On June 19 and 20, 2009, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) organized a multi-stakeholder consultation on transnational corporations and the right to food convened under the auspices of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter in Berlin. The consultation was sponsored by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the two-day workshop, representatives of civil society organizations, unions, academia and the business community discussed various issues related to the right to food and the role of transnational corporations. Particular focus was placed on concrete measures that should be taken by states and transnational corporations to contribute to the realization of the right to food. Food producers are most vulnerable to hunger
The full realization of the right to food, as set forth in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is denied to a large number of people in the world. As highlighted by various participants in the consultation, about eighty percent of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition today are small-scale farmers, agricultural workers and workers in other fields of food production such as fishermen. Transnational corporations, acting as food processors and retailers, exercise market powers through which they influence the livelihoods of farmers and food producers, as well as consumers and their ability to feed themselves sufficiently. Existing standards on labor rights need to be implemented
The first day of the consultation opened with a discussion of the importance of safeguarding the rights of workers in the food sector, in particular, agricultural workers. In this context, several participants pointed to the existence of adequate rules for protecting the right of workers in various International Labor Organization Conventions, however, these protections have not been widely ratified nor are they well implemented. Local context of what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet needs to be considered
The consultation also dealt with the right of consumers to have access to safe, healthy and nutritious food. On this issue, the difficult balance between the need for affordable food, on the one hand, and the need for a healthy and sustainable diet (which may not always be affordable), on the other hand, became evident. There may also be tension between the requirements of a healthy diet and one that is sustainable. It was apparent that there is a clear need for a matrix that determines what comprises a healthy and sustainable diet in a specific local context. Hunger and poverty as a result of environmental destruction
In a third session, the interrelationship between environmental protection and the right to food was explored. These links are particularly important given that industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to environmental destruction, which often leads to destruction of land and livelihood, then poverty and hunger. Supporting organic farming and local supply chains were recognized as two important efforts in this context. Strengthening local markets and organic production
During the second day, participants turned their attention to small-scale farmers, who are highly vulnerable to food-insecurity. Participants discussed measures that could support the small-scale farmers. In this context, the importance of preserving diversity in the food market, specifically in local food markets in the face of expanding supermarket-chains, was critical from the point of view of several participants. Role of public and private certification schemes
Public and private certification schemes and their role in enhancing food security were topics of the following session. While several participants advocated a larger role for states in such schemes, others pointed out that involvement of the state does not necessarily guarantee a democratization of certification schemes. Since the percentage of agricultural products traded internationally is still very low, the overall impact that schemes and standards may have on the realization of the right to food for those who need it most - the rural poor in the global south - is in actuality rather limited. More effective grievance mechanisms needed
Finally, issues of concentration, buying power and pricing practices were discussed. Many of the discussants agreed that market concentration, pricing power and power structures in the agricultural sector need to be analyzed and be given more public attention if the right to food is to be implemented effectively. Workshop participants often highlighted the importance of judicial and quasi-judicial remedies that individuals can use to seek redress for human rights abuses by transnational corporations - a position strongly supported by ECCHR.
The consultation was the first in a series of similar events in other locations. The results will be made a part of the Special Rapporteur's report due at the end of 2009.