Press conference by 'right to food' official

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The human rights response to the food price crisis must be to make food affordable to the hungry, not merely increasing the food supply, Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, told correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon.

"If you double the number of supermarkets in New York, those who are hungry will still be hungry, if they don't see their incomes increase," Mr. de Schutter said at a press conference that followed the presentation of his report to the General Assembly.

The major response of the international community to the crisis, so far, had been too heavily focused on the need to produce more food and the need to lower prices on international markets by increasing the volume of supply, he said. Unfortunately that would not help many who were hungry to day, most of whom were small-scale food producers. Fifty per cent of them were small-hold farmers, 20 per cent were landless labourers and 10 per cent were pastoralists, fishermen or people who lived from the products of the forests.

"We need to insure that their incomes must be raised," Mr. de Schutter said, "and we must avoid at all costs that, under the pretext of producing more food, we increase the marginalization of small-hold farmers and increase the dualization of the farming system for the benefit only of the very large agricultural producers."

The problem in that light was not technical but political, he said. It was a problem of lack of recourse for the hungry and the lack of accountability of their Governments and of too little attention being paid to certain segments of society.

As a result, the food crisis had increased the number of people who were hungry. The figure was now approaching 1 billion. The crisis also, he said, had a severe impact on people who were already poor. As a result, they had cut back on nutritional food, limited meals, cut back on education and health and in some cases sold land, tools or other property to feed themselves.

To make food affordable to those who needed it, he said, countries should set up a national strategy on the right to food, along with a legislative framework to make Governments more accountable to the victims of the violations of the right to food and to redress the lapse of social and distributive justice with which that right was associated.

In the next few months, he said, his priorities would be on issues that involved the mutual dependency on national initiatives and the international framework. It was necessary to create an enabling environment for national initiatives to combat hunger.

Many of the issues were currently on the international agenda, but they were not being discussed from the perspective of the right to food, he said. Such issues included food aid, which might disrupt local production and was often most available when food was cheap. They also included trade liberalization, which needed to be much better regulated to prevent dumping of cheap food and the creation of dependency on imports. Measures also needed to be taken to allow small producers to participate in the global market. Intellectual property rights and climate change were also important topics.

Asked about the issue of biofuels in this context, Mr. de Schutter said that too often the production of such fuels did not benefit local incomes, exacerbated inequalities and degraded the environment. Those problems could be overcome, he suggested, by a sort of international "code of conduct" for the trade, modelled on the Kimberley Process for the trade in diamonds to avoid conflict with trade agreements.

In answer to a question about anti-trust legislation against large agro-producers, he said that such laws had not been used for the benefit of small scale producers. They were making huge profits from seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at the same time that small farmers could not feed themselves. Another factor that had exacerbated hunger was hoarding and speculation.

Asked if "food for work" development projects were acceptable under a rights-based approach to hunger, he said that certain projects could be successful when the results of the projects benefited those who were working on it. They were not always desirable, however, and in cases of starvation there were no justifications for placing conditions on food aid. Asked about "food for work" in Myanmar, in particular, he expressed deep concern at the use of the strategy in such a country, which, he said, had a serious history of forced labour.

In conclusion, he confirmed that women were hardest hit in the food crisis. In the household context, he said that women were the first to sacrifice their needs, and girls were the first to be withdrawn from school when it became unaffordable. Reinforcing women's rights were an important part of the solution to food insecurity, particularly in parts of the world, such as South Asia, in which women worked the fields but often lacked property rights.

For information media - not an official record