The Right to Food: Fighting for Adequate Food in a Global Crisis

By Schutter, Olivier De | Harvard International Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Right to Food: Fighting for Adequate Food in a Global Crisis


Schutter, Olivier De, Harvard International Review


Nine hundred seventy-five million people are hungry in the world today, up from 852 million in 2003-2005, and 820 million in 1996. Previous policies have failed. The world food crisis, characterized by sudden increases of prices of agricultural commodities on the international markets which peaked in June 2008, took states and the international community by surprise. The crisis had devastating human consequences, with particularly severe impacts on women and children because of inequalities within households and the specific nutritional needs of children for their physical and mental development. For many families, particularly in developing countries, the sharp increases we have witnessed made food unaffordable, leading them to cut back on expenses in education or health, to switch to less varied diets, or to have fewer meals. But the crisis reaches much further, and it is much deeper, than the question of prices alone would suggest. The crisis illustrated the unsustainability of a global food system which may be good at producing large amounts of food, but that is neither socially nor environmentally sustainable: while the incomes of small scale farmers in developing countries are below subsistence levels, often leaving them no other option but to leave their fields and seek employment in cities, the current methods of agricultural production deplete soils, produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, and use vast quantities of water, threatening food security in the long term, and making the repetition of crises such as the one we"ve seen unavoidable if we do not act decisively.

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The global food crisis has shed light on the fragility of our food system. This system has proven unable to resist in the face of shocks such as a peak in the prices of oil, a sudden shift in demand, for example as a result of the diversion of food crops for the production of fuel, or speculative behavior on the commodities markets. As a result, international agencies, governments, and the private sector, have all recognized the need to invest more in agriculture. Largely due to the structural decline of prices of agricultural commodities since the second oil shock of 1979, itself the result of the OECD member states dumping cheap food on the international markets, this sector has been neglected in both public budgets and official development assistance since the 1980s, and it has failed to attract private investors. This is changing: this is one benevolent result of the crisis of 2007-2008.

Yet, in this context, there is a real risk that we mistake opportunities for solutions. Producing more food shall not serve to combat hunger and malnutrition if the poor are unable to buy the food which is available on the markets. Low prices are not a solution if this perpetuates the addiction of many developing countries to cheap food, leading them to sacrifice their long-term interest in developing the capacity to feed themselves against their short-term interest in buying processed foods from abroad at prices lower than if they were produced at home. And neither low prices and larger volumes produced are an answer for the 500 million households in developing countries, comprising over 2.1 billion individuals, who depend on smallscale farming for their livelihoods. And it is within the ranks of those farmers that we find the majority of those who are hungry.

Unless the right to food is placed at the very center of the efforts of the international community to address the structural causes which have led to the global food crisis, we will repeat our past mistakes. We will produce more out of fear of producing too little. But we will forget to ask the decisive questions which, because of their political nature, governments all too often do not want to hear: whose incomes will rise as a result of production increasing? Will the poorest be able to afford the food which is available on the markets? Are safety nets in place, shielding the poorest from the impacts of high prices? …

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