'WTO Should Recognize Right to Food'

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Credit: ohchr.orgBy Richard Johnson
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

GENEVA (IDN) - Governments and the World Trade Organization (WTO) should ensure that food security is not sacrificed at the altar of globalization and liberal trade, says Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The right to food is a human right recognized under international law which protects the right of all human beings to feed themselves in dignity, either by producing their food or by purchasing it.

Briefing the WTO members at Geneva on December 16, De Schutter said: "Globalization creates big winners and big losers. But where food systems are concerned, losing out means sinking into poverty and hunger. A vision of food security that deepens the divide between food-surplus and food-deficit regions, between exporters and importers, and between winners and losers, simply cannot be accepted."

The UN custodian argued that the impact of trade rules can no longer be seen at the level of States alone. "It must be sensitive to what really determines food security: who produces for whom, at what price, under which conditions, and with what economic, social and environmental repercussions. The right to food is not a commodity, and we must stop treating it that way."

De Schutter asked poor countries not to rely excessively on trade, and emphasized the need to "assess the compatibility of WTO disciplines and the Doha agenda with the food security agenda."

Without such a fundamental reassessment, he cautioned, "we will remain wedded to food systems where the most efficient producers with the biggest economies of scale are relied upon to feed food-deficit regions, and where the divide only gets bigger."

De Schutter said: "This may look like food security on paper, but it is an approach that has failed spectacularly. The reality on the ground is that vulnerable populations are consigned to endemic hunger and poverty."

LDC Food bills

He pointed out that the food bills of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have increased five- or six-fold between 1992 and 2008. Their imports now account for around 25 per cent of their current food consumption.

"In the current climate, this means relying on imports of grain at historically volatile prices. This year alone, the food bills of LDCs soared by one third," explained De Schutter, adding: "These price shocks are felt by poor urban and rural consumers alike. Unfortunately, the open markets demanded by (WTO Director-General) Mr. (Pascal) Lamy do not function as perfectly as he would like to think. Food moves where purchasing power is highest, not where needs are most urgent."

Instead of promoting a trade-centric approach, small-holders around the world, who are the poorest groups, should be supported and enabled to move out of poverty. This would in turn enable local food production to meet local needs.

"In this context, trade would complement local production, not justify its abandonment," said De Schutter. "The urban poor would have access to fresh and nutritious foods, and the gap between the farmgate price and the retail price would narrow. This however requires policy space to limit price volatility at domestic level: it is this policy space that the WTO rules are reducing," he added.

The UN custodian for the right to food said the policies currently shaped by the international trade regime are not supportive of the small-scale farmers. "Instead, we impose a lose-lose upon them. They do not benefit from the opportunities that access to international markets represent for some. But it is they who are the victims of the pressure on land, water and natural resources, on which they depend, for which they increasingly have to compete with the agro-export sector."

De Schutter pointed out that in the long term, feeding poor net-food-importing countries will not help. "They will be helped by being able to feed themselves," he said. "This was the consensus of the post-global food price crisis world that even the G20 (group of 20 major industrial and developing countries) has recognized. It is disappointing that the WTO continues to fight the battles of the past."

Redefine food security

Titled 'The World Trade Organization and the Post-Global Food Crisis Agenda: Putting Food Security First in the International Food System', De Schutter's 20-page briefing pleads with WTO's 153 members to redefine how food security is treated in multilateral trade agreements so that policies to achieve food security and the realization of the human right to adequate food are no longer treated as derivations from but as recognized principal objectives of agricultural trade policy. Food security is presently treated under the WTO as the grounds for exceptions for a very limited range of trade liberalization commitments.

De Schutter asks WTO members to preserve and create a range of flexibilities in the Doha Development Round negotiations in order to ensure that the future international trade regime operates in lock step with multilateral and national efforts to address food insecurity. In particular, they should:

-- Negotiators should ensure that the WTO, while defending an outdated vision of food security, does not impede the development of policies and programs to support food security and the realization of the right to food; and that they are tailored to the specific national circumstances of developing countries.

-- Exclude defining the establishment and management of food reserves as trade-distorting support, when these schemes serve the needs of food-insecure vulnerable groups.

-- Ensure that marketing boards and supply management schemes are neither prohibited in the future framework for agricultural policy nor precluded under loan conditionality and other policy reforms by the international financial institutions.

-- Guarantee the possibility for developing countries to insulate domestic markets from the volatility of prices on international markets. In accordance with the principle of special and differential treatment, they must retain the freedom to take such measures.

-- Take steps to limit States' excessive reliance on international trade in the pursuit of food security. In building their capacity to produce the food needed to meet consumption needs, States should support in particular poor small-scale farmers and the production of staple foods.

In order to achieve greater compatibility in the long term between the international trade regime and global efforts to reverse food insecurity, WTO members should, with the assistance of the WTO Secretariat:

-- Convene a panel of experts to systematically analyse the compatibility of existing WTO rules;
-- Establish a protocol to evaluate and monitor the impact of trade liberalization on world food prices;
-- Initiate a substantive discussion at the WTO of the medium and longer-term implications of the lessons learned since the 2007 global food prices crisis for the international trade regime; and
-- Consider a food security-based waiver for situations where trade commitments restrict a countries' ability to pursue national food security.

A waiver is one mechanism for WTO countries to opt out of trade commitments without penalties. "Discussions should seek to establish criteria for a waiver by WTO members consistent with the responsibility of States and international institutions to protect, respect and fulfil the right to food," says the UN Special Rapporteur. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 23, 2011]

2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter | Credit:

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