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Celebrating the United Nations Right to Food Day

April 2009

Since late spring of 2008 I have been playing an active role in the work of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis.  This broad network of farmer, fisher, farmworker, labor, faith, food and hunger and policy advocacy organizations has echoed the call of global social movements and civil society to implement a clear and simple set of principles included in the findings of the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and join the community of nations supporting the right to food. 

At about at this time last year we began to hear news of skyrocketing food prices followed by food rebellions.  Just two weeks following my visit to our partners in Haiti at the end of March, escalating food rebellions forced the resignation of the then prime minister.  In early May 2008,  in  anticipation of the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization sponsored Food Crisis Summit in Rome (June 2-5, 2008),  a broad international alliance of social movements of farmers, fisherpeople, consumers, environmentalists, women’s organizations and others declared a People’s State of Emergency, and issued a declaration entitled “No more Failures as Usual” in which they presented the recipe for change by social movements and civil society groups. 

In the declaration mentioned above, as well as in the mainstream media, we have read a lot more about the impacts of financial speculation on food items, which caused food prices to spike last year.   One of the fundamental things that social movements and civil society groups asked for was for the UN agencies to take serious look at the root causes of the global food crisis and for the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the violations of the right to food that is enshrined in international human rights law.   We have since seen to what extent the gross lack of regulation and oversight of the financial sector and the corporate agribusiness sector operating in this country and across the globe has contributed to the current triple crises – food, economic, and climate – causing so much pain across the world.   

On April 6th, an Interactive Thematic Dialogue of the U.N. General Assembly on the Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food was convened by Father Miguel d‘Escoto Brockmann the current president of the UN General Assembly for the benefit of the members of the General Assembly.  Grassroots International provided support to our partner the Via Campesina for an international delegation to the UN where the General Secretary of the Via Campesina, Henry Saragih from Indonesia addressed the General Assembly.   Some excerpts of Mr. Saragih’s presentation are:

“As a thematic mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council, the right to food repeatedly addresses the issue of discrimination in its mandate. It is well documented that peasants are discriminated regarding access to land, water, and natural resources. The report of the Intergovernmental Plenary Session of IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development) in 2008 acknowledged that for the past 60 years, indigenous and traditional peasant and agricultural systems have been heavily discriminated against. Moreover, discrimination takes place where justice systems favor the literate, those who have collateral, and social capital and the like. All this works against peasants.

“For that, I personally urge all of us to pay particular attention to specific entitlements of peasants as one of the most vulnerable groups to violations of the right to adequate food, and human rights in general. The mechanism of right to food, in particular, could have a prominent role in leading agencies in the UN system in indentifying potential gaps of those rights and entitlements, and to work on how to address these gaps.

“I am honored to share with all of you that La Via Campesina has been also trying to transform the experiences of peasants into the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants. The Declaration was adopted in the International Conference on Rights of Peasants (Jakarta, 2008). I would like to table this as a proposal for discussion for a new, sustainable and just food system for all.

The current battle of food and agriculture is not between the developed and developing countries, as it is always described in the multilateral forum of the WTO. We challenge that notion, as our members-peasants, small-holder farmers and small producers-from the developed nations in  Europe and the US are also suffering from the crisis, and have suffered even before it. This is the battle of the mode of production.”

We have also been collaborating with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter to organize his U.S. visit. The presentation by the Special Rapporteur is not only excellent but also emphasizes the findings of the IAASTD report and the recommendations put forward in the Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Declaration.  In addition, several members of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, whose call to action was signed by dozens of organizations and  thousands of individuals, contributed to  the event and the visit by Olivier de Schutter and the Via Campesina.   

Now, one would think that no one could argue with an idea as basic as the right to food, but the United States government has not signed onto the conventions that put forward the right to food (or water for that matter). Nor did the U.S. join the nations that signed onto the IAASTD report. 

There is a stark dichotomy that has emerged, with ever greater force, in regard to the strategies put forward as solutions to the global food crisis.  One side puts forth the notion that “aid, technology and trade” is what is needed.  Those who are pushing this strategy believe that hugely increased food aid, increase investment in and widespread adoption of biotechnological fixes – such as more GMO crops and more industrialized agriculture – will increase production; and that expanded, unfettered trade in agricultural products will in the end result in a reduction in hunger. 

This approach is being led here in the United States by Senators Lugar and Casey, through their Senate Bill S.384  that was approved by the Senate Foreign relations Committee with only week’s discussion period in committee last week.  This bill has enjoyed input from and the support of lobbyists and “experts” from many of the largest agribusiness firms in the world – who stand to see huge profits from this type of strategy.  The U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis recently released a press release that is highly critical of this bill – and with good reason.  

To many of us these seem to be strategies that call for more of the same – so we ask how could the strategies that helped to create the problems be the ones that will resolve them, or as so well put by Audre Lorde:  “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

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