Good News on the Right to Food

Timothy A. Wise

Those of us advocating for changes in global and national policies on food and agriculture just got some good news. The UN Human Rights Council just renewed for another three years the mandate of Olivier De Schutter as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

If you haven’t followed De Schutter’s work since the 2007-8 food price spikes brought renewed attention to the issues of hunger and agricultural development, he has been a clear and uncompromising voice for change. His rights-based approach has taken him well beyond the withering rise of hunger to the roots of the global crisis, linking climate change, agribusiness concentration, commodity speculation, and the ongoing debates of industrial versus agro-ecological development.

In spite of the rude shocks of the two recent price spikes and the global financial crisis, free-market fundamentalism continues to rule many multilateral institutions. World Bank President Robert Zoellick opined recently in the Financial Times that “Free Markets Can Still Feed the World.” (Still? Really? Like they’ve done so well over the years?)

Zoellick followed with the usual list of market-friendly recommendations. The first: “Increase public access to information on the quality and quantity of grain stocks.” No kidding, that’s the World Bank’s first priority for responding to the food price crisis. Guess what’s last: “Help smallholder farmers become a bigger part of the solution to food security.” Yes, helping smallholders grow more food comes last on the list, despite Zoellick’s rousing conclusion that “the G20 must now act to put food first.”

Meanwhile, De Schutter, in a Project Syndicate piece, gives us eight priorities for addressing the food crisis. Guess what’s first:

1.     Support countries’ ability to feed themselves.
2.     Establish food reserves.
3.     Regulate financial speculation.
4.     Ensure national social safety nets against declining export revenues and rising food import bills.
5.     Support farmers’ organizations.
6.     Protect access to land, putting a moratorium on large-scale foreign land purchases.
7.     Promote the transition to sustainable agriculture.
8.     Defend the human right to food.

Commodities prices continue to rise, financial speculation is still unchecked, and the robust pledges of financial support for smallholder agriculture have not been met. The beat goes on. Fortunately, so too will Olivier De Schutter as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In his announcement accepting a second UN mandate, he was clear on the challenges:

“Today, too many [governments] continue to see hunger as a problem of supply and demand, when it is primarily a problem of a lack of access to productive resources such as land and water, of unscrupulous employers and traders, of an increasingly concentrated input providers sector, and of insufficient safety nets to support the poor. Too much attention has been paid to addressing the mismatch between supply and demand on the international markets – as if global hunger were the result of physical scarcity at the aggregate level – while comparatively too little attention has been paid both to the imbalances of power in the food systems and to the failure to support the ability of small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.”

For more on De Schutter’s work, see his web site:

3 Responses to “Good News on the Right to Food”

  1. Yes. Just so you know you are covering an interesting track. How do we proceed? We know the information content of indigenous eco ag has been obscured by colonialism, corporatism, corruption and war. Minor expenditures in education without major funders? I can teach school construction at $5 per square foot.

  2. Jennifer Clapp says:

    Thanks for a great piece, Tim. The divergence in views out there on the extent to which international trade can and should play a role in ensuring food security is stark, as you point out. While the WB and the WTO tell us that free trade is the answer to feeding the world’s hungry people, the desire for greater self-reliance, particularly in those countries that have become more food import dependent over the past 30 years under uneven agricultural trade liberalization, is very strong. That political reality is not likely to change soon, and so these debates will no doubt continue.

  3. tim wise says:

    Yes, the beat goes on, but as with so much in the post-crisis world of economic policy, the debates have opened up. That’s what makes De Schutter’s work so interesting and important right now. It can make a difference. The big debates are: funding for agricultural development or not? If so, industrial agriculture/AGRA-type model or agroecological and sustainable agriculture? Smallholders or agribusiness? I think it’s all in play.