Lecture – The role of the right to food in combating global hunger

By Sonia Nair

By Sonia Nair

At first glance, global hunger appears to be an insurmountable problem, where the insufficiency of food resources lies at its core. However, the right to food – a relatively young right that protects people’s entitlement to feed themselves with dignity – implies otherwise, and expounds that sufficient food is indeed available. The question then becomes: do people around the world have the means to access this food? Although global hunger is still very much a grave challenge akin to a natural calamity, United Nations Special Rapporteur Professor Olivier De Schutter called upon us, at the 2012 Castan Centre for Human Rights Law/King & Wood Mallesons Annual Lecture on Thursday 19 June 2012 at the State Library of Victoria Conference Centre and Theatrette, to reconceptualise our idea of what constitutes hunger and raise questions about accountability and social justice.

De Schutter kick-started the presentation by quoting a set of sombre, yet sadly familiar, figures pertaining to global hunger:

“Out of 7 billion people on earth today, 1 billion are hungry and unable to acquire food they need to lead healthy and active lives.”

“In developing countries, 186 million children are stunted and 35% of deaths in children below 5 years of age are due to malnutrition leading to 3.1 million children dying annually from global hunger.”

After rehashing the above figures, however, De Schutter beseeched the audience to think about hunger in a way other than that in which it is usually understood: “Charts and graphs that represent hunger are true, but the problem is that this representation of hunger [are] greatly misleading and it leads to the wrong solutions.” Instead of focusing on aggregates and global levels of supply and demand, De Schutter implored his audience to see hunger as a problem of access.

“Are these people hungry because they’re too poor and marginalised and they count neither as a political constituency or an economic sector within their governments?” he asked.

De Schutter went on to outline three major threats to future food security: climate change, soil degradation and modern agriculture’s dependence on fossil-fuelled energy. By discussing each threat in depth, the Special Rapporteur painted a grim picture of the earth’s future ability to sustain its population. However, he deftly brought the audience back to the central premise of his argument and highlighted who the victims of global hunger are: 20 per cent are the rural landless, 20 per cent are the urban poor and 10 per cent are fishers or forest-dependent people.

De Schutter used the chart below to explain why the victims above are the casualties of global hunger and how hunger is very much a produced phenomenon:

Peasants deprived of the ability to produce

Poverty and inequality in rural areas

Small-scale farming not viable and precarious employment on farms leads to rural flight

Urban poor

In demonstrating his point as to why perceiving global hunger as a production problem leads to the wrong solutions, De Schutter went on to talk about the Green Revolution in the 1960s–70s and liberalisation of trade markets in the 1980s–2000s – initiatives that  first robbed farmers of their ability to produce.

Spearheaded by scientist Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution sought to remedy global hunger by developing new varieties of rice, wheat and maize as well as by encouraging the use of chemicals, fertilisers, irrigation schemes and pesticides. At first, the Green Revolution was a great success in Mexico, India and Pakistan and was hailed as “absolutely miraculous because it avoided famines,” according to De Schutter.

He stated, in relation to this project, that:

It succeeded in what it tried to achieve. The success of the Green Revolution is that production increased. What is really striking however is that the number of hungry people continued to mount and increased in unexpected proportions. How paradoxical. How disappointing.

Or was it paradoxical? Professor De Schutter proceeded to explain how the Green Revolution had indeed caused volumes of agricultural produce to increase, but this, in turn, caused prices to decrease substantially. The Green Revolution was thus a key factor leading to the ruin of many small farmers who could not compete at low enough prices, did not have the resources to invest in fertilisers and pesticides and could not adjust to the new capitalistic transformation of agriculture. Thus we see that, as De Schutter pointed out: “The Green Revolution was a great paradox. It was a huge success in avoiding famines but created structural poverty and hunger in rural areas which we’re paying a high price for today.”

The second major development that greatly contributed to contemporary global hunger was the freeing of the market between 1980 and 2000. These twenty years, which, according to De Schutter, African farmers refer to as the “catastrophic years”, were characterised by the disbanding of price support mechanisms, removal of support for agriculture, downsizing of the public sector, trade liberalisation and an agricultural industry that was at the mercy of the rules of the market.

Similar to the Green Revolution, De Schutter discussed how farmers found it hard to adapt – none more so than in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which jeopardised Mexican farmers and the country’s food self-sufficiency.

“Since the 1980s, we’ve understood that we have to tackle the problem of hunger differently,” Professor De Schutter said, as he emphasised that importance of the right to food in understanding and ultimately resolving global hunger.

In accordance with the importance of the right to food, many countries have developed laws protecting things such as access to food and equitable access to resources, and have established platforms in which farmers’ organisations, consumers and non-governmental organisations can interact with each other to adopt national strategies to resolve global hunger – a fact that De Schutter is emboldened by.

“That’s what the right to food is about. It’s about a series of governance tools, it’s about improving accountability, it’s about empowerment and participation so policies that should benefit the very poor are designed with them,” De Schutter said.

By tracing the advent of contemporary global hunger to haphazard productivist approaches and the capitalisation of agriculture, De Schutter illustrated how the disempowerment of farmers led to a spiralling cycle of poverty in the third world countries of South America, Africa and Asia. Far from seeing global hunger as an insuperable problem, De Schutter eloquently encapsulated the importance national strategies and integrated programs play in gradually combating hunger with this beautiful epilogue:

National strategies are important because as multi-tier action plans, they show the pathway that needs to be taken to move us there. Each step, looked at in isolation, seems insignificant but all steps in combination may make a difference. National strategies are not like architecture that is the end result of ten years of construction works. We should see national strategies as music where each note counts and where the partition is not to be reduced to the final note.

To listen to an audio recording of Professor De Schutter’s talk, click here.

Professor Olivier De Schutter is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food. He is professor at the University of Louvain (Belgium) and at the College of Europe (Natolin), and a visiting professor at Columbia University and Sciences Po (Paris).