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United Nations consultation examines human rights and the global food crisis

© UNICEF/2008/ Markisz
In attendance at the Consultation on the Human Rights Perspective on Rising Food Prices were UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter, the World Bank’s Edward Cameron, UNICEF Chief of Global Policy Elizabeth Gibbons, Deputy Director of OHCHR Craig Mokhiber, and UNICEF Chief of the Gender and Rights Unit Dan Seymour, among other distinguished experts.

By Roshni Karwal

NEW YORK, USA, 29 August 2008 – It is projected that by 2050, the world’s population will top 9 billion. Meanwhile, pressure caused by the demand for more food is sending global food prices soaring.

To address these issues, the United Nations convened an unprecedented panel, the Expert Consultation on Human Rights Perspectives on Rising Food Prices, which was held at UNICEF House in New York from 28 to 29 August.

The meeting gathered delegates from international financial institutions such as the World Bank, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and academics from Columbia University.

Structural causes

In the first three months of 2008, international food prices of all major food commodities reached their highest level in nearly 30 years. Costs are increasing sharply for some of the most basic food items. 

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter sees the global problem as stemming from several causes.

“Some are immediate and others are structural,” Mr. de Schutter said. “The most immediate cause has been the agrofuels policies developed by the European Union and the United States, which have increased the demand for agricultural commodities at a time when the stocks were very low and depleted due to bad harvests, weather-related events. The system has not been able to respond effectively.

“This is because we have under-invested in agriculture and the productivity has been stagnant, not increasing, as it should have, due to a lack of interest of policy-makers. So we are now paying the price for many years of neglect,” he added.

Other factors

Another factor under discussion was population growth, which is putting pressure on a wide range of resources, including land, water and oil, as well as food supply. Emerging economies such as China and India are also upping demands for food.

There are environmental pressures as well, such as the impact of population growth on climate change.

Desertification is accelerating in China and sub-Saharan Africa, while more frequent flooding and changing patterns of rainfall are already beginning to have a significant impact on agricultural production.  
Who is suffering?
The impact of the situation is far-reaching. Families who live in the urban areas of developing countries are facing higher prices for imported food, yet their income remains low. This especially effects children.

“Children have the least voice. They have the most to lose and they are often the most vulnerable,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Deputy Director Craig Mokhiber. “Part of the problem is looking at food as an aggregate without looking at the issue of nutrition.

“You have situations, for example, where children are suddenly forced to have a diet which is completely composed of instant noodles or something that does not meet nutritional need. They are clearly not receiving their human right to food, which includes the notion of adequacy, including nutritional adequacy.”
Solving the situation
So far, only a fraction of foreign aid goes to help farmers. The World Bank is expected to double its assistance to African agriculture by $800 million.
Mr. de Schutter noted that he would like to see the right to food established as a justifiable right under a legal framework at the national level. He would also like there to be greater accountability for the global food crisis.

“One of the big challenges we are going to face is making sure that the global food price situation stays on the agenda of policymakers and those working in development,” said the Chief of the UNICEF Gender and Rights Unit, Dan Seymour. 

“This is not a new problem. This is a long running-problem of food-insecurity, and really what we need to do is turn this into an opportunity.”




29 August 2008: Speaking at an expert consultation on the Human Rights Perspective on Rising Food Prices held at UNICEF House in New York, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter addresses the causes of rising global food prices.
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29 August 2008: Deputy Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Craig Mokhiber highlights those who are suffering the impact of the food crisis.
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29 August 2008: Chief of the UNICEF Gender and Rights Unit Dan Seymour talks about how UNICEF is addressing the food situation and what areas continually need to be worked on.
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