Multi-stakeholder consultation on the right to food

On the 19th and 20th June, 2009 in Berlin, The ECCHR organized a multi-stakeholder Consultation on Transnational Corporations and the Right to Food, sponsored by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which convened under the auspices of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter.

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. 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, especially food producers.

As highlighted by various participants in the consultation, approximately eighty percent of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition today are small-scale farmers, agricultural workers and workers, or those other fields of food production, such as fishing. Transnational corporations, acting as food processors and retailers, exercise market powers through which they influence the livelihoods of those farmers and other food producers, as well as consumers and their ability to feed themselves sufficiently.

The first day of the consultation opened with a discussion of the importance of safeguarding the rights of workers in the food sector, and 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. Existing standards on labor rights must be implemented.

The consultation also dealt with the right of consumers to have access to safe, healthy and nutritious food. What constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet needs to be considered in the local context. A balance between the need for affordable food, and the need for a healthy and sustainable diet is very evident. What qualifies as “sustainable” was also considered in detail. It was apparent that there is a clear need for a mechanism or standard, which will determine what comprises a healthy and sustainable diet in a specific local context.

In a third session, the interrelationship between environmental protection and the right to food was explored. Environmental destruction results in Hunger and poverty. This link is of particular importance given that industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to destruction of natural resources. The session, it was emphasized that environmental devastation means the decimation of land and livelihood, which contributes to and exacerbates existing poverty and hunger.

During the second day, participants turned their attention to small-scale farmers, who are highly vulnerable to food-insecurity, and to strengthening local markets and organic production. Participants discussed measures that could support the small-scale farming. Supporting organic farming and local supply chains were recognized as two important efforts to combat this effect. Diversity in the food market, specifically in local food markets, must be preserved in the face of expanding supermarket-chains and large scale food production.

The vital role of public and private certification schemes in enhancing food safety and sustainability were topics of the following session. While several participants advocated a larger role for governments, others pointed out that the involvement of the state does not guarantee a democratization of certification schemes.

Tranational commerce is limited in its potential effect on the realization of the right to food. Because the percentage of agricultural products traded internationally is still very low, the overall impact of schemes and standards is limited. International trade does not target those most in need, the rural poor, and those living in the global south.

Finally, issues of concentration, buying power and pricing practices were discussed. 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 making judicial and quasi-judicial remedies available so that they may be implemented.

The ECCHR strongly supports individuals to seek redress for human rights abuses committed by transnational corporations. More effective grievance mechanisms, which target those most disadvantaged, must be developed.

The consultation described above, was the first in a series of similar events. The results will be made a part of the Special Rapporteur's report and is due out 2010.

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