Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The right to food

Hunger is both a violation of human dignity and an obstacle to social, political and economic progress, writes Nader Noureddin*

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states that, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food..." Meanwhile, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 declared that, "The states party to the present covenant recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living including adequate food..." And, the Rome Declaration on World Food Security of 1996 concluded that "We, the heads of state and government... reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger." All three universal declarations confirmed the right to food for everyone.

International law recognises that everyone has the fundamental right to be free from hunger, hence governments must do everything possible to ensure that their people have physical and economic access to enough safe, nutritious food to lead healthy and active lives. The term "food security" considers the beneficiaries of development not merely as passive recipients, but as active stakeholders. It also puts the primary responsibility on the state to achieve this goal.

Violations of the right to food include blocking access on the grounds of race, sex, language, age, religion or political belief. In addition, food should not be used to exact political or economic pressure, for instance through food embargoes or blocking humanitarian convoys.

A common misunderstanding is that the right to food requires the state to feed its people; this is not necessarily the case. Rather, the state must respect and protect the rights of individuals to feed themselves. Direct food assistance is mainly called for in emergencies, such as natural disasters or wars. When a country cannot meet this need through its own resources, the state must request international assistance.

Trade liberalisation both benefits and challenges the realisation of the right to food. If rich countries curtailed subsidies to their farmers, the farm products of poor countries would become more competitive allowing these states to produce a greater share of their own food and earn more exports. But until markets adjust to the new policy environment, countries which rely on cheap food imports may actually fare worse.

Many developing countries will also need help in putting policies into effect and creating the structures necessary to make their agriculture sectors competitive in an open trade environment.

Increasing agricultural productivity is key to reducing poverty in many developing countries. Farmers directly benefit from irrigation through increased and more stable incomes and the higher value of irrigated land. Communities benefit through better wages, lower food processing costs, a more varied diet and the health benefits of greater water availability.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 42 per cent of arable land in Asia is irrigated, 31 per cent in the Near East and North Africa, 14 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and only four per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Irrigation increases yields of most crops by 100 to 400 per cent. Over the next 30 years, 70 per cent of gains in cereal production are expected to come from irrigated land.

However, in Pakistan, 80 per cent of food is produced on irrigated land; in China, 70 per cent; and in India and Indonesia, more than 50 per cent. Meanwhile, in Ghana, Malawi and Mozambique the amount is less than two per cent. Worldwide, agriculture uses 70 per cent of all water, while in many developing countries the figure is as high as 85 to 95 per cent. FAO estimates that irrigated land in developing countries will increase by 27 per cent by 2030, but the amount of water used by agriculture will only increase by 12 per cent thanks to improved irrigation efficiency -- more food from less water.

With the world population expected to reach eight billion by 2030, pressure on natural resources will continue to mount. The challenge of the coming years is to produce enough food to meet the needs of an additional two billion people while preserving and enhancing the natural resources base, upon which the well-being of present and future generations depends.

According to the 1992 convention on Biological Diversity, bio-technology is "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use." There are two main types of bio- technological processes; one which uses genetic information to speed up and improve conventional or animal breeding, and another which modifies the genetic pattern of a plant or animal to create a new organism.

Current bio-technology can increase crop yield and reduce production costs even for small-scale farmers in developing countries, who make up a large part of the world's poor and hungry population. Bio-technology can help even the landless poor by increasing staple foods, such as through the addition of essential vitamins. Even bio-technology development is protected by patents and gives small-scale farmers the right to reuse genetically engineered seeds from their harvest for the next planting season.

An estimated 44 million hectares (110 million feddans) of genetically modified (GM) crops were planted in year 2000. The most common GM crops are soybean (58 per cent of GM crop total), maize (23 per cent), cotton (12 per cent) and canola (7 per cent), with small amounts of potato, squash and papaya.

In 2000, Argentina, Canada, China and the United States accounted for 99 per cent of the global GM crop area. Other countries growing commercial GM crops were Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Ukraine and Uruguay. Many developing countries in Africa are involved in GM research, such as Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, in wheat, groundnut, cotton, squash, sugar cane and sweet potato crops. In Asia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand are testing one or more GM tobacco, tomato, cotton, sorghum and bananas crops.

Since arable land globally per person shrank from 0.38 hectares in 1970 to 0.23 in 2000, with a projected decline to 0.15 hectares by 2050, food security and the right to food need to transform from theory to reality through working together to fight hunger.

* The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University.

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