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TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (May09/06)
26 May 2009
Third World Network

Financial crisis makes agricultural focus more urgent
Published in SUNS #6697 dated 11 May 2009

Geneva, 8 May (Kanaga Raja) -- The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) should reaffirm the need, not only to increase food production, but to re-orient agro-food systems and the regulations that influence them at national and international levels, towards sustainability and the progressive realization of the right to food.

This was one of the key recommendations highlighted by Mr Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his submission to the current seventeenth session of the Commission taking place in New York from 4-15 May.

The rights expert also underscored the importance of reforming the global governance of the global food system. In this regard, De Schutter pointed to the multilateral trading system as being "heavily skewed in favour of a small group of countries, and in urgent need of reform."

In particular, he said, trade-distorting measures - obstacles to market access for developing countries, domestic support schemes for farmers of the OECD countries, and export subsidies - have led many small-holder farmers to deeply unfavourable situations.

It was necessary to recognize the specificity of agricultural products, rather than to treat them as any other commodities; and to allow more flexibilities to developing countries, in order to shield their agricultural producers from competition from industrialized countries' farmers.

It was also necessary to consider the role of the transnational corporations in the food trade, and the international community should adopt incentives and regulations to ensure that transnational agri-food companies contribute to the sustainable development of the countries they source from, and to the realization of the human right to food.

In his submission to the CSD on Thursday, the UN rights expert outlined some of the crucial choices that must be made to design more sustainable food systems in a world facing climate change and declining natural resources.

De Schutter said that only by considering food as a human right, and looking at agricultural development through that perspective, could the correct choices be made. It was urgent that governments make the connection between sustainable development and a rights-based approach to food.

"In responding to the global food crisis, it is easy to move from the symptom - prices which have suddenly peaked - to a possible cure - produce more, and remove as soon as possible all supply-side constraints," he said. But if we think of food as a human right, "we must ask a very different set of questions."

Will the measures we adopt to boost production benefit those who are food insecure? Or will they simply mean a return to low prices and only further discourage small-scale farmers and marginalise them further, he asked. Are these measures addressing the needs of all those who are in a situation of food insecurity and vulnerability? Will these measures reduce, or instead increase, the dualization of the farming sector?

"The right to food framework can assist in guiding governments towards making the right choices" by prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable, he said. It could also improve government accountability, by "ensuring their policies remain constantly guided by the need to alleviate hunger and malnutrition - and by building the resilience of the most vulnerable, whether against policy changes or internal or external shocks."

In his submission, the rights expert noted that there are clear gaps in the global governance of the global food system, which needs strong re-orientation in order to become sustainable and fulfill the human right to food for all.

"Sustainable development and the rights-based approach go hand in hand. Connecting them is urgent. 2009 should be remembered as the starting point of a new decline in the number of the hungry, and the CSD session of May 2009 should be a milestone in this shift," he said.

Referring to recent remarks by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in expressing the emerging consensus that the right to food should guide reactions of the international community to the global food crisis and serve as a basis for analysis, action and accountability, De Schutter said that he is equally convinced that "the right to food framework can constitute an important tool that governments can rely on in order to meet the considerable challenge we are currently facing."

The right to food should be seen as serving these efforts both by improving the accountability of governments - thus ensuring that their policies remain constantly guided by the need to alleviate hunger and malnutrition - and by building the resilience of the most vulnerable, whether against policy changes or internal or external shocks.

The rights expert noted that the right to adequate food is a human right stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is further made explicit by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living and guarantee a fundamental right to be free from hunger.

He stressed that at least twenty States in the world - including Brazil, India, South Africa, and more recently Ecuador and Bolivia - today recognize the right to food in their constitutions. Many others are making great progress towards the implementation of these guidelines, such as Guatemala or Mozambique.

The Special Rapporteur also pointed out that re-investment by governments in agriculture is necessary. Recent international efforts as well as the experience gained from the crisis made it abundantly clear that the question is not merely of increasing the budgets allocated to agriculture. The key issue is rather, which model of agricultural development should be promoted.

The nature of the choice to be made between different models of agricultural development must be correctly understood, said De Schutter. These different approaches can, under certain conditions, be complementary at the crop field level: a very careful combination of fertilizers and agro-forestry, for instance, is successfully promoted in some regions.

"At the level of public policy, however, it is a pre-requisite for a balanced approach that we start by acknowledging the very existence of several models. The fact that these models lead to different development paths should also be discussed," said the rights expert.

The progressive realization of the right to food is not merely an issue of raising the budgetary allocation for agricultural development. It also requires that Governments opt for the orientations more conducive to the realization of the right to food, by carefully balancing the existing options against one another.

De Schutter noted that almost sixty governments have approved the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) during an intergovernmental plenary that was held in Johannesburg in April 2008.

The IAASTD calls for a fundamental paradigm shift in agricultural development, noting that "successfully meeting development and sustainability goals and responding to new priorities and changing circumstances would require a fundamental shift in [agricultural knowledge, science and technology], including science, technology, policies, institutions, capacity development and investment."

"We must therefore consider the range of options available to us, and balance them against each other. It is in this context that the right to food framework could assist in guiding governments towards making the right choices. This framework requires that we prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable; that we define our benchmarks not only by the levels of production achieved, but also by the impacts on the right to food of different ways of producing food; and that we make decisions about agriculture and food based on participatory mechanisms," said De Schutter.

The rights expert underlined that strong and well-targeted investment in agriculture will not suffice. Small-holder farmers, which are the first vulnerable food insecure group (50% of the hungry), will only be able to improve their situation in a favourable economic and socio-political environment. Efforts by agronomists will be pointless if the right institutions, regulations and accountability mechanisms are not established and implemented.

"We must build an enabling environment which should be more about 'how to help the world feed itself' than 'how to feed the world'".

The rights expert identified two issues, at the global level, for which improved global governance is needed.

The first is on market access and trade. Access to markets and remunerative prices are a crucial condition for small-holder farmers and their communities to escape hunger. "The current multilateral trading system is heavily skewed in favour of a small group of countries, and is in urgent need of reform," De Schutter said.

In agriculture, in particular, trade-distorting measures - obstacles to market access for developing countries, domestic support schemes for OECD countries' farmers, and export subsidies - have led many small-holder farmers to deeply unfavourable situations.

Yet, said the rights expert, simply removing the existing distortions will not suffice. If trade is to work for development and to contribute to the realization of the right to adequate food, it needs to recognize the specificity of agricultural products, rather than to treat them as any other commodities; and to allow more flexibilities to developing countries, in order to shield their agricultural producers from competition from industrialized countries' farmers.

The second issue highlighted by De Schutter is regulation of global food chains. Noting that trade is mostly done not between States, but between transnational corporations, he said: "If our collective aim is a trading system that works for development, including the human right to food, the role of these actors also must be considered."

The expansion of global supply chains shall only work in favour of human development if this does not pressure States to lower their social and environmental standards in order to become "competitive States", attractive to foreign investors and buyers.

All too often, said De Schutter, at the end of agri-food supply chains, agricultural workers do not receive a wage enabling them to a decent livelihood. The ILO estimates that the waged work force in agriculture is made up of 700 million women and men producing the food we eat but who are often unable to afford it.

"This is unacceptable," the rights expert told the Commission. "We should ask ourselves, for instance, how the relevant ILO conventions could be better implemented in the rural areas - which all too often labour inspectorates are unable to monitor effectively - and how those working on farms, often in the informal sector, can be guaranteed a living wage, and adequate health and safety conditions of employment."

Consequently, the international community should aim to adopt incentives and regulations to ensure that transnational agri-food companies contribute to the sustainable development of the countries they source from, and to the realization of the human right to food.

The Special Rapporteur also welcomed a prior decision of the Commission in identifying access to land and security of tenure as one of its priorities for future work.

Improved security of tenure and more equitable access to land are indispensable for the realization of the right to food because 50% of those who are hungry are small-holders who live on less than two hectares, and 20% are landless labourers.

Sustainable access to land encourages more sustainable farming, particularly by the planting of trees, and more responsible use of the soils and water resources, said De Schutter. This is turn results in improved nutrition and health: fruit trees are sources of vitamins and proteins, medicine trees of health remedies. It improves bio-diversity and facilitates adaptation to climate change, as farming systems including trees are more resilient to climate extremes.

Providing landowners or land users with security against eviction also enables the development of small-scale agriculture, which is highly productive per hectare and, because it is labour intensive, is a source of rural employment.

"This should not be underestimated in this period of economic crisis, as many countries face waves of return of immigrants on top of important urban unemployment," said De Schutter.

In that respect, lessons from the past must not be forgotten. Equitable land distribution has been proven crucial in many countries for the long periods of stable economic growth and poverty alleviation. Land reform with a strong re-distributive component has been an important element of the development path of several countries.

The Special Rapporteur made a series of recommendations for the CSD, which in his view, has a unique contribution to make to the current discussions about the future of agricultural development.

The CSD could consider, in its vision statement, amongst others, reaffirming the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) on the need for a paradigm shift in agricultural science, policies and institutions.

It could also consider anticipating the effects of climate change on agricultural and agro-food systems, and warning the international community of the need to encourage a diversity of resilient agricultural systems able to cope with climate disruptions, including agro-ecological systems.

The CSD could also consider calling for a World Food Summit with a comprehensive agenda in order to encourage the international community to address the structural causes of food insecurity and fill in the gaps of the currently fragmented global governance (including the issues of insufficient or inadequately targeted investments in agriculture; unregulated markets which do not guarantee stability and remunerative prices; speculation on the futures markets of agricultural commodities; weak protection of agricultural workers; and adequate regulation of the agri-food chain).

In its negotiated policy decisions, the CSD could also promote the adoption of national right to food strategies, following the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the progressive realization of the right to adequate food, in order to design and implement at national level comprehensive strategies aiming at sustainable food systems, including production, transformation and consumption.

It could also take leadership by encouraging States and international organizations to implement the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD); and explore the options to equip the international community with a permanent independent expert body which could regularly update the IAASTD conclusions, De Schutter recommended. +

 


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