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Expert Panel on “The Role of the Right to Food in Addressing the Global Food Crisis”

Events - 16.10.2009

The Expert Panel on “The Role of the Right to Food in Addressing the Global Food Crisis” is consistent with the World Food Week theme, “Achieving Food Security in Times of Crisis” and it will be a useful occasion to reflect in the view of FAO major event in November, the World Food Summit.

The Panel will result in a series of recommendations to FAO and member countries on how the right to food can contribute to ensure food security during global crisis. The high level expertise in different fields will ensure the soundness of the outcome. A multidisciplinary expert panel will discuss and provide recommendations on how the right to adequate food can concretely contribute to ensuring food security during the global food crisis. The Expert Panel will bring together the views of economists, policy makers, human rights experts and the academia to the debate.




Conceptual framework

World Food Day 2009 will be dedicated to the theme: “Achieving Food Security in Times of Crisis”. As the title points out, the impact of the economic crisis on food security represents a matter of great concern. People in developing countries and especially in rural areas are those most affected by the wake of the surge in food and fuel prices (2007-2008). Although international prices have come down from their record heights in 2008, average food prices in May 2009 were still about 24 percent higher than they were in 2006 and the risk of volatility is also still present. Moreover, the same factors which caused the 2007-2008 soaring of food prices have not disappeared either. The current crisis and the risk of another surge in food prices require taking action to ensure food security, especially in rural areas where 70 percent of the world’s poor live and work.

The Expert Panel on “The Role of the Right to Food in Addressing the Global Food Crisis” is consistent with the World Food Week theme, “Achieving Food Security in Times of Crisis”. Its main objective, indeed, is to discuss how the Right to Food can concretely contribute to achieve food security during the global food and financial crisis.

The Comprehensive Framework for Action, developed by the High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis in July 2008, sets a twin-track approach to meet urgent hunger and humanitarian needs. To effectively tackle the present crisis the right to food should be added as a “third track”, as acknowledged by the UN Secretary-General in his closing speech at the High-Level Meeting on Food Security held in Madrid this year. Hence, the right to food emerges as a crucial component of the diagnosis, design, implementation and monitoring of the response to the present food crisis. An approach based on the right to food addresses the root causes of hunger showing that food insecurity has more to do with access to food than with production; measures meant to boost production may eventually result in large-scale agricultural exploitation, providing markets not accessible to small-holders, who are those most critically affected by the crisis.

For the first time, in 2008 a world food crisis was recognized as a human rights issue. The reasons are twofold. On the one hand, the crisis disproportionately affects people who are already vulnerable, in particular those who spend large proportions of their income on purchasing food or those who lose their livelihoods as jobs and income opportunities vanish due to the economic and financial crisis. On the other hand, it is widely recognized that, regarding the response to the crisis, business as usual will not work. Traditional approaches dealt with the technical dimensions of food security work in both emergency and development contexts. They need to be complemented with an additional dimension that focuses on the promotion of the right to adequate food and good governance.

Good food security governance is essential to eradicate hunger. At government level this means that all different line ministries or commissions need to combine their complementary skills and efforts to design and implement effective integrated cross-sectoral initiatives. At local level this means that households, families, farmers’ organizations, agri-business and other actors need to be empowered to participate in the policy-making process, not only at national level but also at regional, village and even family level. Such coordination will undoubtedly pose a real challenge.

Food security is a function not only of production and market access, but also of the environment created by economic and political institutions at all levels. These institutions can facilitate or obstruct people's access to essential livelihood assets. Understanding governance structures and institutional contexts is crucial for addressing food security as a policy issue that cuts across several sectors and has multiple dimensions. It is now well recognized that the institutional set-up and the processes that allow interactions among interested stakeholders are critical factors for success or failure when formulating, implementing and monitoring policies.

Countries that started implementing the right to food, as for example Brazil, have in the present food crisis demonstrated the value of participatory coordination mechanisms such as the Food and Nutritional Security Council, of targeted safety nets such as the “Bolsa Familia”, of transparent and accountable programmes such as the school feeding programme and of empowered citizens.

Because of its close link to the economic crisis, the global food crisis and the commitment to address its structural causes should continue to be at the top of the international political agenda. With the right to food and good governance, past mistakes will not be repeated and food systems, along with social, economic and political systems will be set up at all levels that have as overarching objective the promotion of humanity’s well-being and the dignity of each human being.



FIRST QUESTION (addressed to all panelists)

Investing in agriculture is seen as a proposal to increase food production. How does the human rights approach ensure that these investments effectively contribute to combat hunger and malnutrition and how to ensure this benefit the most vulnerable food producer?

Valente: Investment in agriculture is important but small farmers are the ones who should be addressed. The questions are: who is producing, what, how, for whom? Actually, 70 per cent of poor live in the countryside, most producers are women. We have to guarantee that those people will benefit from these investments. Food producers must be able to assess and receive food adequate in quality and quantity. The model of extensive agriculture has affected small producers: is this model sustainable? People are not meant to live and produce in cities; this is a political choice which can also be different. People should be enabled to produce enough and good food in countryside.

Nabarro: Investing in agriculture is very important () to strengthen the life of people, especially of the most vulnerable and of people who depend on agriculture, like small farmers. This helps to strengthen their resilience in the society and in times of crisis. But important is also to have a look at: how to invest, where to invest, and for whom to invest. The right to food can represent the benchmark to measure how fair and just these investments are.

Eide: The large majority of people suffering from hunger are living in the countryside and therefore investments are really needed at that level to strengthen and enhance their livelihoods. It is necessary to improve the communication systems and regulations of the market to make it more accessible for small scale farmers.

Crowley: There is a need to pay more attention to agriculture in areas of lower output agriculture. We must focus on agriculture techniques which are sustainable, instead of concentrate only on techniques which are more dependent on fuel.
Research on crops of the poor is needed. Crops are socially important, not only economically. Additionally, a well functioning finance, credit and insurance systems can help when harvest failed to provide food. Insurance assistance must be delivered as a public good; farmers’ organizations have to take part to the decisions that can affect their life. The gender aspect should become a bigger focus: female-headed households spend larger shares of income on food than men-headed households and thereby create better changes for child survival.

Osmani: Two groups of people have been affected by the crisis: Small producers and people who get their food from the market (in exchange of what they have). The first group gets their entitlement through production; the second group gets their entitlements through exchange. The latter are the majority and they are the ones who have suffered more from the recent rise in food prices: they cannot afford to pay. The major reason for the rise in food prices was the great imbalance between supply and demand. This happened not because of a market failure- the market acted as it was supposed to act. But we have failed! The policy makers have failed to ensure the balance in the market is kept. What caused this imbalance? In the medium term, the demand of food has grown fast because of the increasing numbers of people and incomes in large parts of the world (e.g. India, China, Brazil). That raised the demand of food significantly. But at the same time the supply side has not been strengthened because the research on food production went down drastically. The Green Revolution was so successful in producing food that it brought down food prices in the 80s and 90s. In fact, food prices went down so much that there was no private interest in investing in food and agriculture research. When India, China and Brazil entered the market from the demand side, the market was not ready to supply. So, YES, we need investment but we need investment in food research which is not happening so far. Public investment in food research is needed!

Comment of Eide to Osmani’s answer: I don’t think that the problem is the amount of food. Green revolution in India increased production, but today still 250 million people are undernourished. The problem lies in the access to food.

Comment of Valente to Osmani’s answer: The reasons of the crisis are not market-related, at least not in the sense of unmet demand of food. The real problem for people who are affected by the crisis relates to access to resources, land and income/jobs.


Question to Flavio Valente: Brazil declared here in FAO during the Right to Food Forum 2008 that it has already achieved the MDG 1 with the right to food approach. Moreover, now during the economic crisis it has pulled out 10 million people out of poverty. Can you tell us more about the Brazilian model?

Valente: Talking about the problem of access to resources, forced evictions from lands is a huge problem. How the land is distributed and for what purposes it is cultivated also matters: in Brazil, big farmers produce for the cows and for the cars – they don’t produce food! Small farmers produce for people. These small farmers produce 75% of the food consumed by the Brazilian population in less than 20 % of the land available for agriculture in Brazil! The allocation of the land is a political choice. In this regard, it has to be said that a lot of people were kicked out of their land because of the political choice to dedicate the land to other production, e.g. for biofuels production. The macro political decisions have an enormous importance for the fulfillment of the right to food. If we do not get coherence of these macro political decisions we will not be able to fight hunger in the world.

Question to Asbjørn Eide: What needs to be done at the multilateral system to make it work for the hungry? Could you elaborate more on this?

Eide: The Cordoba Group met in the first days of October in advance of the summits addressing food security and climate change. The outcome of this meeting was a “Call from the Cordoba Group for Coherence and Action on Food Security and Climate Change”. In the paper we call for coherence in four points: coherence in decisions, coherence in delivery, coherence in dialogue and coherence in diplomacy. Coherence needed in diplomacy refers to two important places: Rome and Copenhagen. These places have a different view on the climate issue: Rome wants to increase food production without dealing with greenhouse gases; Copenhagen has concerns for greenhouse gas emission. These two different views should be made coherent; there is a need to develop a global consensus!

Question to David Nabarro: How is the right to food embedded in the response of the UN High Level Task Force to the global food security crisis?

Nabarro: The UN High Level Task Force was created to increase the coherence of the United Nations in response to the challenges of the crisis. The High Level Task Force gathers different actors and many efforts have been done during the last 15 months to increase coherence inside the system. One of the first things the High Level Task Force did was create a Comprehensive Framework for Action. This Comprehensive Framework for Action is putting the people in the focus of action. Talk to each others, work together, create synergies and be coherent in actions - this has been our method of working so far. It may be not possible – not even within the UN family – to get full coherence because the issues of agriculture and food security have so many dimensions of political life; different actors have different interests.
It seems that our system means very little to communities and people who are suffering from the crisis and to local governments. Nevertheless there is a common will inside the Task Force to address the needs of the most vulnerable. The answer should be coherent and systematic towards the vulnerable in every country of the world.

Additional Question to David Nabarro: At the High Level Meeting on Food Security for all this year in Madrid, the Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, mentioned the right to food as the third track in our approach to food security. What did he mean by that and where are we in that today?

Nabarro: By introducing this very explicitly, it was an instruction to all of us that we bring the right to food more explicitly into our internal discourse and interactions with national governments. The Secretary General found that the social and economic rights, such as the right to food, provide an excellent platform for common understanding and action that we could use to get more synergy and correspondence. We are now in the process to base our work on a “rights based approach” instead of a “charity approach” (). The right to food should be embedded in every agency which is working with us.

Comment of Osmani: I do not see the logic in taking the right to food as the third track. For me it is THE track! It is an overarching framework to which all other tracks have to be coordinated. I think the rights based approach is an overarching framework of activities and formulating policies, in which all other activities mustl be integrated.

Question to Siddiqur Osmani: You work on the interface between human rights, poverty and economic growth. What is the relationship between the right to food and the market mechanism?

Osmani: All activities which are supportive to the hungry people should be coordinated and pursued in the rights based framework. The policy makers have to accept the obligation that they must try to fulfill the right to food of every single person – in the shortest possible time! And this not because it is a good thing to do, but because it is their duty to do so! Politicians and policy makers would only take such decision when there is pressure from below, e.g. if there is civil society pressure. Why is it that so many MORE people lost their right to food in the last few years because of the crisis? It is this additionality of hunger I am referring to, when I emphasize the inability of supply to match demand in the recent past. Of course supply is not the main problem if you look at the bigger problem of persistent hunger around the world. But if you look at the shorter picture of the additional hunger that has been created by the recent food crisis, then supply was a problem. The point is that when you take the rights based approach you look at the totality and in this totality YES, social safety nets are important; YES, getting jobs for the people is important but as the same time supply is also important. Very important in my point of view is also the issue of accountability. Somebody has to take the responsibility and be accountablke for it. President Lula in Brazil for example has done this. It is absolutely important that the people can hold a decision maker accountable. This is the basis of the right based approach.

Question to Eve Crowley: In the context of the current food crisis, what is the relationship between the right to food and gender? How can the right to food help to correct some gender imbalances?

Crowley: Let me shortly refer to the third track approach and the right to food: the third track is important in order to have a kind of “outcome orientation” and as an overarching framework. With regard to gender, the right to food perspective implies that the food should be adequate, e.g. for pregnant women. Also, from a gender perspective, there are five main issues: access to land – few women have access to land and if they have access than it is few land in bad quality; financial assets and employment – for equal work women get less salary and have less access to credit and loans; social assets, human capital (if you cannot read than it is much more difficult for you to know what your rights are) and physical assets, like infrastructures and technologies – women mostly sell their products at farm gates and are not involved in structures that enable them to deliver to the markets. Those systematic decisions are the ones that lead to the disadvantages of women. These are five dimensions in gender inequality which are interlinked with the right to food. Agriculture should also be addressed through a gender perspective (“incorporate gender dimension”). Women are important as they manage the household budget; take care of children, etc. But very often women suffer food discrimination: in some cultures men use to eat before women, and children sometimes don’t eat at all. We have to pay attention to the system and to understand the interlinkages of gender and the right to food. We need greater voice for women and we need greater accountability.

Summing up by Ghanem:

Five main issues were pointed out as important for the right to food work:

  • Importance of who is producing what for whom;
  • How the international system could be made more coherent;
  • That access to land and resources is important;
  • Importance of accountability;
  • The gender aspect of the right to food.


1) People are more and more aware of their rights which imply that they have also more power towards their governments (power shift) and that they can hold them accountable. Nevertheless, there is still a need to bring governments even closer to people. How are we going to communicate with our partners -the governments- to bring them closer to the people?

2) The right to food issues is complex, but it seems that it relates at the very end to the governments. How can we, as FAO, promote better governance? What about to investment in agriculture on the condition that governance should be improved?

Valente: The role of the UN is important. International tools, such as the UN High level tasks, together with the people’s struggle for their rights, are the instruments to make the governments comply with the right to food. Human rights were not given but conquered by the poor and needy. We have to use the international tools to fight against the governments who may try to ignore the people.

3) What do you think about the conclusions of the CFS meeting early this morning?

Nabarro: In the UN we have many ideas about how to do and share with other, but we don’t manage very well when it comes to actually producing change. There are good ideas but no action. UN does not have hard power, only soft power, consequently governments do not have to act according to what UN says. This doesn’t work. You don’t get coherence by simply saying you want coherence. You get coherence when you give incentives - like comfort, like mutual support, like financial assistance, like participation in global inventions. The conclusions of CFS are the outcomes of a shared comfort, starting with a recognition of failure in the last thirty/ forty years. Now there is the new feeling that we must reform the CFS to be responsive. “Soft power” is the word. The UN has no hard power. It’s the soft power bringing the member states together and to work together. Ban Ki Moon is a strong promoter of the soft power and he brings people together in a very consensus way. We are all responsible; we are all accountable – way beyond our job descriptions say we are accountable for.

Eide: Soft power is very important. There are several things going on. There is on the one hand the Right to Food Unit, working on the Right to Food Guidelines. Secondly, there is the monitoring process of the Committee on ESCR. Thirdly, there is the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, who is performing an extremely important work. And finally there is optional protocol to the ICESCR. Certainly the soft power is what is available. It has a strong impact and I think there is a lot of hope for the future.

4) UN system could shine where the governments are weak. What are the greatest challenges for the governments?

Crowley: There are three different things that could contribute to better governance:
1. Better monitoring system on food security, so that actions can be taken quickly.
2. Bridge the gap between the law and the reality.
3. International assistance must be more flexible in financing and should more regular/predictable/consistent in term of responding to food security needs.
We need to uphold the expectations that we raise.

Eide: With regard to the allegation that we are focusing mainly on governments that are reasonably good: the monitoring body under the Committee on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for example monitored the situation in China and this report was quite frank. This shows that they are not shying away from difficult countries. So the image that one is not looking at bad governments does not hold in reality.

5) There is a significant difference between male and female mortality rate: What does the right to food provide to address this discrimination?

Osmani: Right to food is an overarching framework. One component of this overarching framework is to spread awareness. Human rights do not only address governments; it addresses every individual human being. People and society as a whole are also subject to the obligation of non-discrimination. Society – for example, parents – who do not feed their girl child adequately, are not fulfilling their obligation. It is our responsibility to such people aware that they are violating their human rights obligation. The rights-based approach demandsthat no human being can discriminate against other human beings.

Eide: Article 14 of the ICESCR is an extremely important article when we talk women in rural areas. Also the international treaties Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women (CEDAW) are very much aware of gender problems. Further, Article 3 of ICESCR and the corresponding General Comment 16 are dealing with equal rights of men and women. All these international treaties provide guidance on this issue.

Nabarro: I would like to give you my definition about what it means working for good governance: those who have power have to facilitate actions towards the poor. There is a need to first be aware that discrimination exists; the basis for action should be provided; necessity to empower the action and to create opportunities for people to take action; finally, it is important to celebrate people’s fulfillment of their rights so that others are encouraged to take action. Governance applies to international, regional, national, community, local, household and institutional levels.

Valente: There is a need to expose the facts, spread information and raise awareness on the issue of discrimination. Then the root causes have to be analyzed: early pregnancy and early marriages are actually causes that are often strictly related to premature death.

CONCLUSIONS of Hafez Ghanem

When we are talking about the role of the right to food in addressing the global food crisis then it is important to look at who is producing what and for whom; what is the impact of investment on the right to food; how can the access to resources be ensured and how can we make the international system more coherent. Good governance and the human rights based approach could be the answer because they contain the PANTHER: Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment and the Rule of law.


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