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Food Systems, Famines & Human Rights

11th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture
September 27, 2011

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The Problem of Hunger and the Right to Food

Today’s world faces a nutrition crisis with a triple burden, says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. One billion people are underfed, one billion are overfed, and millions more consume food that meets caloric needs but falls short in nutrients. In previous eras, he says, the poor were undernourished; today they are badly nourished.

De Schutter recently spoke at the Bloomberg School, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The talk was the Center’s 11th Annual Dodge Lecture, titled “Food Systems, Famines and Human Rights.” In his presentation, he reframed hunger by redefining the hungry and by identifying the roots of hunger, which are more often than not political, (as opposed to technical). Echoing economist and Nobelist Amartya Sen, De Schutter insisted that hunger—and famine—is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power. “We’ve produced hunger over the years by depriving peasants of their ability to produce,” he said. “Our needs will not be met by increasing production.”

The classic approach to reducing hunger is to boost production and lower food prices—but this pits hungry consumers, who benefit from lower prices, against small-scale farmers, who suffer dearly when food prices drop. The poor farmer then becomes one of the hungry. “We need a more complex understanding of hunger,” said De Schutter, who outlined four categories of undernourished peoples. The largest category, comprising 50 percent of the hungry, is the small-scale farmer in developing countries; they are unable to survive the whims of international policies aimed at reducing hunger. The other three categories include the rural landless (plantation workers, seasonal workers), who make up 20 percent of the hungry; the urban poor (many of whom are former rural farmers who migrated to slums when farming became unviable), making up 20 percent; and the group comprised of herders, pastoralists, fishers, and indigenous peoples who depend on natural resources, and who are deeply affected by climate change.

The UN Special Rapporteur proposed a three-prong approach to solving hunger. The first prong is a move toward localized food systems, which will create local markets such as farmers’ markets and CSAs. “The shorter the chain,” he said, “the easier it is to reduce the gap between [farm-gate and market] prices.” The second prong is agroecology, which is a way of farming that imitates nature. The third prong is accountability, which he explained to include a global calendar of actions and an independent monitoring body.

“We need to urgently and radically move toward this type of food production,” said De Schutter. “But it will not be easy to achieve…  Governments are short-term focused.”

Brother David Andrews, CSC, JD, who has advised the Vatican and the UN on food issues, and is currently a senior representative for Food and Water Watch, introduced the speaker, calling for strong and rigorous advocacy for the Earth and its poor.   

To read the Twitter feed from the event, search Twitter using hashtag #RightToFood.

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.