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Q & A with Olivier De Schutter on the Right to Food

By: Christine Grillo

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter recently spoke at the Bloomberg School, as the Center’s 11th Annual Dodge Lecture. In his presentation, he re-framed hunger by redefining the hungry and by identifying the roots of hunger, which are more often than not political (as opposed to technical). 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. CLF correspondent Leo Horrigan and I were able to talk with him about his research and recommendations.

What does the “right to food” mean to you, and how does the idea of accountability play into that?

The right to food is primarily about an obligation of governments to explain decisions that they make in light of the impact of these decisions on the most vulnerable segments of the population…. The right to food is, essentially, showing that hunger is not a purely technical question that agronomists or economists should answer to, but a political question that shall only be sustainably addressed if governments are held to account, and if independent bodies, including courts, can step in, to censor decisions that are not going in the right direction.

What are the big misperceptions when addressing the problem of hunger?

I think the key misunderstanding is that … you will not succeed in combating hunger by increasing the volumes available if at the same time you have a large number of people who are poor and for whom food is unaffordable, and who will therefore not have access to the food produced for the markets. … Hunger is not just a question of increasing production; it is also a matter of social justice, of combatting inequality and fighting against poverty.

You’ve discussed the implementation of agroecology as a solution to hunger, and you’ve said it is “not our grandparents’ farming.”

The way over the past century that our agricultural systems have developed has been essentially mimicking the path of industrialization… We’ve introduced machines, we’ve introduced inputs which depend very heavily on fossil fuels… we have developed large-scale industrial plantations to achieve economies of scale, and we’ve produced some large volumes of outputs—and wastes that we have to get rid of. Agroecology is about mimicking nature…. It is very complex, it’s difficult to achieve, it requires a very good training of farmers into the good techniques… [it] is something that depends very much on knowledge being transmitted, right? It’s very knowledge-intensive. It is, in most cases, relatively labor-intensive, but it is certainly not input-intensive, and I believe that for the 21st century it is important that we invest our efforts into scaling up agroecology where it works because our dependency today on fossil energy… is simply not sustainable.

When does humanitarian aid help, and when does it not help?

There are regions where there are natural disasters, where harvests fail, where floods and droughts destroy crops, which we have to help by providing food aid. But the way we do this matters very much for these communities to recover their ability to feed themselves.  … It’s very important that when we provide food aid, first we avoid dumping food aid in kind, food parcels if you wish, on markets where the local producers would be able to provide food should the people affected, the victims of these disasters, have the purchasing power to buy from the local producers. This is why food aid in cash is much better than food aid in kind. If it’s provided in cash, international agencies use this cash to buy from the local farmers and to provide food to people in need. … It is extremely dangerous for communities to be dependent in the long term on food aid, which will not always be forthcoming and is highly fragile, which is easy to access when the prices are low. [Food aid] unfortunately it is unavoidable, but we have to [provide it] in ways that are responsible.

What forces are at work in Somalia?

As we speak in September 2011, we have some 12 million people who are in a very difficult situation, hungry in the Horn of Africa, about 800,000 who are facing the immediate risk of starvation, and out of these 12 million people, about 2.8 million are blocked in southern Somalia, which is in the hands of local, militant Islamist groups, al-Shabab, who basically make it extremely difficult and sometimes impossible for food aid to reach these populations. … What is very frustrating in such a situation is that all those following this issue knew already in January 2011, nine months ago, that this would happen. There were warning signals. We knew that there had been droughts, that the prospects were that the rains would be very poor, we knew that the harvests would not be sufficient, and that as a result the cattle on which these populations for the most part depend would die in large numbers. We alerted the International Committee [of the Red Cross], nothing happened, and basically nothing happens in this world until the situation degrades so much that it becomes a huge humanitarian emergency, a disaster, and that famine is officially declared. And “famine” means that at least 20 percent of the population are starving.  We should not be obliged to wait for this moment before we come to support the producers….  We should plan in advance because these droughts shall in the future be more frequent, more severe as a result of climate change, and we know what to do to anticipate the consequences.

You’ve quoted Adam Smith as having said that free trade is excellent, but not for food.

Trade liberalization has two potentially very negative impacts that lead me to think, like many others, that it should be treated with great caution as a solution to hunger. First, trade usually benefits … the larger producers and not the small-scale farmers. … These small-scale farmers are the first ones impacted by the import of cheap food on their local markets, when they are least competitive… And the second reason why free trade is very difficult to see as a magic bullet is that countries who depend extensively on imports to meet their consumption needs, as are many low-income countries today, these countries are in a very fragile situation. … These countries should not be fed—they should feed themselves, and we should help them by providing them the possibility to feed themselves. Trade indeed is desirable in many cases, but we must be aware of the very crucial function that food fulfills, not just as a means to feed populations, but as a source of revenue for small farmers and as a source of resilience for countries’ food security.

What is it that you’re suggesting when you talk about having a calendar of actions?

We have to make a transition. How to do this? Well, we have to plan this. … [T]he developed countries should plan getting rid of fossil energies in their food systems, because in the next few years this will be a necessity. This is why national strategies are important. Planning transitions is much easier and much less costly than to have to change at the last minute when the crisis erupts. … The right to food means, inter alia, that governments should adopt strategies based on a diagnosis of what needs the food systems serve and do not serve, to identify the actions to be taken. So put these actions in a sequence, plan their adoption on a calendar, identify the responsibilities of different branches of government, and set up a system by which the government shall be monitored for its success and achieving this transition.

How do reconcile the ideas of food as a right and food as a commodity?

Food as a commodity is not the problem. The problem is the way the food systems have developed, increasing the power of certain actors in the food system, who are in such a dominant position that they can impose on the producers very low prices for their crops and they can impose very high prices on consumers for the food they are buying. … We need to reduce the gap between the farmgate price received by the producer, and the price that’s paid by the consumer.

What are your thoughts on the “Green Revolution?”

There is controversy about the Green Revolution. I think there is general agreement that at the time it was implemented, it was necessary to rapidly scale up food production to respond to increasing demand, but there’s also an increasing consensus that things have gone wrong, and we’ve underestimated some of the negative impacts of the choices we’ve made.

What can the UN and other large bodies do in terms of providing education for farmers?

We often think of teaching as something that is delivered top down. … But agriculture is something very specific. It depends very much on the local environments, it depends on local traditions, it depends on a variety of conditions that farmers in specific areas have to encounter, and for this reason, horizontal spread of knowledge works better. Scientists have a role in facilitating this and in working with farmers. … We need to develop these horizontal systems of exchange of knowledge to move toward knowledge-intensive ways of producing food which are much less external input-intensive.

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