July 10, 2008

Food prices, biofuels and joined-up thinking

The Simultaneous Policy campaign aims to achieve joined-up thinking about global problems. But it is not alone in trying to achieve this. The book, Global Obligations for the Right to Food, to which I contributed a chapter, argues that governments have an obligation under existing human rights agreements to act cooperatively and that these obligations should be reflected in decisions taken at the international level.

There is a lot of depth to the argument in the book. Various chapters explore how these obligations manifest themselves in particular areas, such as regulating transnational corporations, protecting breastfeeding, enacting programmes against parasitic infections and more. Here I want to briefly discuss some of the background argument for action and explore its implications for current increases in food prices that have forced an additional 100 million people into hunger. It has been suggested that a large proportion of the price increases - and consequent hunger - can be traced to increased demands for biofuels and incentives from governments for farmers to grow these rather than food. See:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/03/biofuels.usa

As explained by Fedrica Donati and Margret Vidar in their chapter 'International Legal Dimensions of the Right to Food', the human right to food is contained in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food has explained this right in the following terms :

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The right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unobstructed access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free from anxiety.
--- quote ends

I imagine anyone reading this would want to live under such conditions themselves, but may balk at the thought that there is some kind of obligation to ensure all people enjoy the same right, particularly when there are so many hungry in the world.

So what does it mean in practical terms? Donati and Vidar quote from Article 2 of the ICESCR:

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Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
--- quote ends

This is an obligation to the people within the state to realize the rights and to do so as a matter of urgency. Some actions - or more likely stopping of certain actions - can be taken immediately. The reference to 'available resources' is not intended as a justification for inaction, but as a requirement to apply those resources that are available.

The book as a whole argues that these obligations are not only for people within the state, however, they apply to the government's impact, or possible impact, on people in the rest of the world. For example, through the decisions that governments make as members of international organizations. This principle has been largely ignored to date as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank etc. have not seen it necessary to consider whether their deliberations are in compliance with human rights norms. But if they are not, the states that control them are in breach of their commitments.

These commitments should be considered as governments address climate change, peak oil and the current increase in food prices. If a course of action impinges on the right to food, then it puts governments in breach of their human rights obligations.

As the editor, Professor George Kent, remarks in his introduction, world hunger could be ended tomorrow by providing everyone with sandwiches (of sufficient nutritional quality of course). But that is not the intention of governments having obligations to realize the right to food. In most societies the majority of people will be able to take responsibility for their own food and that is how it should be. Communities, states, international organisations and the community of nations only need to become involved when there are failures at a lower level.

The chapter explores in greater depth the nature of the obligations with reference to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Right to Food Guidelines. Basically states have obligations to respect, protect and facilitate.

Quoting from Donati and Vidar: "The obligation to respect the right to adequate food requires state parties not to take any measures that result in reducing existing access to food.... The obligation to respect the right to food is effectively a negative obligation, as it entails limits on the exercise of state power that might threaten people's existing access to food."

Arguably pursuit of biofuels in the way that has occurred shows a failure to respect the right to food. Here is where joined-up thinking must be exercised. If policy makers were mindful of this obligation then planning would ensure no negative impact on the right to food.

Interestingly, Brazil claims that its programme of producing ethanol from sugar cane does not impinge on the right to food because it is not using land that would otherwise be used for agriculture. Indeed, it suggests that opening land to sugar cane production actually makes it possible to plant food crops in a rotation.

I have seen a defence of biofuels derived from corn, that argues that protein that is effectively a waste product of the biofuel process can be used as animal feed. If this is indeed the case, then consideration of the right to food would explore this possibility and programmes would be developed that are effective in providing food as well as fuel.

It may be the case, however, that biofuels will impinge on the right to food even then, in which case alternatives should be developed.

The chapter goes on: "The obligation to protect the right to food requires measures by the state to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food. This obligation means that the government must pass and enforce laws to prevent powerful people or organizations from violating the right to food."

My chapter, which I'll discuss another time, examines in depth practical ways in which this can be done.

Thirdly: "The obligation to fulfill is a positive obligation, requiring direct action, through appropriate policies and programs to fulfill the right to food of those who are not able to realize it for themselves."

The obligation to 'fulfill' is subdivided into 'facilitate' and to 'provide'. On 'facilitate' : "the ICESCR gives some guidance, as it specifies production, harvesting, conservation, processing, retailing, and consumption of food. Further examples could include land reform and other measures to improve access to natural resources... measures to improve employment prospects, through training, equipment and credit in rural and urban areas are also facilitating measures."

Some countries have responded to food price increases by placing price controls on food (eg Mexico, Bolivia and Venezuela). Brazil has taken the route of making lines of credit available to agrobusiness and smallholder farmers with the aim of increasing harvests and taking some heat out of speculation.

The obligation to 'provide' is the end stop. If people simply do not have the food they need, then there is an obligation to provide it. The international aspect of this obligation is well recognised when it comes to natural disasters, where the global community is quick to pledge assistance. Though as Rolf K√ľnnemann and Sandra Ratjen explore in a chapter on Extraterritorial Obligations, the most effective action to realize the right to food may be to provide financial support to relief efforts for procurement of food in the surrounding area. Too often assistance is used as a way to off load surpluses and break into markets.

Having an obligation to provide food if all else fails, should act as a stimulus for realizing the right to food through other routes. Joined-up thinking is a far better approach than having to try to put failures right through direct intervention at the time when people are starving.

These obligations already exist under human rights norms having force into international law. This system is not yet functioning effectively, which is something that the Simultaneous Policy could perhaps address.

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