-reducing impacts.

Governments could achieve this by providing strong support to small-scale food producers, based on the provision of public goods for training, storage and connection to markets, and on the dissemination of agroecological modes of production.

In addition, measures should be taken to develop local markets and local food processing facilities, combined with trade policies that support such efforts and at the same time reduce the competition between the luxury tastes of some and the basic needs of the others.

Secondly, just as multiple food systems must be combined to improve resilience through enhanced diversity, different forms of farming can coexist, each fulfilling a different function, he said, adding: "The example of Brazil suggests that family farms can be supported even in the vicinity of highly competitive, large-scale agricultural producers and that such coexistence can be viable, provided the government is aware of the different functions that different agricultural models serve to fulfil, and adopts a balanced approach towards them."

In many countries, however, this coexistence has failed, and the balance has shifted almost entirely in favour of the large-scale export-led agricultural sector, De Schutter stressed. "The lesson that emerges is that the transition to agrifood policies that support the realisation of the right to food requires major political efforts to restructure support around agroecological, labour-intensive, poverty-reducing forms of agriculture."

According to the report, while a number of reasons explain the lack of investment in food production to satisfy local needs - including in particular the burden of foreign debt (which leads countries to focus on cash crops for exports) and the often weak accountability of governments to the rural poor - the addiction to cheap food imports is also caused by massive overproduction in better-off exporting countries, which is stimulated by subsidies going to the largest agricultural producers in those countries, and which ensures access to cheap inputs for the food processing industry.

"And it is facilitated by the growth of international trade and investment and the corresponding increase of the role of large agribusiness corporations in the food systems," said De Schutter, adding that while the rebuilding of local food systems in developing countries is vital to expand opportunities to small-scale food producers and, at the same time, to improve access to fresh and nutritious food for all, it depends fundamentally on the reform of food systems in rich countries.

"Such reform faces significant obstacles, however. The various elements of the food systems have co-evolved over the years, shaped by the productivist paradigm that has dominated the design of food and agricultural policies for decades."

The report noted: "The farming sector has become highly dependent on agricultural subsidies that have favoured the production of commodities for the livestock or food processing industry - corn, soybean and wheat, in particular - rather than food, and it has come to rely on cheap fuel for its highly mechanised and input-intensive mode of production, replacing farmers' knowledge."

According to De Schutter, even without taking into account the subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels by agricultural producers, countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) subsidised their farming sector to the amount of $259 billion in 2012.

This has encouraged the expansion of the food processing industry, thanks to the availability of cheap inputs and the deployment of infrastructure - in the form of silos and processing plants - that has been shaped by and for agro-industry.

"Large agribusiness corporations have come to dominate increasingly globalised markets thanks to their ability to achieve economies of scale and because of various network effects. In the process, smaller-sized food producers have been marginalised because, although they can be highly productive per hectare of land and highly resource- efficient if provided with adequate support, they are less competitive under prevalent market conditions," he said.

The Special Rapporteur said that these developments have come at a high ecological cost. "Due to the links between agriculture, diets and health, they also impose a considerable burden on health-care systems. They have led, finally, to the depopulation of rural areas. Yet, because these different components of the food systems shaped during the past half-century have strengthened one another, they have become lock-ins, seemingly blocking any real transformative possibilities."

But change can be achieved, and actions should be launched at three levels to democratise food security policies, thus weakening existing lock-ins and allowing these policies to shape the new model that he has called for, the Special Rapporteur said.

At the local level, the key to transition is to rebuild local food systems, thus decentralising food systems and making them more flexible, but also creating links between the cities and their rural hinterland, for the benefit both of local producers and of consumers.

At the national level, in addition to support for locally-led innovations, multi-sectoral strategies should be deployed. Such strategies should trigger a process in which progress is made towards supporting a re-investment in local food production, focused in particular on small-scale food producers in the countries where they represent a large proportion of the poor; towards the diversification of the economy, to create opportunities for income-generating activities; and towards the establishment of standing social protection schemes, to ensure that all individuals have access to nutritious food at all times, even if they have access neither to productive resources nor to employment.

At the international level, said De Schutter, greater coordination should be achieved between actions launched at the multilateral, regional and national levels, with a view to creating an enabling international environment - rewarding and supporting domestic efforts towards the realisation of the right to food rather than obstructing them.

"At each of these levels, the right to adequate food has a key role to play to guide the efforts of all actors, to ensure participation of those affected by hunger and malnutrition, and to establish appropriate accountability mechanisms," said De Schutter.

On rebuilding local food systems, the Special Rapporteur said that the modernisation of food supply chains, together with the implementation of agricultural policies focused more on the production of commodities than on food, has led to the marginalisation of local food systems over recent years.

"This trend must be reversed. Small-scale food producers must be provided with greater opportunities to sell on the local markets, which they can more easily supply without having to be dependent on large buyers."

According to the Special Rapporteur, local food systems can be rebuilt through appropriate investments in infrastructure, packaging and processing facilities, and distribution channels, and by allowing smallholders to organise themselves in ways that yield economies of scale and allow them to move towards higher-value activities in the food supply chain.

"This would support rural development and the reduction of rural poverty, and slow down rural-to-urban migration," said De Schutter, adding that the strengthening of local food systems would also improve the resilience of cities.

By 2050, when the world population will have reached 9.3 billion, about 6.3 billion of these inhabitants, more than two in three, will be urban, at current rates of rural-to-urban migration. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the rural population is expected to decline globally after 2020: there will be 300 million fewer rural inhabitants in 2050 than there were in 2010.

"As the competition increases between putting land to urban or to industrial use in the urban and peri-urban perimeter, and as increased food supplies create unprecedented logistical challenges for food distribution and transport systems, it is vital that cities assess their food dependencies, identify weaknesses and potential pressure points and, where possible, develop a variety of channels through which they can procure their food."

De Schutter noted that a wide range of social innovations have emerged in recent years to support the rebuilding of local food systems, primarily by reconnecting urban consumers with local food producers. In Montreal, Canada, for instance, urban agriculture initiatives include a community gardening programme managed by the City, and collective gardens managed by community organisations, with impacts that go beyond improved food security and nutrition contributing also to educational and empowerment goals.

In Brazil, De Schutter said he was impressed by the achievements of the Zero Hunger strategy launched in 2003.

He noted that this strategy includes a range of programmes that are territory-based and seek to support the ability of "family farmers" to feed the cities: among the innovations are the institutional recognition of family farming and the establishment of a ministry specifically dedicated to meeting their needs (the Ministry for Agrarian Development), a low-income restaurant programme, food banks, community kitchens, cisterns, and the improvement of facilities for the storage of food in rural areas, as well as encouragement of the "social solidarity" economy.

"The right to food is central to the success of these efforts at rebuilding local food systems," he stressed.

The Special Rapporteur said that he has consistently encouraged the adoption of national strategies in support of the progressive realisation of the right to adequate food, in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its general comment No. 12 on the right to adequate food (para. 21) and with guideline 3 of the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realisation of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security.

He was encouraged by the significant progress made in a number of regions, though especially in Latin America and in Africa, towards implementing these recommendations.

Such strategies are a key component for the governance of the transition towards sustainable food systems that can contribute to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition, said De Schutter, adding that regardless of how innovative they may be, local initiatives can only succeed, and be "scaled out" by successful experiments being replicated across large regions, if they are supported, or at least not obstructed, by policies adopted at the national level.

"Moreover, poor nutritional outcomes are explained by a range of factors, and combating hunger and malnutrition requires taking into account the full set of immediate, underlying and basic causes, at the individual, household and societal level respectively: this calls for a multi-sectoral approach, involving the full range of relevant ministries."

According to the Special Rapporteur, transformative strategies must be adopted, with a view to guaranteeing access to adequate food for all by simultaneously supporting small-scale food producers' ability to produce food sustainably, improving employment opportunities in all sectors and strengthening social protection.

"The gradual substitution of policies focused on low prices of foodstuffs by rights-based social protection, as a means of ensuring access to adequate food for the poorest groups of the population, again illustrates the importance of a careful sequencing of reforms," he said, adding that today, 75 to 80 per cent of the world population still does not have access to social security to shield them from the effects of unemployment, illness or disability - not to mention crop failure or soaring food costs.

Noting that there is now an international consensus in favour of making the full realisation of the right to social security a priority, De Schutter recommended that social protection schemes be strengthened in all countries, and the social protection agenda and the agricultural agenda should be better aligned with each other, to gradually succeed in making the transition.

The Special Rapporteur further said that the progressive realisation of the right to food also requires improving global governance, noting that since its reform in 2009, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has been making a major contribution to the global food security agenda. "Indeed, just as local-level initiatives cannot succeed without support from national-level right-to-food strategies, efforts at the domestic level require international support to bear fruit."

Together with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the Special Rapporteur said he has argued, for instance, for the establishment of a Global Fund for Social Protection, for overcoming financial obstacles and building international solidarity in order to fulfil the right to food and the right to social protection in developing countries, particularly those where vulnerability to covariant risks such as drought and food price volatility are high.

"The ninth Ministerial Conference of WTO, held in Bali, Indonesia, from 3 to 7 December 2013, which failed to place food security above trade concerns, provides a textbook illustration of the need to improve coherence of global governance for the realisation of the right to food: no area, not even trade, should be left aside from discussions concerning this paramount objective," he said.

During the presentation of his report to the Council on 10 March, De Schutter noted that not all sectoral policies are aligned with the new, post-food crisis paradigm. In particular, he said, many trade negotiators still tend to measure success by the increase of trade volumes, rather than by improvements in rural development and the reduction of rural poverty.

"Against that background, better aligning trade policies on the new food security agenda should be treated as an urgent priority," De Schutter stressed.