18 March 2014

Hunger is a political issue: its eradication will require more democracy

Olivier De Schutter, recently submitted his terminal report to the UN Human Rights Council at the end of his six-year tenure as Special Rapporteur on the right to food,.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur emphasises the fundamentally political nature of hunger and concludes that if hunger and malnutrition are to be overcome, it will only be though more democracy to allow national strategies grounded in the right to food to ‘‘be conceived as participatory processes, co-designed by all relevant stakeholders, including in particular the groups most affected by hunger and malnutrition’’ and their implementation to be supported by independent monitoring. More democracy is also needed at the global level, following the model adopted by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that brings together ‘‘a wide variety of stakeholders – governments, of course, but also civil society, international agencies and the private sector – who each provide a different framing of the challenges that the food systems face, thus stimulating a process of collective learning across different constituencies’’. According to De Schutter, other bodies of world governance, such as WTO, should align on the strategic framework produced by CFS.

In his declaration of 10 March 2014, O. De Schutter also added that “wealthy countries 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 agrofuels, and by reducing food waste.”

The report also makes a number of more technical recommendations based on a precise diagnosis. It stresses that the green revolution based on the use “of high-yielding plant varieties with increased irrigation, the mechanisation of agricultural production and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers [...which have been] effective in increasing the production volumes of major cereals (particularly maize, wheat and rice) and of soybean” has led to:

        1. extension of monocultures

        2. a significant loss of agrobiodiversity

        3. accelerated soil erosion

        4. polluted fresh water through the increasing of its phosphorus content, eutrophication which spurs algae growth that absorbs the dissolved oxygen required to sustain fish stocks

        5. massive greenhouse gas emissions.

It also shows the dangers of a non sustainable growth of meat production (increased demand for grain production and pollution) and of the discriminating policies implemented in most countries and their consequences like rural-urban migrations, the increasing dependency of poor countries on food imports, an increasingly salt-, sugar- and fat-rich diet and the imbalances that were revealed during the 2007-2008 crisis. It also strongly criticises policies subsidising the production of agrofuels and food wastage.

Finally, it warns against the risk of giving too much importance to the need to increase food production, when the most important issue is the way in which this production will increase, as the main objective should be to ensure a transition to a sustainable production and consumption, and a reduction of rural poverty, by ensuring that smallholders participate in and benefit from agricultural growth.

For O. De Schutter, it is urgent to organise a rapid transition to agroecological modes of production to meet all these challenges and improve the resilience and sustainability of food systems. This view is consistent with recommendations formulated earlier by UNEP, FAO and Bioversity International. He also adds that ‘‘the promotion of agroecology, ... could be of particular importance to cash- strapped farmers working in the most difficult environments and unable or unwilling to enter into more highly capitalised forms of agriculture’’.

The point made is the need for a new global food model ‘‘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’’. To achieve this transformation, he proposes a series of interdependent reforms that will - he is aware of that - face a strong resistance by those who benefit from the current system: recipients of large agricultural subsidies, particularly in OECD countries and large agro-food multinationals that dominate the world market, in particular. Only more democracy and a strengthening of local food systems will be able to create the dynamics required to counterbalance this resistance and for change to occur. Policies based on low food prices will have to be replaced by policies based on the respect of rights.

As he has no illusions on the generalisation of social protection programmes, O. De Schutter is in favour of keeping agricultural prices low - in October 2012 he had proposed the creation of a global social protection fund which unfortunately did not trigger much interest, apart from a support in principle by the European Parliament - to make food affordable for the poorest population groups.

One may doubt whether the scenario proposed is realistic: is it possible to envisage reduced agricultural subsidies, a decrease in wastage and of agro-fuel production if food prices remain low? It would appear more logical to let food prices rise. This would go together with a reduction in agricultural subsidies in OECD countries without this creating too much tension with producers and would certainly make all those operating in value chains more careful to reduce wastage. It would also make agricultural commodities less competitive for producing agro-fuels. This is actually what happened somehow in 2007-2008 when soaring food prices saw the European Union save on its subsidies - part of these savings were actually used to fund the distribution of seeds and fertilisers in poor countries under the EU Food Facility - and when awareness of wastage started to grow. Higher prices for agricultural commodities would also put prices closer to their real cost and would ensure better incomes for agricultural producers. This price increase could even be amplified, as suggested by some, by applying a tax on those products that have been produced using unsustainable technologies: this would have the added advantage of promoting the adoption of agroecology (see Trueba and MacMillan’s book: How to end hunger in times of crises). Evidently, higher food prices would require better funded social protection programmes to ensure that the poorest groups have access to food.

What is likely to happen to O. De Schutter’s recommendations? Who will replace him as Special Rapporteur? For the first of these two questions, the answer will certainly take time to materialise and will depend first of all on the evolution of political conditions in the countries most hit by hunger, of the political balance at global level which will be key in determining the future role of CFS and the direction the global debate on hunger eradication will take. So far, the ideas of O. De Schutter hardly achieve any consensus, if one refers to the activities of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition or the messages disseminated by Africa Renewal, a website of the UN Information Department, New York, or even the sometimes contradictory views of FAO.


To know more:

Olivier De Schutter, Final report: The transformative potential of the right to food, 2014

FAO, Sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) Policy Brief 11, 2007

Also on

  1. Africa commits to eliminate hunger by 2025: will priority be given to a sustainable family agriculture?

  2. The Right to Food: progress and limits


For food and agricultural policies to change, do not forget to sign the petition: Hunger, crime against humanity


Last update:    March 2014

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