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Need for Rights-based Approach to Food Security

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 7904, 29 October 2014.

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Need for rights-based approach to food security

Geneva, 28 Oct (Kanaga Raja) -- It is imperative that a Human Rights-based approach to food security is adopted in order to eliminate hunger and provide access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food for all, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Ms Hilal Elver, has said.

In her first report to the UN General Assembly (A/69/275), which is holding its sixty-ninth session in New York, the rights expert, who is from Turkey, said that in order to advance the implementation of the right to adequate food, renewed political commitment is essential and stakeholders must look to those countries that have made significant progress in adopting policies and legislation in this regard.

"The post-2015 sustainable development goals should give priority to sustainability and the adoption of a vigorous human rights approach," Ms Elver added.

In her report, the Special Rapporteur stressed that non-discriminatory access to the resources required for sustainable food production, such as agricultural land, water, seeds, fertilisers and technical knowledge, must also be guaranteed.

Support for small-scale family farmers and food producers should be paramount in the adoption of future policies related to food security and food sovereignty, she underlined.

"Policy prescriptions that typically call for the expansion of industrial-scale agricultural development and ignore the real threats to global food supply (such as biofuel expansion, inadequate investment in climate-resilient agriculture, lagging support for small-scale farmers and women food producers and the massive loss of food to spoilage and waste) must be reconsidered."

In her first report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur also outlined some of the priorities that she has identified for taking the mandate forward.

She noted that the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realisation of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security was observed in 2014.

These guidelines were developed as a practical tool for States to assist them in implementing their obligations under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Special Rapporteur said that while there has been considerable legislative and judicial progress in many countries throughout the world since the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines a decade ago, many challenges remain.

"In order to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to food at the domestic level, it is imperative that constitutional principles and framework laws are established as a means of providing an appropriate institutional structure," the rights expert emphasised.

She noted that the right to food is now enshrined in the constitutions of more than 20 countries, together with legal provisions that allow for judicial protection by invoking the right to life, respect for human dignity, the right to health, the right to land, respect for ethnic and cultural rights, the right to housing and consumer rights.

In her report, the Special Rapporteur highlighted in particular the role of women in the right to food agenda, saying that she believes that the empowerment of women and the protection of their rights should be placed at the centre of the policymaking process on the right to food.

"Specific programmes and policies should be developed to empower women as agents of change. That means ensuring that they are granted equal access to resources, such as land ownership or tenure, water and seeds, and financial and technological assistance."

The empowerment of women should not be limited to rural areas, but should also be extended to urban women, women from indigenous communities, those living in refugee camps and undocumented migrants.

The rights expert noted that as farm labourers, vendors and unpaid care workers, women are responsible for food preparation and production in many countries and regions throughout the world and play a vital role in food security and nutrition.

However, women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty and malnutrition, she said.

Women in rural areas are particularly affected, as female-headed households continue to grow, exceeding 30 percent in some developing countries, with women owning only 2 percent of agricultural land and with limited access to productive resources.

In many low-income countries, women are the backbone of the rural economy and 79 percent of economically active women in the least developed countries consider agriculture as their primary source of income.

The rights expert underscored that investing in rural women has been shown to increase productivity significantly and reduce hunger and malnutrition.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women are responsible for 50 percent of world food production, mainly for family consumption.

The majority of rural women are "invisible" field workers in family plots, and that as a result, they have no recognised independent status as farmers and their work is considered as secondary both in the family and in society.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only 15 percent of landholders are women and they account for less than 10 percent of credit and 7 percent of extension services.

According to estimates, policies that address gender inequalities could, conservatively, increase yields on women's farms by 2.5 to 4 percent, said the Special Rapporteur.

She also noted that despite global efforts to eradicate child deaths due to malnutrition, more than 2 million children under age five die every year as a result of poor nutrition, and many of those deaths are associated with inappropriate feeding practices.

Under-nutrition among pregnant women in developing countries causes one out of six infants to be born with low birth weight, which is not only a risk factor for neonatal deaths, but may also lead to disability and learning difficulties.

In contrast to under-nutrition, developed and middle-income countries, as well as the poorest countries of the world, are now faced with rising levels of chronic diseases related to obesity, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

"Dietary changes associated with urbanisation, such as increased consumption of sugars and fats and declining levels of physical activity, are largely to blame. Marketing campaigns employed by the food and beverage industry, targeting children and adolescents, also bear much of the responsibility."

According to the Special Rapporteur, a right-to-food approach requires that States fulfil their obligation to ensure that safe, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food is available; they must also respect and protect consumers and promote good nutrition for all.

She also said that climate change, sustainable resource management and food security are now widely considered among the most complex, interdependent and urgent global policy challenges.

With average temperatures predicted by the world scientific community to rise by 2-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the ability of entire regions to maintain current levels of agricultural production is being threatened and many of the adverse effects of climate change are now acutely felt.

Climate change is already having a significant impact on approximately 1 billion of the world's poor, said the Special Rapporteur, adding that without the implementation of serious measures to combat climate change, the number of people at risk of hunger is projected to increase by 10-20 percent by 2050.

She cited the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as suggesting that climate change will "more likely than not" depress crop yields by more than 5 percent by 2050.

In addition, there is increased certainty about the effects of climate volatility on agricultural production and practices, with climate change shocks principally affecting smallholder agriculture, where the absence of crop insurance translates into adversity to risk.

"The threat posed by climate change to fresh water supplies, combined with the overuse of water in agriculture, is having a detrimental impact on food security. The consequent effects on food production are significant, putting the livelihoods of rural communities and the food security of city dwellers at risk."

The Special Rapporteur's report noted that with the global population expected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2050, the world's food calorie production will need to increase by 68 percent in order to meet growing demand.

Climate change is not only impacting on food security but rising carbon dioxide emissions are causing harm to staple food crops, reducing their nutrient content for the 280 million malnourished people in the world.

The report cited a study by the Harvard School of Public Health as estimating that 2 billion people suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies, resulting in a loss of 6.3 million lives annually from malnutrition.

Africa today has more children with stunted growth than it did 20 years ago, with up to 82 percent of cases improperly treated. That poses a huge threat to the future of the continent and access to food rich in nutrients has become imperative.

According to the Special Rapporteur, the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", as specified in Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is one of the innovative principles of international law that allows countries to participate in the responsibilities set out in the Convention to different degrees, depending on their development level.

"That principle should be used to inform future negotiations, especially in relation to countries facing severe threats to food security, while not directly responsible for climate change themselves."

The report also highlighted the issue of global food loss and food waste, noting that approximately 1.3 billion tons, representing almost one third of world total food production for human consumption, is wasted per year.

"That is equivalent to more than half of world annual cereal production," said the rights expert.

In Europe and North America, per capita food loss and waste amounts to 280-300 kg per year, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa and South and South-East Asia, it amounts to 120-170 kg per year.

"Food waste has a considerable environmental impact, with the vast amount of food going to landfills adding to global warming," said Ms Elver, adding that innovative ideas for tackling food waste are needed.

She further said that the world is currently blighted by a plethora of humanitarian crises and armed conflicts, which are having a devastating impact on the lives of millions of people around the globe.

While 19 percent of the poorest people in the world now live in fragile and conflict-affected places, it is estimated that this will increase to 40 percent by 2030 if current trends continue.

"The international community must take greater responsibility for emergency food crises derived from natural or human-made disasters, global economic crises, climate change, or as a result of armed conflict," said the Special Rapporteur. +