The “voice” of the United Nations on Human Right to Food

nytNY Times Editorial – Mark Bittman – May 27, 2014

I wish Olivier de Schutter had the power to match the acuity of his analysis, but it’s great that we’ve had an advocate whose vision is as broad as that of the corporations who have for the last 50 years determined global food policy. Since 2008, the human rights lawyer has had the title of United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. (His second three-year term ends this week.) This is obviously not a genius marketing title and, even worse, the position carries no real power.

Still, the notion of an impartial observer who can see trends as corporations do — across political borders, and agnostic to them — is a valuable one. It’s easy enough for individual Americans to see how our problems may resemble Canada’s; it’s much more difficult to imagine ourselves struggling the way Indonesians do. That’s what De Schutter has done: shown us that the issues with the food system are as global as trade.

With increasing depth, De Schutter has analyzed a food crisis that is international and systemic, with common threads in countries rich and poor. He’s revealed how we can change things, how the will of the citizens and countries of the world can be powerful tools in making a new food system, one that is smart and sustainable and fair. “All over the world,” he says, “food systems are being rebuilt from the bottom up, often on a small, city-wide scale. That’s food democracy, which should be promoted just as in the early 20th century people dreamt of workplace democracy.”

Olivier de Schutter at the United Nations in Geneva in 2008. Credit Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

De Schutter’s job has been to travel the world, observe and report. He’s spent time in countries as disparate as Malaysia and Mexico. During his term, he says, the “entire discourse” about food has changed (these quotes are from conversations we’ve had over the years and a phone interview this past Monday), and that more and more the solutions are seen to be moving away from what he calls “productivism”: the focus on chemically intensive monocrop agriculture with high yields and cash profits as the main goals.

The way of the future, he believes, is agroecology, a sustainable form of agriculture that draws on science, tradition and wisdom to treat farmers, earth and consumers respectfully. (In other words, it’s sustainable. I wrote about it three years ago.)

“We’ve learned,” he says, “that investing in the monocrop growth of cereal or soybeans may produce a lot of calories but it does not contribute to adequate diets.” This linking of nutrition to agricultural policies — what you grow determines to a large extent what you eat — is a big shift.

Put another way, producing an adequate number of calories to feed the world has not resulted in either feeding the world completely or well: People still go hungry, and dietary diseases among seemingly well-fed people are the result of failed agricultural policies and malevolent marketing practices. Productivism, of course, has also pushed against ecological limits that were not imagined 50 years ago.

Even if De Schutter’s focus on “the right to food” had been interpreted narrowly, his analysis is damning: “Poor countries should be supported not by dumping food on their local markets but by helping them reinvest in their own local food systems, by investing in their helping them feed themselves.” This is especially true of poor farmers who may be driven off the land by an inability to compete with food sold at international commodity prices, people who subsequently cannot afford that commoditized food. Think, please, about the horrible irony of that situation, and of what food justice actually means.

The above paragraphs will serve as a crude and barely adequate summary of some of De Schutter’s overview. As usual, however, solutions or at least positive maneuvers are harder to come by, and this is where I focused the most recent of my conversations with him. The major surprise here is how mainstream and international what once seemed like radical thinking about diet has become, especially in our anti-regulatory climate.

Because when I asked De Schutter where we are going now, he promptly said, “Many of us have arrived at the conviction that junk food and sugary drinks are like tobacco and deserve to be treated in the same way.”

This is significant because the United Nations has acted meaningfully and powerfully regarding tobacco. About 10 years ago, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) sponsored the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was then adopted by the World Health Assembly. (Nothing describing the machinations of the United Nations is simple.) It uses language such as “the right of all people to the highest standard of health,” which like much United Nations language is self-evident but rarely gets said in daily conversation and is often overlooked in government policy.

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