Derecho a la alimentación

Interview with the Head of the Right to Food Division of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Experts' corner - 23.06.2023

Berlin/Rome - States have the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, including the progressive realization of the right to food. Over the years, Germany has been a key ally to FAO for making agrifood systems more sustainable and inclusive.

In this interview, Susanne Schlaack, Head of the Right to Food Division of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), takes us through the priorities that lie at the heart of the Ministry with regards to food security and nutrition, touching on a wide array of areas such as inclusivity, gender equality, and climate change mitigation. She also outlines Germany's experience in supporting and implementing a human rights-based approach, including through the uptake of the Right to Food Guidelines, adopted almost 20 years ago.

This is part of the feature interview series regularly conducted by the FAO with key stakeholders on the right to food. You can find previous editions here

 Right to food: high priority issue in the German Ministry for Food and Agriculture

The German Ministry of Food and Agriculture has recently established a stand-alone division dedicated to the right to food. Could you please explain why this division was created, what its main tasks are, and how it fits within BMEL´s overall policy priorities?

S. Schlaack: We created a new division early this year, its name expresses the objectives of all our efforts in agri-food policies: the right to food.

While we were already working hard on this issue before, we thought it was important to acknowledge the overriding importance of all the measures taken to promote this human right with a dedicated division.

The human right to adequate food brings together all the concepts required for achieving a sustainable, ecologically and socially just transformation of food systems, ensuring participation rights, and providing healthy and sufficient nutrition across the globe. The right to adequate food not only addresses the way in which we produce food, the development of agricultural systems and the quality and safety of food, but also the non-discriminatory access to food and the protection of natural resources against degradation as a prerequisite for food production.

We want to advance and politically strengthen the realization of the right to food worldwide, as well as at national level and within the European Union. The new division will identify overarching approaches to achieve these goals, develop them strategically and harness them for our work. This includes the transformation of food systems, the fight against hunger and global food security. We considered it essential to make the rights-based perspective on food security, and the focus we place on it, visible externally as well.

My division coordinates and monitors for the German Federal Government the work done by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The CFS plays a central role in the development of rights-based policy approaches and regards the right to food as its basis for working out solutions for food security. Our new division will ensure that the products developed by the CFS will have an even greater influence on our work at national, European and international level.

"Our new division will ensure that the products
developed by the CFS will have
an even greater influence
on our work."

It is important that the international community does not let up in its efforts to realize the right to adequate food, including in its national policies. It is up to the states themselves to decide what institutions should be used to support this endeavour, depending on their respective administrative structures. 

The right to food in Germany

BMEL’s Right to Food division is situated within the department for International Cooperation. Does it have the mandate to work on the right to food in Germany, too? If so, what is your strategy to tackle food insecurity and malnutrition?

S. Schlaack: We are convinced that agri-food policies need to be firmly committed to the fulfilment of the right to food — to ensure a good, sufficient, healthy and sustainable supply of food everywhere.

"We are convinced that agri-food policies 
need to be firmly committed to
the fulfilment of the right to food."

Unfortunately, Germany is also affected by food insecurity and, above all, malnutrition. We are working together inter-departmentally to address this. Adequate social security and education, balanced meals in preschools and schools, preventive health protection and healthcare are just some of the issues that have a bearing in this area. We need to view them holistically.

To promote good nutrition and healthy and sustainable diets in Germany, the BMEL is currently coordinating the drafting of the Federal Government’s Food and Nutrition Strategy. The aim is to contributie towards the transformation of food systems, by promoting and creating food environments and nutrition patterns that make it easy for people to eat healthily and sustainably. The key objectives are a more plant-based diet, a reduction in the consumption of sugar, fat and salt, a reduction in food waste and the promotion of communal catering with a greater proportion of seasonal, regional, organic and climate-friendly food.

We also support a healthy plant-based diet via the Protein Crop Strategy, which is aimed at expanding the cultivation of legumes in Germany. Legumes have a positive environmental impact, notably on soils, and help preserve biodiversity.

It is hard to accept that a lot of food in Germany ends up as waste - approx. 78 kg in private households per capita annually. Reducing food waste is important, including for climate change mitigation, resource protection and sustainability, and needs to be tackled along the entire food supply chain. The BMEL is pursuing the goals of reducing food losses and halving food waste along the entire food supply chain in Germany by 2030.

We are also working hard to strengthen regional value-added chains and promote regional food marketing. This makes food more available and accessible away from major centres. Regional value chains and regional marketing offer great opportunities not only for climate action, resource conservation and higher producer prices, but for maintaining and building rural processing structures. Local production makes us less reliant on global supply chains and contributes to food sovereignty. We are convinced that the strength of regional value-added structures is a key lever in further diversifying supply chains and food systems and contributing to a resilient and sustainable food supply.

We are well aware that what we do in Germany has an impact on other countries and their ability to produce and consume food. Take livestock husbandry: at present, almost two-thirds of grain in Germany is used as animal feed. We are working intensely to ensure agricultural commodities are used to a greater extent for human consumption and, in particular, that the amount of grain used for animal feed production is reduced. We are focusing on reforming livestock husbandry so that there are fewer animals and these are kept under better conditions. This is conducive to animal welfare, because the animals will have more space, to consumer protection, because there is a government husbandry labelling system, and to climate stewardship. The land that becomes available due to the smaller livestock populations will then be available for direct food production, both in Germany and globally, and this will reduce the strain on areas of great natural value. Thus, successfully changing livestock husbandry has national and global impacts.

The newly established division will pay special attention to these interrelations between national and European measures and their global impact.

Equality is a human right

Enhancing equality is at the forefront of German policymaking, as demonstrated by the recent launch of the guidelines on feminist foreign and development policies. Given that women are more likely to experience food insecurity than men, are there plans for your Ministry to adopt feminist policy guidelines?

S. Schlaack: A very important concern to us is the equal participation of women in all decisions and their access to resources such as land and finance for food production. Both in Germany and internationally, the role of women tends to be marginalised and their participation is frequently impeded by discriminatory social norms. Therefore, we are focusing on empowering women and trying to work towards eliminating gender-specific differences, both in the national context and in our international cooperation.

"We are focusing on empowering women
and trying to work towards eliminating
gender-specific differences,
both in the national context
and in our international cooperation."

In Germany, an estimated half a million women live and work on agricultural holdings. At the initiative of the German Rural Women Association (Deutscher LandFrauenverband e.V.), the BMEL has funded a comprehensive three-year study on the living and working conditions of women in agricultural enterprises. The study’s conclusion is that there is still considerable need for action to make equality on farms a reality. In Germany, for instance, only about one in nine agricultural enterprises is run by a woman. Some of the areas of action suggested in the study include the empowerment of female farm successors (in the form of special training courses, networking opportunities offered by training and advisory bodies, and mentoring programmes) and low-threshold support and advisory services for female agricultural entrepreneurs. The study recommendations are not only addressed to the BMEL but to other ministries, the federal states, the municipalities, the trades and professions, rural industry, and also to agricultural families.

The Policies against Hunger Conference

In a few days, Germany will be hosting the 14th Policies against Hunger Conference, which this year will focus on human rights-based approaches to food systems transformation. What are the key reasons that made you prioritize this theme?

S. Schlaack: Our Ministry will be delighted to welcome many guests from around the globe to the Policies against Hunger Conference on 27 and 28 June. I am very pleased that we have been able to enlist the CFS Chairman, Ambassador Gabriel Ferrero, as Chair of the conference, and that Michael Fakhri, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, will also provide his input.

It is of particular importance to us to invite all stakeholders to discuss comprehensive strategies for global food security and to bring their backgrounds and experience to the debate. If we, as the international community, want to sustainably change the situation for the better in the long run - and we need to - then we need to discuss this with those hit hard by food insecurity.

At a time marked by multiple crises in which the number of starving people has once again risen, we thought it was important to choose a conference title which emphasized the value of rights-based approaches. There are many strong voices and thoughtful approaches on how to achieve a resilient system. We should ensure that everybody is able to participate and that human rights are respected. We should build on our shared values and achievements, which provide coherent guidance for navigating through the current crises.

Under the heading "Human rights-based approaches to food systems transformations", we want to underline that the needs and rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups must be considered when designing sustainable food systems. At the conference, we want to offer these groups a forum to engage in an open exchange on concrete solutions.

FAO and Germany: fruitful cooperation on the right to food

As a longstanding partner of FAO in the promotion of the right to food, Germany’s support facilitated the adoption and subsequent implementation of the Right to Food Guidelines. As we gear up towards their 20th anniversary in 2024, what is their continued relevance in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in all its forms?

S. Schlaack: The Guidelines have lost none of their relevance, even though 2024 will mark their 20th anniversary. The international community has set itself the target of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. That is just seven years away. Our chances of achieving this have not been improved by the COVID-19 pandemic, the worsening climate and biodiversity crises or the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. We must do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.

"The [Right to Food] Guidelines
have lost none of their relevance, 
even though 2024 will mark their 20th anniversary."

The Guidelines provide vital guidance for national, regional and international policies on realizing the right to adequate food. They cover access to production resources such as land, water or seeds, the improvement of agricultural structures, productivity and marketing, and social security mechanisms.

I would like to express my great appreciation to the CFS for having developed the Guidelines and for their tireless work on the huge and complex issue of sustainable food security. I think that the various Guidelines and policy recommendations, of which the right to food is only one, deserve greater attention, appreciation and implementation. For it is precisely the interweaving of issues such as women’s rights, land (access) rights, youth participation, agricultural ecology, responsible investment and sustainable food systems that is key to fulfilling the right to food and ensuring sustainable global food security.

Since we are, once again, a long way from realizing this fundamental human right across the globe, I am worried that the Guidelines are not used as a source of good advice more often. We are therefore delighted that the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food will be a focus in 2024.

About the Right to food Division of the BMEL

Established early this year, the Right to food Division is headed by Susanne Schlaack, who holds a PhD on Political Science, and a Master of Arts on History and Art History.

The Ministry hold global food security as priority area of work. Against this backdrop, the he Federal Government has, through the BMEL, provided crucial political and financial support for the development of the Right to Food Guidelines and takes action to promote their implementation.

Within the German Federal Government, the BMEL leads the relations with FAO. Since 2002, the BMEL has co-funded food security projects with the Organization under the Bilateral Trust Fund. 

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