The Right to Food: Towards food security and food sovereignty

There is a growing acceptance that to be free from hunger is a fundamental right, upheld and promoted by Catholic Social Teaching.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 first recognized the right to food as a human right.  It was then incorporated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11) adopted in 1966 and ratified by 156 states, which are today legally bound by its provisions.  For food security to be achieved, food needs to be available at all times, affordable and be prepared safely so people develop normally, receive sufficient energy and avoid disease. Once access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food is seen as a human right and not ‘a gift of charity’, governments are obliged by law to do something.

Controversial Solutions

In 2009 Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, drew attention to contrasting models of agriculture.  Many solutions are proposed to solve hunger and not all are sustainable. Some advocate an extension of modern farming methods and biotechnologies, and the expansion of land under cultivation.   Others are advocating an expansion of industrial agriculture methods. What would the future then be for millions of poor farmers and their families? What about the loss of seed biodiversity, generally protected by traditional farming methods?

Inclusive Solutions

As set out in the IAASTD Report, lasting solutions to hunger can only come about if agricultural methods respect the limits of the ecosystem, known as an agro-ecological approach, integrate traditional knowledge with the insights of modern science, improve farming practices through training, use appropriate technology to increase output on current productive land, strengthen women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights, provide secure access to land, water and energy for more people in the developing world, put early warning systems against famine in place, develop drought resistant seeds,  ban Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and make low-cost credit available to farmers in the developing world, especially women.  Progress is more likely to occur when the UN system, international financial institutions and the WTO are willing to provide robust and consistent support to countries struggling to cope with food insecurity.

2.1 Eco-farming and rural communities: Any sustainable solution needs to include the 500 million small holder farmers and their organizations.  When the rural economy grows and there is better income distribution, poverty is reduced. Small farmers tend to produce less greenhouse gases and protect biodiversity. Eco-farming, with its focus on cultivating skills to conserve natural resources, promotes climate resilient agriculture, regenerates soil and has the potential to raise yields. According to a FAO report, closing the gender gap could increase agricultural output in the developing world by as much as 4%, which in turn could reduce the number of undernourished people by as much as 17%.

2.2 Food Sovereignty: The Committee on World Food Security is the United Nations’ forum for reviewing and following up on policies concerning world food security. Civil Society Organizations have been increasingly involved in the reform process of this organization. Some farmers’ organizations, particularly the international movement, Via Campesina, are promoting the concept of ‘food sovereignty’. It refers to a policy framework advocated by grass roots organizations, namely the claimed “right” of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces.  Sufficient food needs to be readily accessible locally. To respond to the fluctuating world food prices, many developing world countries are building national food reserves to contribute to helping become self-sufficient in food.

2.3 Food Aid: Food aid is not the solution, but has a vital role to play.  In 2011 FAO-WFP (World Food Programme) is supporting 86.4 million people in 72 countries, requiring a budget of US $5.0 billion. The focus of the major donors is now shifting towards purchase of food aid in the beneficiary countries.  Food sourced locally helps minimize cost and disruption to local markets.

2.4 Education: Priorities include: getting new knowledge on eco-farming to the 500 million small farmers; reducing waste by producers and consumers; reducing post-harvest losses; and promoting, especially among younger generations,  informed consumer choice toward small-scale farming and local food production.  Considerable funds will be needed.  The world’s diet needs to be continually reshaped to one that uses less soil, water, energy, fertilizer and chemicals. There are over 20,000 edible plants on earth, but only a few hundred are used for nutrition.

Pope John XXIII declared, “all people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment.” Pacem in Terris  #11, April 11, 1963

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Reports, 2008

Statement by Christian, faith-based organizations, and other NGOs to ‘The High-level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Biodiversity’, Rome 3-5 June, 2008.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, High-Level Task Force on Global Food Security Crisis (2009) 

International Year of the Family Farming – IYFF (2014)

Olivier De Schutter, UN expert makes case for ecological farming practices to boost food production, UN News Centre

FAO Document: The State of Food and Agriculture, 2010 -2011:  Women in Agriculture, closing the gender gap for Development

To learn about Via Campesina’s seven principles of food sovereignty

Commission on Food Security (CFS)

Civil Society Organizations (CSO) at FAO

Study conducted for the International Congress SAVE FOOD! at Interpack 2011 Düsseldorf, Germany

Statement by Christian, faith-based organizations, and other NGOs…’

A FAO Report (2006) on the impact of meat production and consumption on the environment, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, points to some troubling issues.  It says that ‘the livestock sector emerges as one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global,’ and that “livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and that 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures” (thus livestock is the biggest contributor to Amazon rain forest loss).

written by Gearóid Francisco Ó Conaire ofm

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