Who Says Food Is a Human Right?

Who Says Food Is a Human Right?

Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, makes the case in this Q&A.


In 1981, Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines, challenging the common perception about the root causes of hunger. Through careful analysis of hunger in India, Bangladesh and Saharan countries from the 1940s onward, Sen documented that famines had occurred amid ample food supply, even in some countries exporting food. His conclusion—radical at the time—was that famine is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power. Ten years earlier, in her 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, put forward a similarly heretical notion: on a planet that produces more than enough calories to make us all chubby, hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.

Forty years later, the debate about the roots of hunger, and therefore the most effective solutions, persists. Yet, an idea once heretical—that to address hunger we must talk about democracy, power and human rights—is now gaining traction. Perhaps the most important figure helping to integrate the notion of the right to food into global policy-making is the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. In his role, De Schutter helps governments identify how to best address these complex roots of food insecurity. Through country missions—like recent ones to Mexico, China, Syria and Madagascar—De Schutter documents best practices and shares these ideas in reports and recommendations to governments and the United Nations General Assembly.

Though his ideas may seem less heretical today, De Schutter’s vision of a sustainable food future and empowered small-scale farmers is still highly controversial, challenging the privilege and policy preferences of some of the most powerful industries and governments in the world.

How has the idea of the right to food evolved, and how does it help us zero in on the roots of hunger?

The idea is simple: we have failed to end hunger using the traditional recipe that saw hunger as a technical problem, requiring only that we produce more. We’ve failed because we’ve underestimated the need to empower people and hold governments accountable.

This realization has developed over decades, including through work by Amartya Sen in the 1980s. In 1996 we had a pivotal moment at the United Nations World Food Summit in Rome: for the first time the idea of the right to food was identified as central to achieving successes against hunger and malnutrition.

Out of that meeting, many governments requested that human rights bodies develop the normative concept of the right to food. Until then the concept was mostly just a slogan, seen as abstract and vague—sympathetic but not useful. Now the idea has become operational. It is increasingly seen as essential to fighting hunger: unless you increase political pressure on governments, unless you ensure that those in need participate in identifying the solutions to the obstacles they face and play an active role in monitoring progress, nothing will change. This is a core idea of the right to food. It is based on the recognition that you cannot work for people without people.

Why hasn’t the concept of the right to food gained more traction here in the United States?

It’s extremely difficult to get the concept of the right to food across in the United States because of your constitutional tradition that sees human rights as “negative” rights—rights against government—not “positive” rights that can be used to oblige government to take action to secure people’s livelihoods.

So embedded is this in your constitutional culture that the concept that social and economic rights are real rights is generally not accepted. While human rights to health, education, social security or food are guaranteed to a certain extent through legislation, they are still seen as suspect. Indeed, the protective role of government is denounced as paternalistic and even, following Hayek, as paving the way for totalitarianism: such rights could empower courts against the executive in ways perceived as undemocratic.

I disagree. Real freedom can be achieved only when individuals are shielded against the most serious exclusions caused by the market. Rights have been invented precisely because majorities can act abusively, failing to respect the needs of minorities and the underprivileged.

It’s also important to note that while the United States has ratified a major instrument in human rights—the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US joined in 1992—it has not ratified the equivalent covenant for economic and social rights adopted internationally that same year. It’s a peculiar position; almost all other countries have approached the two sets of rights together.

Yet, remember, the concept of economic and social rights is not un-American. Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous State of the Union address in 1944, in which he articulated the idea of a “Second Bill of Rights,” covering basic social rights as an indispensable complement to the civil liberties listed in the Bill of Rights.

Where do you see some of the best examples of how this framework has helped to address the underlying forces behind hunger and malnourishment?

A number of developing countries have adopted policies based on the right to food. One of the best examples is Brazil. When President Lula came into office in January 2003, he launched Fome Zero [Zero Hunger], which has been tremendously effective in reducing the number of hungry and malnourished. The origins of this program come from the city of Belo Horizonte, where, starting in the 1980s, policies were designed to increase access to food. By developing farmers’ markets, community kitchens, programs to prepare food for the very poor and other initiatives, a new localized food system was rebuilt from the bottom up in ways that later became a source of inspiration for social programs across Brazil.

Here in the United States we saw a lot of press about the “miracle of Malawi,” where, we heard, subsidies of chemical fertilizer took the country from the brink of starvation to being awash in corn. The lesson, it seemed, was that chemical fertilizer handouts are one of the best solutions to ending hunger in some of Africa’s poorest countries. What lesson do you think Malawi teaches us?

In the short term, the country did achieve some success, but behind this short-term success (in part attributable to favorable climatic conditions) there are real questions of environmental and fiscal sustainability. It costs a lot of money to buy chemical fertilizer inputs. The provision of cheap or free inputs (fertilizers in particular) links the cost of supporting farmers to the price of fossil energy, threatening the balance of payments of governments who import these inputs. When donors stop giving, I’m not sure where the funding will be found. These longer-term implications deserve serious study. I am concerned that, in many regions, the price of food is increasingly linked to the price of fossil energies—gas to produce fertilizers, oil to transport the inputs and the crops over long distances, etc.—when we are reaching peak oil and peak gas.

In Malawi the government is re-evaluating the program and exploring other options, like using agroforestry to reduce dependency on agrofertilizers. For instance, one program in the country is exploring incentives for farmers to plant acacia trees that capture nitrogen from the atmosphere to fertilize the soils. This is an important shift to a more sustainable farming system—one I’m encouraging.

We often hear in the media that to meet the food demands of the planet’s 9 billion people in 2050 we will need to double food production. What’s your take?

This a gross simplification yet one many actors are fond of using, because it feeds into the classic, but wrong, idea that the problem of hunger is one of inefficient production. The question is not about increasing food production to meet a demand that is impossible to meet otherwise. We have in the food system huge leakages: in some developing countries, because of lack of storage and losses post-harvest, 30 to 40 percent of food that could be eaten is wasted. Worse, because of these leakages many farmers underinvest because they have no access to markets or because the lack of storage means they must sell at low prices during harvest to the local middleman. The first thing we need to do is to work on this, rather than focus on technical recipes for increasing production.

Also, this way of presenting the issue looks only at the supply side, not the demand side—and that demand side is not written in stone. For instance, I’m critical of the policies to develop biofuels, policies considered a given when we hear these projections about doubling food production.

For these reasons this prediction is misleading, but the problem unfortunately goes far beyond this. The solution we are left to, when we say we have to increase production, is that we promote the same recipes that have been marginalizing small farmers, disempowering communities and creating victims of the development process. It is in the name of boosting production that the scramble for natural resources is legitimized, that the push for more chemical agriculture is justified, and that small-scale farmers are pushed off the land, leading to more rural poverty and rural-to-urban migration. This is a dangerous outcome.

What do you think about the development approach of funders like the Gates Foundation in Africa, which has been supporting a “new” Green Revolution in Africa through AGRA [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa]?

While I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of AGRA, I note a number of problems with its approach. One is I don’t see the exit strategy. I fear in the long term we will have developed a dependency on external inputs that the poorest farmers will not be able to afford, inputs whose prices will only become more expensive and volatile. Clearly the Green Revolution approach can benefit some producers in the right conditions, but many will be left out and further marginalized. If the objective is to reduce rural poverty and inequality and help all small farmers achieve a decent living, we need to develop something else. In my recent report, for instance, I document agroecology’s potential to address the needs of the most food insecure.

As we talk, a famine is ravaging Somalia. How does the theory of the right to food and the capacity to be self-sustaining influence the United Nations’ response to Somalia and crises like it?

I have repeatedly stated that we need to invest in water-harvesting techniques in areas such as the Horn of Africa, which are on the frontline of climate change. Simple water-harvesting techniques include building reservoirs to collect rainwater, like what has been done on a massive scale in Brazil; creating on-farm strategies to better capture moisture, like digging “half-moons” around the base of trees; and promoting agroforestry, since the roots of trees oxygenate the soil and increase humidity retention. These techniques are far more sustainable than irrigation, and they require relatively little investment. They also can more easily benefit disadvantaged areas to which water from rivers cannot be diverted or which have no underground aquifers. It is regrettable that none of this has been done in the affected region, even though the drought was entirely predictable.

This goes back to what the right to food is about: holding governments accountable so they can’t pretend that crises, even when they have their source in weather-related events, are beyond their ability to address. Even natural disasters are partly manufactured when their human impacts could have been avoided if only government decisions had been informed by the needs of the people.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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