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Africa/Global: The Right to Food

AfricaFocus Bulletin
March 17, 2014 (140317)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The right to food is the right of every individual, alone or in community with others, to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations. ... Because of the various channels though which access to food can be achieved, the creation of decent jobs in the industry and services sectors plays an essential role in securing the right to food, as does the provision of social protection."- Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Final Report

Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur, goes on to note in his report that "Measured against the requirement that they should contribute to the realization of the right to food, the food systems we have inherited from the twentieth century have failed. Of course, significant progress has been achieved in boosting agricultural production over the past fifty years. But this has hardly reduced the number of hungry people, and the nutritional outcomes remain poor."

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from this report. The full report, and a wide variety of other reports from De Schutter's six years in his position, is available at

The report provides a very clear summary of the major issues affecting achievement of the right to food, including not only models of agricultural production but also the broader economic and social policies in both advanced and developing economies affecting people's access to food.

Other recent reports on strategies for food security include

(1) The annual Global Food Policy Report from the International Food Policy Research Institute ( While continuing this mainstream organization's focus on expanding agricultural production, this report also stresses the need for social protection-led and nutrition-led interventions targeted directly at hunger and undernutrition, based on experiences in countries such as Brazil, China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

(2) An October 2013 report from ActionAid ( challenges the assumption that the principal solution to food security is simply producing more food. "Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050" stresses the need to shift from large-scale fossil-fuel-based agriculture to support for sustainable production by small-scale farmers.

(3) The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's annual State of Food Insecurity ( noted that some 842 million people, or roughly one in eight (in SubSaharan Africa one in four), suffered from chronic hunger in 2011-13. It also stresses that macroeconomic growth and production gains would not be sufficient to address the issue, unless growth was widely shared and advances targeted at the poor.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on agriculture and food issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter

Final report: The transformative potential of the right to food

United Nations A/HRC/25/57

General Assembly

24 January 2014

[Excerpts only. The full report, including footnotes, and a wide variety of additional reports and resources, are available at]

II. The diagnosis

2. The right to food is the right of every individual, alone or in community with others, to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations. Individuals can secure access to food (a) by earning incomes from employment or self-employment; (b) through social transfers; or (c) by producing their own food, for those who have access to land and other productive resources. ... Thus, the normative content of the right to food can be summarized by reference to the requirements of availability, accessibility, adequacy and sustainability, all of which must be built into legal entitlements and secured through accountability mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur's country missions have been situated within this analytical framework.

3. Because of the various channels though which access to food can be achieved, the creation of decent jobs in the industry and services sectors plays an essential role in securing the right to food, as does the provision of social protection. The right to food overlaps in this regard with the right to work and the right to social security, guaranteed under articles 6 and 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. ...

4. Most stakeholders agree, in general terms, on the urgent need for reform. Measured against the requirement that they should contribute to the realization of the right to food, the food systems we have inherited from the twentieth century have failed. Of course, significant progress has been achieved in boosting agricultural production over the past fifty years. But this has hardly reduced the number of hungry people, and the nutritional outcomes remain poor. Using a new method for calculating undernourishment that began with the 2012 edition of the State of Food Insecurity in the World report, United Nations agencies estimate hunger in its most extreme form to have decreased globally from over 1 billion in 1990-1992, representing 18.9 per cent of the world's population, to 842 million in 2011-2013, or 12 per cent of the population. However, these figures do not capture short-term undernourishment, because of their focus on year-long averages; they neglect inequalities in intra-household distribution of food; and the calculations are based on a low threshold of daily energy requirements that assume a sedentary lifestyle, whereas many of the poor perform physically demanding activities.

5. Calorie intake alone, moreover, says little about nutritional status. ... Too little has been done to ensure adequate nutrition, despite the proven long-term impacts of adequate nutrition during pregnancy and before a child's second birthday, both in low-income countries where undernutrition is the major concern and in middleand high-income countries. ...

6. The exclusive focus on increasing agricultural production has also had severe environmental impacts. The twentieth-century "Green Revolution" technological package combined the use of high-yielding plant varieties with increased irrigation, the mechanization of agricultural production and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides. Thanks to State support in the form of subsidies and marketing, this was effective in increasing the production volumes of major cereals (particularly maize, wheat and rice) and of soybean. The Green Revolution was an attempt to meet the challenge as it was framed at the time: to ensure that increases in agricultural productivity would match population growth and the dietary transition facilitated by rising incomes. It led, however, to an extension of monocultures and thus to a significant loss of agrobiodiversity and to accelerated soil erosion. The overuse of chemical fertilizers polluted fresh water, increasing its phosphorus content and leading to a flow of phosphorus to the oceans that is estimated to have risen to approximately 10 million tons annually. Phosphate and nitrogen water pollution is the main cause of eutrophication, the human-induced augmentation of natural fertilization processes which spurs algae growth that absorbs the dissolved oxygen required to sustain fish stocks.

7. The most potentially devastating impacts of industrial modes of agricultural production stem from their contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Together, field-level practices represent approximately 15 per cent of total human-made greenhouse gas emissions ...In addition, the production of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the tillage, irrigation and fertilization, and the transport, packaging and conservation of food require considerable amounts of energy, resulting in an additional 15 to 17 per cent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food systems.

The resulting climate changes could seriously constrain the potential productivity of current agricultural methods. ... Under a business-as-usual scenario, we can anticipate an average of 2 per cent productivity decline over each of the coming decades, with yield changes in developing countries ranging from -27 per cent to +9 per cent for the key staple crops.

8. The Special Rapporteur has shown that, partly as a result of climate change, but also due to unsustainable and destructive fishing practices and distorting subsidies, the productivity of global fisheries as a source of food is declining (see A/67/268). The unsustainable production of meat is another area of concern. An FAO study, prepared in advance of the High-level Expert Forum on How to Feed the World in 2050, estimated that annual meat production would have to reach 470 million tons to meet projected demand in 2050, an increase of about 200 million tons in comparison to the levels of 2005-2007. This is entirely unsustainable. ... Continuing to feed cereals to growing numbers of livestock will aggravate poverty and environmental degradation.

9. Globally, livestock production employs 1.3 billion people and sustains livelihoods for about 900 million of the world's poor. As a major source of protein intake, meat and dairy production is a potential component in tackling undernourishment, and there are sustainable modes of meat production. But in high-income countries, the net health impacts of meat consumption are turning negative: at current levels, it is contributing to chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Moreover, the industrial model of cereal-fed livestock production as well as the apparently limitless expansion of pastures is creating problems that must be addressed urgently. In 2006, FAO estimated that grazing occupied an area equivalent to 26 per cent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet, while 33 per cent of total arable land was dedicated to feedcrop production - maize and soybean in particular. Thus, livestock production accounted for 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet, and the expansion of pastures and feed crops is a major source of deforestation, especially in Latin America. The FAO study estimated that the livestock sector was responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent - a larger share than transport. ...

10. Finally, because global food systems have been shaped to maximize efficiency gains and produce large volumes of commodities, they have failed to take distributional concerns into account. The increases in production far outstripped population growth during the period from 1960 to 2000. But these increases went hand in hand with regional specialization in a relatively narrow range of products, a process encouraged by the growth of international trade in agricultural products. The associated technological and policy choices concentrated benefits in the hands of large production units and landholders at the expense of smaller-scale producers and landless workers, resulting in the growth of inequality in rural areas and a failure to address the root causes of poverty.

Of course, there were important evolutions throughout the period. The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by a State-led type of agricultural development, under which governments, eager to provide urban populations with affordable food or to export raw commodities in order to finance import substitution policies, either paid farmers very low prices for the crops produced or supported only the largest producers who could be competitive on global markets, thus accelerating rural migration. In the 1980s, the introduction in most low-income countries of structural adjustment policies resulted in a retreat of the State from agricultural development. It was anticipated that trade liberalization and the removal of price controls would encourage private investment, making up for the reduction of State support. Overproduction in the highly subsidized farming sectors of rich countries put downward pressure on agricultural prices, however, discouraging the entry of private investors into agriculture in developing countries. If there was private investment at all, it went to a narrow range of cash crops grown for export markets.

11. The consequences are well known. Because small-scale farming was not viable under these conditions, many rural households were relegated to subsistence farming, surviving only by diversifying their incomes. Others migrated to the cities, a rural exodus that in Africa accounted for at least half of all urban growth during the 1960s and 1970s and about 25 per cent of urban growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the same time, the dependence of low-income countries on food imports grew significantly. Many of the least developed countries are still primarily agricultural, yet, in part because they have to repay their foreign loans in hard currency, they export a narrow range of commodities and therefore find themselves highly vulnerable to price shocks on international markets for these products. Their food bills have soared - the combined result of population growth and a lack of investment in local agricultural production and food processing to meet local needs. ...

12. Indeed, many least developed countries have succumbed to a vicious cycle. As they were confronted from the 1960s to the 1990s with strong population growth and rural-to-urban migration, their governments had no choice but to depend more on food aid or to import more food products. This made it even more difficult for their own farmers to make a decent living from farming, as they faced increased dumping of heavily subsidized foodstuffs on domestic markets. In effect, the import of low-priced food products functioned as a substitute for improved wages for workers in the non-agricultural sectors, and for the establishment of social protection floors for all. ...

III. What food systems are expected to deliver

13. There is broad agreement on the diagnosis summarized above. Indeed, it is this diagnosis that explains the major efforts to reinvest in the agricultural sector in low-income countries since 2008, to do so in a more sustainable way, and to take nutrition into account in agricultural policies. These efforts include significant increases in public budgets dedicated to agriculture, encouraged for instance by the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme under the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); increases in the share of development cooperation budgets going to agriculture, through bilateral and multilateral channels; initiatives such as Scaling Up Nutrition; and the renewed interest of the private sector in agricultural investment. However, while governmental and non-governmental actors agree on the need for reform, disagreements persist on the way forward.

14. Many view productivity improvements in agriculture as key to addressing hunger and malnutrition. This approach is still as influential today as it was in the 1960s, in part because of increasing demand for agricultural production (for both food and non-food uses) and the anticipated further increases as a result of population growth, higher incomes, and shifting diets linked to urbanization. Thus, FAO estimated in 2009 that a 70 per cent increase in global agricultural production was required by 2050 in comparison to the levels of 2005-2007, taking into account an annual average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.4 per cent between 2030 and 2050 and assuming that about 290 million people would still be undernourished by 2050. This estimate was widely cited to justify investments in technology-based solutions to respond to a challenge presented as a primarily quantitative one.

15. Given the threats that food systems face, particularly those linked to climate change and soil degradation, and given the potential of productivity improvements to raise the incomes of small-scale food producers, investments in raising productivity are needed. However, a narrow focus on improved productivity risks ignoring the wide range of other variables that foresight exercises should take into account. Moreover, the deeper debate concerns not whether productivity should be raised, but how to achieve this. Increasing yields alone will not do. Any prescription to increase yields that ignores the need to transition to sustainable production and consumption, and to reduce rural poverty, will not only be incomplete; it may also have damaging impacts, worsening the ecological crisis and widening the gap between different categories of food producers.


IV. The interdependence of reforms

32. There is a connection between the obstacles faced by low-income countries in their attempt to improve their ability to protect the right to food of their populations, and the need for reform in middle- and high-income countries. While a number of reasons explain the lack of investment in food production to satisfy local needs - including in particular the burden of foreign debt (which leads countries to focus on cash crops for exports) and the often weak accountability of governments to the rural poor (A/HRC/9/23, para. 17) - the addiction to cheap food imports is also caused by massive overproduction in better-off exporting countries, which is stimulated by subsidies going to the largest agricultural producers in those countries, and which ensures access to cheap inputs for the food processing industry. And it is facilitated by the growth of international trade and investment and the corresponding increase of the role of large agribusiness corporations in the food systems.

33. This is the interdependence of reforms. While the rebuilding of local food systems in developing countries is vital to expand opportunities to small-scale food producers and, at the same time, to improve access to fresh and nutritious food for all, it depends fundamentally on the reform of food systems in rich countries. Such reform faces significant obstacles, however. ...

Even without taking into account the subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels by agricultural producers, countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development subsidized their farming sector to the amount of $259 billion in 2012. This has encouraged the expansion of the food processing industry, thanks to the availability of cheap inputs and the deployment of infrastructure - in the form of silos and processing plants - that has been shaped by and for agro-industry. Large agribusiness corporations have come to dominate increasingly globalized markets thanks to their ability to achieve economies of scale and because of various network effects. In the process, smaller-sized food producers have been marginalized because, although they can be highly productive per hectare of land and highly resource-efficient if provided with adequate support, they are less competitive under prevalent market conditions. The dominant position of the larger agribusiness corporations is such that these actors have acquired, in effect, a veto power in the political system. Finally, the habits of consumers themselves have changed: in high-income countries, the consumption of highly processed, high-energy (though nutrient-poor) foods has increased year on year, becoming an accepted, unquestioned part of modern life.


V. The way forward

35. Nevertheless, the Special Rapporteur believes that change can be achieved. Actions should be launched at three levels to democratize food security policies, thus weakening existing lockins and allowing these policies to shape the new model that he calls for.

At the local level, the key to transition is to rebuild local food systems, thus decentralizing food systems and making them more flexible, but also creating links between the cities and their rural hinterland, for the benefit both of local producers and of consumers.

At the national level, in addition to support for locally-led innovations, multisectoral strategies should be deployed. Such strategies should trigger a process in which progress is made towards supporting a reinvestment in local food production, focused in particular on small-scale food producers in the countries where they represent a large proportion of the poor; towards the diversification of the economy, to create opportunities for incomegenerating activities; and towards the establishment of standing social protection schemes, to ensure that all individuals have access to nutritious food at all times, even if they have access neither to productive resources nor to employment.

At the international level, greater coordination should be achieved between actions launched at the multilateral, regional and national levels, with a view to creating an enabling international environment - rewarding and supporting domestic efforts towards the realization of the right to food rather than obstructing them. At each of these levels, the right to adequate food has a key role to play to guide the efforts of all actors, to ensure participation of those affected by hunger and malnutrition, and to establish appropriate accountability mechanisms.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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