The Right to Food

Martin Frick, UN Food Systems Summit: "Not everything innovative needs to be new"

Experts' corner - 16.09.2021

16 September 2021, Berlin/Rome- With a tenth of the global population - up to 811 million people – undernourished, it´s no secret that our food systems need to improve. The world is converging on the need for sustainable agri-food systems to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we approach the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, this is an opportunity for action. It can mark a turning point in the world's journey towards ensuring everyone has access every day to sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food.

This interview with Dr. Martin Frick, Deputy to the Special Envoy for the UN Food System Summit, takes us through the human rights agenda of this landmark event: the opportunities, challenges and envisaged outcomes. We hear his thoughts about the concepts and dimensions of human rights too, based on his extensive experience in this area.

Interdependence of human rights

The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities of food systems and accelerated the rise on hunger. In your view, how does it shed light on the interrelationship of human rights, and particularly on the connections between the planet, health and people?

Martin Frick: Since the start of the pandemic, we have been forced to confront a simple truth that we continually overlook: We are all connected. Global food systems are a primary vehicle for this interconnection, linking producers to consumers, facilitating complex supply chains, and driving policy decisions that ultimately impact food security, nutrition profiles, and ecosystem health. Human rights that underpin global food systems are also inextricably linked. The right to food, as codified in Article 11 of the ICESCR is most directly associated with global food systems, but it cannot be considered in isolation. Ensuring that all people are able to enjoy accessible, available, and adequate food at all times, consistent with the right to food, also requires the realization of the following: The right to life; right to health; right to adequate housing; right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment; right to development; right to education; right to freedom of movement; right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law; right to non-discrimination; rights to work and to enjoy favorable conditions of work; right of detained persons to humane treatment.

Identifying the normative content of these rights is important for implementation, but we should not categorize these rights for purposes of creating siloes or separation. The path to the Summit has provided a critical platform to reinforce the interconnectivity of human rights and to remind all food system actors of the right to food and all other rights to which it is inextricably linked. During the Pre-Summit, for example, a panel of experts including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet and the Director General of the International Labor Organization, Guy Ryder highlighted that human rights and labor rights are mutually reinforcing. The panel reminded stakeholders that the right to food should not be construed in the narrowest sense, but includes access to productive resources, such as seeds, land, and other inputs. It also requires generous consideration of the fundamental rights owed to women, youth, indigenous populations and peasants, both during times of peace, and in conflict situations.

As we continue to live in a state of global crisis under the pandemic, we should regard the Summit as a pivotal moment in history to change the way we connect through food systems. The current models of production and consumption models are reinforcing systemic inequalities, especially among the most marginalized populations, and creating power asymmetry among food system actors to the detriment of women, smallholder farmers, peasants, fisher folk, and indigenous peoples. Leveraging human rights as a holistic and unified framework can enable us to reverse course and achieve more sustainable, healthier, and inclusive food systems as we move towards a global state of recovery and resilience.

"Leveraging human rights as a holistic and unified
framework can enable us to reverse course."

Commitments on human rights

The pathway to the Summit has been complex, since the articulation of the different concerns and interests has encountered multiple challenges. To what extent has there been a consensus on the importance of human rights as a tool for sustainable transformation, and would you say that today more actors are committed to incorporating a human rights-based approach in their actions?

MF:The pathway to the Summit has indeed been complex, but necessarily so. We are searching for food system solutions that are responsive to multi-faceted threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, conflict and disaster, gender, racial and ethnic inequality, and a global pandemic; when we talk about food systems, we are also implicating every individual on this planet, each bringing a unique perspective and set of circumstances. At the Pre-Summit, for example, we witnessed the culmination of ideas and analysis that have been shared by thousands of people engaged in 145 National Dialogues and nearly 800 Independent Dialogues. The event benefited from the engagement of more than 500 delegates from 108 countries in person, and more than 22,000 virtual delegates from 183 countries. The challenge of reconciling different concerns is inevitable, but the Summit offers an opportunity to balance individual and collective rights and interests with policy agendas of States. At the same time, we must minimize harmful trade-offs to people and planet.

Against this nuanced and complicated backdrop, we are increasingly seeing consensus around food being more than a commodity but really “food as a human right.” Human rights offer a unifying and conceptual framework for food system transformation by establishing a set of grounding principles and norms that account for the whole system.  Civil society is leading this amplification, advancing the argument that food is an inalienable and universal right that is individually and collectively owed to all people, consistent with human rights law. But there is also growing support among other private sector actors that are expressing a real commitment to social responsibility and equitable food system change based on human rights principles. Now, more than ever before, we are seeing rights-based language and principles permeate action plans, mission statements, and policy agendas.

"We are increasingly seeing consensus around food being
more than a commodity but really food as a human right".

The greatest challenge that faces these constituencies and States in actually building on a human rights-based approach in pathways to transformation is understanding concrete strategies for implementation. Fortunately, human rights constitute a set of standards and principles to guide these efforts, and we are hopeful that the Summit will continue to demystify human rights. Human rights principles of participation, accountability, transparency and rule of law, in particular, enable meaningful, inclusive, and coherent policy. In practice, this means establishing democratic institutions that afford civil society opportunities to shape the policy process through formal channels and informal consultations; designating transparent monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure access to adequate food, and delivery other public goods and services; supporting avenues for legal and institutional reform, capacity-building, and awareness and enforcement of rights; and safeguarding against government corruption and rights violations.

"The greatest challenge [..] in actually building on a
human rights-based approach
in pathways to transformation is understanding
concrete strategies for implementation". 

Most, if not all, actors engaged in the Summit process have already expressed an intention to adopt at least one of these actions. We simply need to reinforce and realign these commitments with existing human rights obligations.

Innovation and real changes

The UN Food Systems Summit is expected to launch new partnerships and to present sets of proposals for transformation. Innovation is a keyword frequently used to emphasize the transformative approach of the Summit. What are the concrete changes we could expect to effectively address key structural issues like gender inequality in relation to access to resources and recognition of work and care, and violations against human rights defenders, among others?

MF: Certainly, we need more innovation to achieve the envisaged food system transformation and improve towards the 2030 goals.  Technological innovation in particular, (low and high) has a profound effect on how we eat, live and produce. Not everything innovative needs to be new – in fact, there is plenty to learn from indigenous peoples worldwide. As much as 80% of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity lies within indigenous peoples’ territories. This is precious, needs to be honoured – and replicated.  But innovation is also finding ways of how we better cooperate, how we find more inclusive systems of governance and how we collectively overcome our silos to which we all too often default. Future effects of innovation may be positive, but do not offer a “quick fix” to the structural issues that are rooted in historic and system inequality and oppression. Innovation alone has not been able to solve global hunger or prevent biodiversity loss. Yet “innovation” is not the issue—it is the application of innovation and the delineation of who benefits that will dictate whether we can effectively address these long-standing challenges.

"Yet “innovation” is not the issue—
it is the application of innovation
and the delineation of who benefits [..]". 

Like human rights, innovation has been identified as a cross-cutting lever of change in the Summit process. Across the Action Tracks, we have seen innovative proposals emerge in the following four areas: societal and institutional; national, and regional; data and digital; and knowledge and technological innovation. In each of these areas, we can expect to see changes in how we collaborate with different stakeholders; how public-private partnerships between businesses and governments ensure accountability and benefit-sharing; and how we value and apply traditional and indigenous knowledge and emerging technologies.

National commitments and multi-stakeholder partnerships emerging from the Summit in the form of coalitions will provide an opportunity for restorative thinking around innovation, one which is based on human rights principles of participation, transparency, equality and non-discrimination. Reconciling biotechnology with agroecology, traditional knowledge, and human rights, for example, will help ensure that all relevant actors have an opportunity to engage in the development and use of innovation. Greater investments in capacity building for technology transfer and reconfiguring intellectual property rights management may enable innovation to support and benefit the most marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially smallholders, indigenous populations, women, and youth.

UN Food Systems Summit

The Pre-Summit set the stage for the global event in New York later this year. What are some of the takeaways that can guide states and other actors in the realization of the right to food, and which areas require particular support for countries to ensure its effective implementation?

MF: The Pre-Summit really served as the convergence point, bringing together our various engagement streams, and helped ensure that the Summit is on track to reaffirm  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its integrated focus on people, planet and prosperity. As we move towards the Summit and look beyond, States and other actors are encouraged to consider opportunities for concrete commitments and partnerships that touch upon at least one of the following focus areas: nourishing all people; boosting nature-based solutions and production; advancing equitable livelihoods, decent work, and empowered communities; building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stresses; and effective and inclusive means of implementation. The right to food cuts across all of these action areas. Support for universal school meals, healthy and sustainable diets, and zero hunger, for example, will ultimately further the realization of the right to food. Investments in agroecology, blue and aquatic foods, and plant-based alternatives will similarly advance the right, as will additional protections for indigenous people and traditional knowledge and inputs. These are just a few of the coalitions that are already forming ahead of the Summit and which will only continue to build with requisite attention.

Governments and other political and social actors should start forming relevant commitment and partnerships that are based on human rights principles and which advance the availability, adequacy, and accessibility of food for the present generation, without discrimination, and without compromising this right for future generations. Implementing and establishing  rule of law at the national level to facilitate the enjoyment of human rights, particularly the right to food, should be prioritized. This means leveraging human rights to inform and ground legislative frameworks, designing and implementing inclusive policies and programmes, and determining appropriate resource allocation that addresses underlying environmental, social and cultural conditions that influence equality within society. Fortunately, international community has already developed and endorsed several resources that offer technical assistance and interpretive guidance, including voluntary instruments developed by the FAO and CFS. Leading into the Summit, we are encouraging States and other actors to refer to these existing resources and make concrete and collaborative commitments to implement transformative action.

"Governments and other political and social actors should
startforming relevant commitment and partnerships
that are based on human rights principles".

About Dr. Martin Frick

Martin Frick is the Deputy to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Food System Summit 2021. He previously served before as Senior Director Policy and Programme Coordination of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Prior to that he was the Director of the Climate Change, Energy and Tenure Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He was the German representative for human rights and humanitarian affairs at the UN General Assembly and served as the European Union’s lead negotiator in the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council. As Ambassador to the International Organizations based in Germany, he helped to build the UN’s sustainability hub in Bonn. He holds a PhD in Law from Regensburg University and was guest lecturer at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Setting the stage for global food transformation

Under the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UN Food Systems Summit will take place on 23 September 2021.

This will serve as a springboard to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get the world back on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030.

Over the past 18 months, the Summit has brought together UN Member States and constituencies around the world – including youth, food producers, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, researchers, private sector and consumer organizations.

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