The hungry cannot wait

The countries most dependent on imported food. ODT/Washington Post graphic.
The countries most dependent on imported food. ODT/Washington Post graphic.
Precipitated by a "perfect storm" of events, from the climatic to the financial, the global food crisis affects 15% of the world's population. As those attending this weekend's University of Otago Foreign Policy School are aware, there is much to digest. Shane Gilchrist reports.

On April 6, a week after the United Nations General Assembly had gathered the world's leading economists, trade and labour specialists in New York to discuss the global financial crisis, the same body reconvened to digest another important issue: food.

The meeting was held in the shadow of the G20 summit in London, an event which a few days earlier had brought together the leaders of the world's most developed nations to address economic issues.

The United Nations Thematic Dialogue on the Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food may not have garnered the same headlines, but there was no denying the strength of the plea by Miguel d' Escoto, president of the General Assembly: "The hungry cannot wait till tomorrow."

The words of the 76-year-old Nicaraguan Catholic priest turned politician thus provide an emotive baseline for dialogue at the University of Otago's annual Foreign Policy School, which opened at Salmond College, Dunedin, yesterday and finishes tomorrow.

Titled "Dimensions of the Global Food Crisis", this year's school will investigate a range of food-related issues, including the causes of the world food crisis, the future shape of global agriculture, a sustainable diet for Earth, the effects of energy scarcity and biofuels, the role of local food systems, the future of global food trade for food-exporting countries and key challenges for New Zealand and its food export industries.

The scale of the problem is enormous: according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, the number of undernourished people in the world last year was 963 million - that's nearly 15% of the population.

The Asia-Pacific region is the hardest hit: a recent report from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the regional arm of the UN, says 583 million people in the area are affected by the food crisis.

The FAO report points out that any recovery from the present economic crisis will be incomplete if the related food crisis is not addressed, a refrain of a message promulgated by UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, both of whom have stressed the "moral imperative" of addressing food security.

Claire Mahon, an international human rights lawyer based in Geneva, and one of the speakers at this weekend's Foreign Policy School, agrees. Access to food is a fundamental right.

Joint co-ordinator of the Project on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Ms Mahon has also worked for Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Service for Human Rights and the United Nations, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Development Programme.

Within her role in the Geneva project, Ms Mahon works as a legal adviser to Jean Ziegler, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food and now a member of the UN Human Rights Council's Advisory Committee, where he focuses on the right to food and other social and cultural issues.

"Mr Ziegler was invited to the Foreign Policy School because of the work he had been doing and the fact the global food crisis is something he, myself and the rest of our team have been working on.

When he was invited to do this, he turned to me - I normally do a lot of speaking engagements on his behalf because he's a very busy man and can't be everywhere at once - and, given I'm a New Zealander, I could bring an interesting perspective."

Ms Mahon, speaking from a transit lounge in Vienna while on the way from Geneva to Bangkok (by the time you read this, she should have arrived in Dunedin), agrees with other commentators' description of the events that have contributed to the global food crisis.

The world has witnessed a "perfect storm", involving a spike in agricultural commodities prices in early 2008; a massive rise in the number of middle-class consumers in China and India, thus a growing demand for meat and dairy products; the dependence of agriculture on oil; and drought in Third World nations as well as in some of the developed countries from which they import grain and other foodstuffs.

"All of these things have come together at the wrong time to make a big impact. One of the other things that has fuelled this - if it's not too much of a pun - is the demand for biofuels and the desire to address the fuel crisis," Ms Mahon explains.

"While it's vital that we find alternative energy sources, the push towards biofuels has had a huge impact. For example, in 2008, 30% of the maize grown in the United States went towards biofuel rather than food. It's not as though more food production resources are being put into biofuels; it's rather that they are being diverted.

"And it's being diverted in places where they can't really afford to be diverted. Landholders and governments who are not able to feed their own people are nonetheless using the food that they are growing to put into biofuel production."

"Perfect storm" catchcry aside, the problem had been building for some time. Take a longer view, Ms Mahon says, and the change in production priorities of agricultural industries around the world comes into focus.

"We see this global food crisis as being a phenomenon which developed in 2006 and peaked in 2008, when we saw huge numbers of people dying of malnutrition, but the reality is this is not a short-term crisis. This is something which has been in the pipeline for a couple of decades."

The agricultural industries of many countries have been "completely deprioritised", shifting from staple food production to more profitable goods (for instance, all that meat and dairy enjoyed by a growing number of Asian consumers). Upon advice from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other restructuring organisations, countries capable of growing their own food decided to shift to producing foodstuffs that would give them an advantage in the marketplace.

"In many countries, land that could be used for growing food is not being used as productively or efficiently. So we end up with some countries, big food exporters, dominating the market. That means everyone is more susceptible to changing food prices."

Urbanisation is both a contributor to and symptom of the food crisis. Small-scale farmers who have left their land because of climatic, financial and/or political forces then rely on imported food rather than eating what they might have grown themselves.

"Those people are moving off the land because they are hungry - Jean Ziegler calls them 'refugees from hunger'. It's a spiral that feeds into itself," Ms Mahon says.

"That's part of the problem with the deprioritisation of the agricultural industry: in some countries, agriculture is not properly compensated; it's not seen as an important industry in some countries."

Aside from the obvious - hunger, malnutrition, disease, death - the issue has other manifestations. Political instability, again both a cause and condition, is no small concern.

"The food crisis - food riots - toppled the government of Haiti," Ms Mahon points out.

"We had a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the middle of last year about the global food crisis precisely because it was causing political instability in so many countries. There were food riots going on around the world. That was the first ever UN session on a thematic global issue."

The right to adequate and nutritious food is part of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is a right which is closely linked to the concept of self-determination, that people are able to utilise and exploit their own resources, be they indigenous people, peasant women or tribal fisherfolk.

But how do we best ensure that right? Do world trade systems need a shake-up? Should farming subsidies be scrutinised? Should commodities futures trading be stopped in an attempt to calm price fluctuations? Should more sustainable, less intensive agricultural practices be included in legislation?

All of the above, Ms Mahon contends. "In our research, we've been quite critical in the role the commodities markets have played in this spiralling out of control. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that we have to stop commodities trading, but we definitely need to do some research.

Be it the commodities trading market or the international trading system, these need to be operated in accordance with human rights frameworks.

"That means governments not being [confused] in their policies, not having one policy when it comes to trade and another when it comes to human rights. Too often in multilateral forums we see the same governments talking about their commitment to the right to food in one room while, in another room on the same day, the same government will be talking about international trade regulations that undermine that right to food.

"The question of subsidies is a pretty complex one. The point is, agricultural trading policies need to protect people within a country, to give them access to safe, affordable, nutritious food, but also not undermine people outside of that country, to give them the same rights."

There is no shortage of organisations involved in the food crisis: the United Nations Development Programme, now headed by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark; the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation and Department of Economic and Social Affairs; the World Health Organisation; the World Food Programme, the World Bank; the International Monetary Fund; the International Fund for Agricultural Development ... the list goes on. But is it more than a case of throwing money at the problem?

"It is a combination of things," Ms Mahon says.

"Obviously, the food crisis does require money. For example, with the skyrocketing of food prices, the World Food Programme and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation were simply unable to provide the same level of food as in previous years. They have a budget of so many billion dollars and that was buying less food."

More important is technical co-operation and assistance. Which is where New Zealand comes in. Having been colonised in part by people fleeing hunger in their own lands, then regarded as Britain's food basket in the South Pacific pre- and post-World War 2, New Zealand has plenty of expertise in prioritising agricultural industry.

"New Zealand has a lot of agricultural technology. It has also dealt with land access issues and resource ownership, particularly in regards to indigenous people. These are lessons which New Zealand can help many other countries to learn," Ms Mahon suggests.

"Countries like New Zealand, who are good agricultural producers and relatively good members of the international community in terms of not doing food dumping and that sort of thing, need to take on this role of providing technical expertise to other countries."

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, recently described the situation as a "profound but inescapable challenge", adding production models and consumption patterns needed reworking to ensure long-term solutions to the lack of food.

That such messages are now being discussed alongside the global financial crisis and the issue of climate change prompts another question, though it is one that might be deemed a little naïve: have we reached a point where massive change is not a choice, but a necessity?

One can almost picture Ms Mahon nodding her head amid the flurry of activity late on a weeknight at a busy European airport: "I think we've got to look at things a bit more proactively and systematically. What are the problems that have been causing this? Clearly, overconsumption has contributed to the global food crisis, the climate crisis and the financial crisis.

"There are other contributing factors, but it is time to rethink. One of the things we all agree on as an international community is that we have these fundamental and universal human rights.

"How best do we ensure our trading systems, our systems of government, our market controls work within a human rights framework? I think it starts locally. People are putting a big priority on buying organically and locally ... but it shouldn't just be the rich who are able to buy good quality, fresh products. That's what small-scale, subsistence farming is about: we should be doing this as widely as we can."

Having moved from New Zealand to Australia as a child, Ms Mahon spent many holidays on a family farm near Rotorua. That is where she plans to head once the lengthy discussions of this weekend's Foreign Policy School finish, to spend a few days with uncles and aunts and cousins.

"For me, this stuff is very important; it's about linking the very local and real everyday life for many New Zealanders with the everyday life I lead in terms of lawyers and international policy-makers. Coming to New Zealand is a great opportunity for me. It's a wonderful chance for me to talk to many people who shape the policy of a country which I hold very dear to my heart.

"I've been blown away by the level of interest New Zealanders have had in the global food crisis. That is one of the most important things. How do we solve some of these problems? We start by understanding them."

Matter of policy

The three-day University of Otago Foreign Policy School, started yesterday and concludes tomorrow, at Salmond College, Dunedin.

Leading speakers include:
- Robert Watson, chief scientific adviser in the United Kingdom Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs; former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

- Prof Tim Lang, of the Centre for Food Policy, City University London, who is well known for popularising the concept of food miles.

- Prof Jules Pretty, of the University of Essex, a leading authority on the sustainability of agricultural production and the environmental impact of agricultural intensification.

- Claire Mahon, joint co-ordinator of the Project on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human rights.


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