Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food takes stock of the FAO

The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.  – General Comment 12 (CESCR)

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, has just released his report on his mission to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
In this blog post I provide a very broad summary of the report and then hone in on three key areas:

  1. the relationship between the FAO and the private sector;
  2. trade; and,
  3. areas of action.

For those of us following processes of global governance of food and agriculture, this report provides advice as to how we can begin to restructure policies to ensure that they target the most vulnerable and that they are developed, implemented and monitored in line with the guiding principles of a human rights framework.
Overview of the Mission to FAO
The Special Rapporteur normally visits countries on his missions, but institutions are within the scope of his mandate. Frankly, a mission to the FAO at this stage, while the FAO is under new leadership and undergoing reform, is appropriate and timely.
The objectives of the mission were to:

  • Take stock of the efforts of the FAO in promoting the right to food;
  • Explore how the right to food normative and analytical framework is integrated in to FAO policies and programmes;
  • Understand how integration of the right to food framework contributes to the attainment of the FAO’s core goals.

Towards this end, the report provides insight into how the human right to adequate food framework is integrated into the activities of the FAO and identifies areas where this normative and analytical framework can be used to strengthen the FAO’s contribution to the realization of the right to food.
The FAO has expressed a commitment to a rights-based approach. As the report explains, in their contribution to the Outcome Document of the Rio+20 Summit, the FAO identified two rights-based guidelines – the Right to Food Guidelines and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure – as the “overarching frameworks for achieving food security and equitable sustainable development” (para. 18).
But uptake and integration of a right to food approach remains far from coherent across FAO’s policies and programmes. With nearly 1 billion people suffering from malnutrition, it is fundamental that the FAO break out of the institutional silos whereby “the right to food is primarily promoted through discrete projects carries out only by one part of the organization” (para. 19). Furthermore, the right to food needs to be “included as a cross-cutting area of work and the key components of its normative and analytic framework reflected in the action plans on the implementation of Strategic Objectives” (para. 22).
While the idea of rights can be complicated, what we are really talking about is the recognition of food as a legal entitlement, as opposed to a form of charity, or a hand out. As the report explains:

“legal entitlements protect the rights of people to live with dignity and ensure that all have either the resources required to produce enough food for themselves or purchasing power sufficient to procure food from the market. They place obligations on the State, and provide individuals and communities with recourse mechanisms when these obligations are not met” (para 8).

A right to food approach seeks to improve coordination across government, enhance accountability, collective learning, participation, inclusivity democracy and empowerment. It is the combination of agency of people, accountability on the part of the State, and a framework to hold governments accountable that make a right to food approach so powerful.
The report provides identifies countries where the right to food is integrated into national food and nutrition legal and policy frameworks (para. 15) and highlights countries and regions developing strategies for better incorporating the framework into their national programmes.
FAO and the Private Sector
In the report, the Special Rapporteur considers the partnerships between the FAO and the private sector and raises concerns that despite arguably legitimate objectives, there is a “lack of transparency over the conditions of deliberation, acceptance or finding of certain past partnerships and initiatives” (para. 54).
Given the increase in private sector interest in agriculture since the 2008 food price crisis, and the corresponding interest in activities of the FAO, the Special Rapporteur questions “whether the FAO will remain credible as a guardian of the public interest and as an impartial body when it intervenes to share global responses to food insecurity” (para. 54).
In line with this, the Special Rapporteur questions the contradiction between FAO supported reports and partnerships. For example, the IAASTD report, to which the FAO contributed to, calls for a fundamental shift in the way agriculture is supported. However, two years after the release of the report, the FAO signed a Letter of Agreement with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), without reference to IAASTD, or the Right to Food Guidelines and without ensuring alignment between this cooperation and the conclusions of IAASTD (para. 33).
FAO and Trade
As part of the mission, the Special Rapporteur reviewed key FAO reports on trade negotiations and agriculture and noted that the conclusions of these reports are “unfortunately only partially and insufficiently reflected in the discourse promoted by the FAO at the global level, which does not systematically indicate the conditions under which trade can improve food security at the local, national and international levels” (para. 9).  The report requested that the FAO “express its views more clearly on the question of trade and food security; building not only on its experience with a wide range of situations at country level, but also on its past attempts to ensure food security is always prioritised in the organization of trade in agricultural commodities” (para. 9).
Towards Action
The report usefully provides strategies for addressing the challenge of mainstreaming the right to food with respect to the FAO Strategic Framework with the aim of not only improving coherence but also moving the FAO towards its objectives. The Special Rapporteur proposes three areas where change can be made along with specific actions that could be taken.
1)      Procedural requirements of the right to food can be more systematically integrated into FAO activities.

  1. HOW: Comparative assessments, data collection that captures the multi-dimensional nature of food insecurity that is adequately disaggregated; procedural requirements integrated into the decision-making and implementation process.

2)      FAO can consider measures to mainstream the right to food in the daily work of the Organization

  1. HOW: strengthen mechanisms and procedures to facilitate systematic integration of the right to food; promote the right to food across FAO with the support of dedicated staff; a network of senior-level focal points in technical units at headquarters and in regional and national offices to support the mainstreaming effort;  and strengthened Development Law Service of the Legal Office; develop a set of standard questions to be included on a systematic basis; strengthening monitoring systems to assess the impact of the FAO’s country-level programmes and policy assistance; establish an “impact assessment culture”; make senior and middle management accountable for mainstreaming right to food principles; ensure the work has a regular budget.

3)      The right to food calls for a more systematic consideration of agriculture and food policies that benefit the most marginalised, food-insecure population groups.

  1. HOW: Prioritize the most marginal segments of the population; make national food systems inclusive of poor small-scale food producers; support farmers’ seed systems, especially through local seed exchange systems; enhance access to nutritious food; limit excessive reliance on international trade in pursuit of food security; protect small-scale food producers from the abuse of buyer power in food chains; support social projection systems as a response to chronic-poverty related food insecurity.

Key Conclusions and Recommendations
The conclusions presented in the report are clear: “the right to food approach should permeate all core activities of the FAO, including food and agriculture policies, nutrition, land, and trade” (Para 21).
To summarise the conclusions and recommendations in one word it would be integration. If we subscribe to the evidence presented in the report, and in turn agree that a right to food framework can support the FAO in its objective of reducing hunger and malnutrition, it then follows that the framework needs to be integrated systematically across FAO policies and programmes, and by extension, FAO supported initiatives in member countries.
The report outlines why and how a right to adequate food normative and analytical framework can help the FAO reduce hunger and malnutrition around the world. Some are doing this well, others less so.
The Report concludes by stating that a more systematic application of the right to food as an operational tool can help the FAO improve its work towards the eradication of hunger and malnutrition. The Special rapporteur calls on the FAO and its members to fulfil their obligations to realise the right to food and to:

  •  Promote an integrated approach to implementing the right to food across FAO.
  •  Prioritise activities that have the largest impact on the food insecure and prioritise support to states on policies and programmes that are conducive to the right to food.
  • Mainstream the right to food across the FAO.
  • Integrate procedural requirements of the right to food consistently across FAO activities at the country and headquarter level.
  • Ensure all new FAO norms and standards are aligned with the human rights to adequate food normative framework.
  • Support the implementation of the right to food normative framework at the country and regional level through activities that integrated the right to food in legal, policy and institutional frameworks.

Final Thoughts
This report is a very important contribution to the changing architecture of global food security governance and provides a path towards greater cohesion and efficacy in FAO policy based not only in legal commitments but also on a growing body of evidence that highlights the efficacy of a right to food approach.
I am keen to engage in a discussion on the role of the environment within a broader rights-based approach. I know that Olivier De Schutter contributed to this conversation with his influential 2011 report Agroecology and the Right to Food, but I think that ecology needs to be at the core of policies moving forward and that it needs to be explicitly mentioned and not broadly assumed.
For those of you who want to know more,   I’ve posted some resources and links on the Right to Food here.


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