The Right to Food

29 Nov 2007

‘The Right to Food’ is the theme of World Food Day 2007.

The Right to Food is the right of every person to have regular access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food for an active healthy life. It is the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed.

It may seem surprising, but practical implementation of the right to food, recognized in 1948 (in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in Paris), only began to be asserted and take shape about 10 years ago. On this point see an article published in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique by Jacques Diouf.

The right to food is more than a moral and political imperative. It is an obligation which states, international, regional and local institutions as well as non-government organizations are trying to address with greater or lesser success. Now governments cannot ignore the Right to Food Guidelines unanimously adopted by the FAO council in 2004.

A radical change in perspective is required: citizens are no longer passive recipients of charity, but people with a right to benefit from an environment that can feed them and, if this is not possible, to receive aid with dignity.

What is the current global situation?

If we think in terms of percentages, we might conclude it is a positive indicator if 85% of the world population does not suffer from hunger—even if the remaining 15% which does suffer would not agree. But if we think in absolute terms—and I cannot think in any other way when we’re talking about human beings—we find 854 million people at the dawn of the 21st century suffering from hunger (and there have never been so many in the whole of human history). We cannot ignore the failure of humanity on its path of progress, if each year it allows more than 6 million children under the age of five to die, due to diseases connected to malnutrition.

The objective for 2015—halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger—will be unsuccessful. In 1996 there were 800 million. For each 1% increase in basic food prices it is forecast that there will be 16 million more people suffering from hunger. The forecasts to 2010 made by the IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) predict that the boom in biofuels will cause corn prices to increase by 20%, dragging up prices of other raw materials (as has already happened in 2007). In addition the crops involved in producing biofuels require large quantities of water and already today 1.2 billion people do not have access to potable water!

Another 2 million children, 20% of the infant population in poor countries, die every year as a result of contaminated water. Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, last August spoke of a ‘silent genocide’. And if we look to the future, the scenarios are of even greater concern: in 2050 there will be 9 billion people but the amount of fertile land is decreasing for various reasons (overexploitation, pollution, desertification). We are clearing forests to obtain new land: the environmental damage, together with other factors, accelerates and worsens climate change, resulting in a reduction in the quantity and quality of harvests.

And then there are the possible consequences of using crops to produce fuels, a further increase in the use of GMOs in agriculture or new outrageous decisions by the IMF, World Bank or WTO (the latter was set up only in 1995 but has already caused enormous damage, definitively transforming food into a commodity, whose main function is no longer to feed people and animals but to support commercial transactions by payment of a price).

Hunger is not inevitable.

Our planet is able to feed the total world population (in fact we produce enough food for 12 billion people!). So solutions exist, and they are not so difficult to envisage and put into practice.

There are of course problems that require a political solution involving governments and large international institutions. But there are many issues which can be resolved at the level of everyday behavior carried out by many parties, including ordinary members of the public.

One of the most valuable contributions that Slow Food can offer is its experience of protecting and recovering food biodiversity and gastronomic traditions. It is a major priority to check the looming disaster and then maybe make up lost ground.

In the last century about 150,000 plant varieties have become extinct, at a rate of one every six hours. Now fewer than 30 varieties feed 95% of the world’s population. This situation puts the possibility of effective responses to environmental changes at risk, with the appearance of new diseases and a reduction of food security and food sovereignty in the global North as much as in the South.

We should remember that the small farmers and native communities in the global South are the main custodians of biodiversity. But even those who are not sensitive to the ethical, social and human dimensions of this issue, should still be worried because if the global South ‘dies’, we shall all pay the consequences.

Closely connected to the loss of biodiversity is the process of cultural erosion: it is not a fortuitous relationship since the animal and plant species used as food by native communities evolved as a result of selection over long periods of time by generations of farmers. The loss of a culture is irreversible: with it the knowledge that produced and safeguarded its food supply also disappears.

Defending biodiversity also means defending small-scale agricultural and food models, which are able to adapt to a geographical area and the requirements of the communities which live there. It means making a decisive contribution to food self-sufficiency: this entails producing many different things, primarily thinking about one’s own needs, then those of the community and as one gradually moves away from the place of production, only selling or exchanging surpluses to obtain what cannot be produced locally.

These small-scale agricultural models, particularly when derived from traditional practices, provide a balanced and adequate diet even in the poorest situations. Frequently the main cause of malnutrition is the abandonment of traditional diets, with a consequent loss of both knowledge and biodiversity, in favor of industrial products of low-cost and poor quality.

There are also economic benefits from defending biodiversity: in order to produce food it is not necessary to purchase seeds from multinational companies or resort to using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and if people are self-sufficient there is less need to buy food on the market. Additionally, if locally grown produce and animal products are transformed within the community, there is a significant economic benefit.

In order to focus on these issues and develop projects which could demonstrate the practical effectiveness of what has been said above, in 2003 we created the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. In fact the Foundation gathers the legacy of almost 10 years of work and thinking about the issue: biodiversity already crossed our path in the first half of the 1990s, even though our association was almost exclusively Italian and we were made aware of these issues by the progressive erosion of Italy’s gastronomic heritage.

But the fact that we were prompted by what was happening in Italy and made practical observations, first in restaurant kitchens and then out in the fields, was crucial in allowing us to address the international dimension with the right perspective, particularly in the global South.

The definition of quality which is now our guiding principle, ‘good, clean and fair’, is the result of our evolution and also led to Terra Madre. It is a further development in our journey: with Terra Madre we are progressing beyond a project that focuses on the product and return to focusing on human beings, or more precisely, human beings in the context of communities.

The strength of Terra Madre lies in making available in a network the knowledge and experience which already exist around the world. This experience is not just for defending biodiversity or achieving food security, but more generally it is for constructing, reconstructing, recovering or protecting agricultural and food models that are an alternative to the ‘dominant’ ones. They are models we can all follow and be guided by when seeking solutions to the problems facing our planet.

Changed individual behavior in developed countries will be equally important: it will be necessary to reduce consumption (including consumption of foods such as coffee, corn, bananas etc which come from far away but can also mean accepting a certain type of development) and turning to ‘GCF’ (good, clean and fair) products in order to defend our health and quality agriculture.

Roberto Burdese is the president of Slow Food Italy

Adapted by AilsaWood

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