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momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
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Focus on issues

The contribution of the right to food to global food security: a tool not a symbol



Olivier De Schutter,

United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food



Asian Development Bank, Gender Network



On the occasion of this year’s World Food Day on October 16, 2012, we highly recommend the article written by Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, and published by the Asian Development Bank1. After relating the development of the right to food and its impact on the global food situation since the 1940s, the article clearly reiterates the utmost importance of a strong political will and multi-sectorial approach based on applicable law, and including both agriculture, healthcare, education and trade, to powerfully fight food insecurity. While new episodes of price volatility are widespread worldwide, and we fear the occurrence of a third global food crisis in less than five years, it seems crucial to stress these findings once again. Without an approach that is coordinated between the world’s various nations, and includes the many dimensions of food security, it will be extremely difficult to eradicate world hunger. This is the reason why, since its creation, momagri campaigns for a true global agricultural and food governance system2.

Momagri Editorial Board




The right to food as a human right is a relatively recent invention. It was included, of course, in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the core document that launched the movement towards international human rights at universal level, and in subsequent treaties such as the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. But for almost fifty years, the right to food was practically dormant. […]

The 1996 World Food Summit changed this. In 1974, the first World Food Summit had narrowly defined “food security” in termes of food supply. Instead, in the opening paragraph of the 1996 Rome Declaration, Heads of States and Government reaffirmed the “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fondamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”. The World Summit Plan of Action they adopted requested to “clarify the content of the right to adequate food and the fondamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” (objective 7.4). This led the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body of experts tasked with supervising the implementation of the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to propose an authoritative interpretation of the right to food (in the form of General Comment No. 12, adopted in 1999). It spurred the adoption by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Council on 23 November 2004 of the Voluntary Guidelines on the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security, the only text of intergovernmental nature clarifying the concrete measures states should take in order to implement the human right to adequate food. With these advances, the right to food was not simply better understood in its normative implications. It was also seen by governments as a key instrument in the fight to achieve food security.

Governments shifted towards the right to food because they realized that past policies were failing to reduce food insecurity. Those policies were focused on increasing macro-nutrient availability. However, it appeared that the number of the hungry was rising at the same time that the levels of aggregate cereals production were breaking record after record, and despite the fact that, on a worldwide basis, increases in annual grain production consistently exceeded demographic growth. Indeed, on the basis of his study of the most important famines of this century, Amartya K. Sen drew our attention, already in 1981, to the fact that people may grow hungry in times of boosting yields, as a result of the incomes of certain groups remaining too low, while the incomes of others rise. […]

Legal accountability has a key role to play in this regard. As Amartya Sen remarked, the “law stands between food availability and food entitlement”. What he meant is that unless we take seriously our duties towards the most vulnerable, and the essential role of legal entitlements in ensuring that the poor have either the resources required to produce enough food for themselves or a purchasing power sufficient to procure food from the market, our efforts at increasing production will little change their situation. For they are hungry not because there is too little food, they are hungry, because they are marginalized economically, and powerless, politically. Protecting the right to food through adequate institutions and monitoring mechanisms should therefore be a key part of any strategy against hunger.

We are now learning the lesson all over again. Consider Peru for instance. Until 2005, Peru seemed bound to remain with high and almost unchanged rates of child malnutrition. As measured by the rates of stunted children, chronic malnutrition was 25.8 per cent in 1996, and 22.9 per cent in 2005; in rural areas, the rates were even higher and the progress even slower, moving from 40.4 per cent to 40.1 percent over the same period. Then, after 2005, malnutrition rates began to fall. Between 2005 and 2010, they declined from 22.9 to 17.9 percent. Reductions mainly occurred in rural areas: by 2010, child malnutrition had decreased by a quarter, to 31.3 per cent according to the Peruvian National Statistical Office (INEI). This means that over 130,000 children under five have been rescued from chronic malnutrition. […]

A parallel research shows that the example of Peru is not unique. Peru is one of a handful of countries where the rates of malnutrition diminished recently: the other countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, Malawi, and Mozambique. What made these countries succeed when so many others are failing to make significant progress? First, they sought to adopt a multi- sectoral approach to combating hunger and malnutrition. Their strategies combined an attention to agriculture, with the mainstreaming of nutrition in health policies, and coordinated policies in the areas of education, gender, water, sanitation and habitat, pro- poor economic development (both by employment and income generation for the poor and by social development), and trade (as in the case, in particular, of Malawi). Second, with the exception of Bangladesh, the political impetus given at the highest level of government was a key factor: in Brazil, Peru, Malawi and Mozambique, the Governments defined food and nutritional security as their main priorities, placing them at the top of the political agenda and adopting strategies specifically aimed at combating hunger and poverty. Third, civil society participation and empowerment was essential, by contributing to the sustainability of policies across time and by improving their acceptance and impact among affected populations. Fourth, multi-phased approaches have been the most effective, as allowed by multi-year national strategies combining both short-term interventions and long-term approaches to nutrition. […] Fifth […] the establishment of institutions monitoring progress has proved essential in ensuring that the political pressure remains present throughout the implementation phase of the strategy, and to ensure that the resources are committed. Sixth, the continuity of financial investment is vital: one-time efforts, over short periods, almost by definition are bound to fail to achieve significant success. Seventh, finally, adopting a rights-based approach to social protection schemes or to programmes that support food producers improve targeting and ensure that the disempowered, the less well connected, or women, are not left out. […]

At the World Summit on Food Security convened in Rome on 16-18 November 2009, the Governments adopted the "Rome Principles", a set of five principles that are meant to orientate efforts of the international community towards a world free from hunger. Under Principle 3, they pledge to "strive for a comprehensive twin-track approach to food security that consists of … medium- and long-term sustainable agricultural, food security, nutrition and rural development programmes to eliminate the root causes of hunger and poverty, including through the progressive realization of the right to adequate food". They explained: "We affirm the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. We will strive for a world free from hunger where countries implement the Voluntary guidelines for the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security and we will support the practical application of the guidelines based on the principles of participation, transparency and accountability." Words? Not just. Also a key factor to make food security strategies successful. The right to food is not a symbol: it is a tool. It points at the end objective, but it also has an instrumental value as a way to get there.


1 The complete article is available from: http://www.srfood.org/index.php/en/component/content/article/2433-gender-equality-is-secret-weapon-against-hunger-special-rapporteur-to-asian-development-bank
2 Please see momagri’s principles of governance at: http://www.momagri.org/UK/governance-intro.html
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Paris, 15 December 2018