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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The global response to the food crisis – a civil society perspective


The global response to the food crisis – a civil society perspective

Wednesday 29 October 2008, by Ute HAUSMANN

The seventh Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) met in Beijing, China, on October 13-15, 2008. This contribution was given to Workshop 2 (“Food sovereignty and security – experiences and responses”) of Cluster 2 (“Social and Economic Rights and Environmental Justice”).

In Europe - and I guess elsewhere - the food price crisis is perceived as a man-made humanitarian crisis. Many causes have been discussed: higher demand for crops at a time when stock are diminishing and major producer countries were hit by drought; high cost of fuel; impact of promotion of agrofuel production and speculation in food commodities. Rising food prices have a major impact on the ability of people to purchase food and in many countries people took to the streets. Also in Europe, many citizens felt that increasing food prices were putting pressure on household budgets, especially those in low wage jobs and those depended on social welfare.

Many people are concerned that today the price of food is determined mainly by the price on the international markets. Some governments in Asia were critisised for introducing export bans on rice in order to ensure that there was enough rice on the national market. Practically all countries are today dependent on food imports and this dependency has increased dramatically over the last years as a result of the liberalisation in agricultural trade. While in the past the policy of national food self-reliance was mainly motivated by geo-politics, today governments and civil society discuss national food self-reliance as a means to decrease dependency on international market forces and speculation.

However, from a civil society perspective, while national food self-reliance might be an important political goal to achieve, it will not in itself solve the food crisis. Rather, we need to take a closer look at how the right to food of everyone can be strengthened in order to guide national and international politics as well as to make it a politically and legally enforceable human right. Second, we need to take a closer look at how we can move towards food sovereignty which means that the people regain control over food and agricultural systems. As food sovereignty will be the topic of the second part of the session, I will concentrate on the need to strengthen the human right to food against corporate interests in what is called the response to the food crisis. I have distributed some papers which discuss the right to food as a concept and in response to the food crisis.

Earlier this year, the UN set up a High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis which is composed of the heads of the different UN organisations dealing with agriculture and food security as well as the Bretton Woods organisations. In July, the Task Force presented the Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA) which is supposed to be the major reference document for all UN agencies as well as governments. The CFA clearly reflects the policy approach taken by the World Bank in its World Development Report on Agriculture last year. In addition, it places strong emphasis on social protection systems. The CFA was not developed in consultation either with governments or civil society organisations. We at FIAN therefore consider this document to be without any legitimacy. In addition, it seems to us, that the CFA is yet another document to back up the interests of agribusiness and to channel public resources towards these interests. We see the urgent need of civil society organisations to resist the imposition of policies which aim at the further liberalisation of agricultural trade, the increased commodification of natural resources like land and water, and the increasing power of agribusiness.

So what do we talk about when we talk about the human right to food? The human right to food is the right of every human being to feed oneself in dignity. Nutrition is a very important aspect of this right as many other human rights are interlinked with the right to food, for example the right to education or the right to health. Children who are not fed well, will not be able to succeed in school. The death of children because of malnutrition or as a result of the poisoning of milk products shows that the right to food is linked to the right to health and eventually the right to life. Because of this close link between food and the very survival of the human being, the right to food has been considered a fundamental human right since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as all human rights the human right to food is therefore assigned supremacy in international law over all other measures taken by governments nationally and internationally.

The human right to food is a legally binding human right in those states which have ratified the International Covenant on economic, social and cultural Rights. Asia is still lacking behind in ratification but the ratification by China in 2001 and by Indonesia in 2006 were important steps to strengthen the recognition of the Covenant rights in the Asian region. The states which have ratified the Covenant are obliged to translate the Covenant into national law, so that the human right to food and other human rights will become a right that can be claimed before national courts. This, of course, requires an independent judiciary as well as judges who are familiar with the individual’s entitlements as well as the obligations of states under the human right to food. As we know, access to legal justice is very limited in many countries and also in Europe the recognition of social and economic rights as human rights is very restricted.

But legal recourse is only one, although strategically important, means in the fight for the human right to food. What we have to do is to very vocally challenge state policies and governments to respect, protect and eventually fulfil the human right to food – both in national and international politics. This is not an academic exercise. Most of those suffering from hunger are very well aware what are the injustices that keep them hungry. The problem is that they hardly have a voice in political decision-making.

The persistance of hunger in the countryside cannot be explained without taking into account the world-wide process of land grabbing and the massive violent dispossession of rural communities due to investments and allocation of land to extractive industries, industrial development projects or large-scale agriculture. Access to productive resources is a key element of the human right to food. Not only international human rights bodies but also member states of the FAO have universally acknowledged that the right to food implies not only the physical access to food but also economic access to food. This means that all of us must be able to either grow or purchase food in order to feed oneself. As I mentioned earlier we are not talking about calories only but nutrition which is the basis for a healthy life. In addition, household spending on food should not be at the expense of the satisfaction of other needs like health and education. Only two weeks ago, a study on the German welfare system came to the conclusion that families dependent on social welfare were not able to feed their children adequately without compromising on other necessities like clothing or participation in sports or cultural events. It is therefore the obligation of the state to increase the monetary transfers to these families in order to comply with the human right to food.

The role of social security in guaranteeing the human right to food has long been neglected in the international debate. Now, with the CFA, it has reached centerstage. The CFA calls for massive investments into social protection systems to reach out to the hungry. While this might look like a political improvement, a closer look shows that the design of the programmes is based on a deep middle-class prejudice against the poor. The CFA emphasises close screening of beneficiaries and a preference for food-for-work programmes. It fails to recognise that food is a human right and that for those suffering from hunger food must be accessible without strings attached. Also, reading these proposals in conjunction with the World Bank’s World Development Report on Agriculture, one must assume that the emphasis on social protection systems is to eventually calm down the masses that will loose their income from agriculture and migrate to the cities.

Structural adjustment over the last thirty years has done substantial harm to peasants all over the world. The breakdown of extension services, the abolition of subsidies to agriculture and the opening up of agricultural markets have impoverished peasants and left them vulnerable to imports from other countries. These policies have clearly violated the right to food of millions of peasants world-wide, yet no major steps have been taken by states or the international community to compensate for or remedy this injustice. In a situation where peasants are already struggling for survival, the World Bank is now poposing a survival of the fittest. Those who are able are expected to integrate into the value chain of international agribusiness. The World Bank and agribusiness are on a mission to integrate the hinterlands into a profitable global business, if necessary at the expense of millions of peasants.

A key strategy in giving corporate interests access to the hinterlands is the commodification of land, i.e. making it easy to buy and sell land. The World Bank, the European Union but also the gtz are all involved in developing land markets. I am sure that many in this room can share with us their experience how the commodification of land has undermined redistributive land reforms and has increased indeptedness and landlessness among peasants. I am personally worried after I heard that the Chinese government has in the last few days decided to also move into this direction. I hope that we will have a chance to discuss about this and share experiences.

To conclude: the official global response to the food price crisis as presented by the UN organisations and led by the Bretton Woods institutions will not contribute to the realisation of the human right to food. Rather it will cement existing power structures which are the sources of human rights violations. Already today, those human rights defenders involved in conflicts over access to natural resources are the second most likely to be killed in their fight for social human rights. The largest group are those in defence of labour rights. Both groups present a threat to existing economic elites and their interests. I am afraid that these conflicts will further increase in the future and that we will see more action on behalf of states to criminalise social movements as well as hunger and poverty itself. I hope that in our discussion we can spend some time to look into these issues.


* See also Time for a Human Right to Food Framework of Action – FIAN Position on the Comprehensive Framework of Action of the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis

* Ute Hausmann is from FIAN Germany, [E-mail]