Inaction to halt speculation on agricultural commodities and continued biofuels policies is paving the way for a re-run of the 2008 food price crisis in 2010 or 2011, argues Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, in an interview with EurActiv.

Olivier De Schutter is professor of law at the University of Louvain (UCL) and the College of Europe (Natolin). He was appointed UN special rapporteurexternal on the right to food by the Human Rights Council in March 2008.

He was speaking to EurActiv’s Giacomo Fassina.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Are you satisfied with the outcome of the summit on world food security?

Most of the observers are very critical of the results. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf was himself quite disappointed. The summit did not lead to any financial commitments despite his insistence that governments should have reserved some $44 billion per year to re-launch agriculture in developing countries. Moreover, there was no clear calendar for concrete actions to be taken. Therefore the general sense is one of failure.

But I would like to add a proviso. In the past we had a lot of summits and high-level conferences where pledges were made, but where it appeared that commitments were not met and not adequately monitored. If you look back at the previous G8 meeting and even the High Level Conference on Food Security that was held in Rome in June 2008, the degree of implementation was extremely weak. In this meeting there was no new commitment, but there was really strong reform of global governance on food security.

I myself have invested a lot of time and effort in revamping the composition of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) within the FAO, which in future should become a forum where priorities are set not just by governments, but also civil society, farmers, NGOs and stakeholders working together to establish a diagnosis of the situation and define priorities. I hope that in the future the CFS shall be able to increase the level of accountability and the degree of monitoring of states’ policies.

You stress the importance of accountability. But how can the commitments become more binding for governments?

Once you establish a forum where they will have to report on what they are doing and justify their choices, it will become much more difficult for them to keep doing things wrong. They will also be obliged to relate to the framework defined by the CFS and they will be criticised if they fail to contribute effectively to world food security.

But how can the pressure on governments be maintained? Is there a role for the media to play?

Media and civil society are key players, but in their attempt to hold governments accountable, they must first of all have the information that is needed. States must be much more transparent and they have to be able to provide information about the policies they are implementing. This should be achieved in the future in a much better way than it has in the past.

I should also emphasise that the main issue is not how much aid has been delivered, but rather: for which type of investment, for the benefit of which kind of farmers and with which management of aid at the domestic level.

We should not take as an excuse the low level of aid in agricultural development in the past for what has also been a failure in developing countries to adequately address these issues. We all are responsible, but there should not be a North-South divide in responsibilities.

Although the problem seems to be that in order to deliver this typology of investment, you should go beyond a state-to-state negotiation.

Yes, it is absolutely fundamental to open up the black box of the state. States are not monoliths. We have to ensure that no matter what priorities are defined by the state, they are not defined simply by governments and ministries of finance. States should consult small-farmer organisations. In the past they have been neglected and left out from public debate. This has been the source of a type of agricultural development that has been heavily distorted in favour of the large farmers creating poverty in the countryside.

Is this also the reason why you are sceptical about trade liberalisation and Doha talks?

The reasons for my scepticism are very simple. We should not confuse what is good for countries with what is good to reduce food insecurity within these countries. A country may expand its access to markets and its export opportunities and yet see food insecurity increase if this expansion only benefits the largest producers, which have access to the global supply chain and are the most competitive in the international market.

What we have seen in the past is that countries that have been opening up their agriculture by agreeing to lower import tariffs on agricultural food and by developing their export chain without small farmers benefiting from these exports have just increased inequalities.

My point is very simple: the countries which will open up and increase their openness will also face the difficulty of reconciling this move with combating inequality in rural areas. What has happened in the past was that when opportunities were created by trade openings, these benefited a very small number of large producers: the most competitive and the best-equipped.

Many small farmers have been left out and they have not benefited from the best plans and the best investments. These are the farmers that do not produce coffee, cocoa or cotton, but crops such as cassava, sorghum, millet or sweet potato. These are the farmers who need to be helped and they are not going to be helped by creating more export opportunities. On the contrary, they will be helped by investments which are not tailored to maximising exports.

Some have warned, like The Economist magazine this week, that there is a risk of countries moving from food security to food self-sufficiency. How do you see this risk?

That is a very serious mistake. First of all it is premised on the idea that the problem of hunger today in the world springs from inefficient production. It does not. We have enough food. The problem is not to become more efficient. The problem is to produce food in ways that increase the income of the poorest, so as to de-concentrate the production of food.

So if we are focusing on efficiency, we are condemning to poverty very large segments of rural areas that are not efficient. We must help the non-efficient to combat poverty. So The Economist commits a very serious mistake, which is basically based on a completely wrong understanding of what hunger is about. Hunger is not the result of food being produced in inefficient conditions. It is the result of food being produced in conditions which are increasingly competitive, which displace small farmers and which condemn them to subsistence agriculture.

The second extremely serious mistake that The Economist commits is that it does not understand that for developing countries that are now net food-importers, self-sufficiency should be an aim. Many developing countries have become net importing countries because of population growth and because they were convinced that they could always buy food at cheap prices on the international market.

With the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008 we have seen how dangerous that position was. These countries are now re-orienting investments to be able to feed themselves. They will not become self-sufficient, but at least they will decrease their dependency on the international market.

That seems to me to be absolutely vital. In the future, prices will be more and more volatile – on average higher. Countries that are very dependent on the international market and have no cash (unlike the Gulf countries that produce food abroad by buying land) will be in an extremely difficult position. We cannot tell them not to be self-sufficient. We have to tell them that they have to ensure their food security by producing for themselves.

Would it be fair to say that globalisation has been harmful to food security in developing countries?

I think so. It has been problematic because countries have not been able to manage its impact on the poorest strata of the population. Theoretically it is not irreconcilable, but in practice it has not been well-managed and it has led to all the investments going to export chains and leaving out large segments of the rural community.

Of the 1 billion hungry, 50% are small farmers, 25% are landless labourers working in plantations and 25% are urban poor that very often come from rural areas as a result of an exodus due to difficult conditions of living in the countryside. The disempowerment and marginalisation of the rural areas are the root causes of hunger. These resulted from mismanagement of globalisation.

You also often mention intellectual property rights (IPR) in your speeches. Isn’t IPR key to increasing food productivity?

We do not necessarily need property rights. What we need is investment. Now the question is: who is going to invest for whom? The risk is to believe that simply by protecting IPR you will ensure not just that investments are made, but investments are made in a way that would benefit the poor farmers who have to have access to productive resources in order to make a living. And that has not worked.

If you look at the direction that private investors have chosen, only 6% of private-led research has gone to developing countries’ needs. All the rest has essentially been investment in crops for the high-value markets of OECD countries. The research needs of developing countries are very different from those of rich countries and this gap will not be filled soon.

So what is the solution to keep the level of investment high? Has IPR worked as a catalyst in this respect?

We can give to the private sector incentives to make investments that really benefit the poor. But this means that we should not count on the market. If the only reward comes from what they can sell, they will only carry out research for solvent markets and not for the benefit of the poor.

Do you think that shortening the time-frame of these property rights would be a solution?

I do not think so. That would simply mean ensuring that they capture less of the value of their innovation, but this would not substantially redirect investments. What we need is, for example, a system of public procurement where you could reward the private sector for developing research for the needs of developing countries. You need public money for this and also to strengthen the ability of public research centres: at the moment they are massively under-funded in comparison with the private sector.

You also need funds which are not simply tailored to the production of improved varieties of seeds, but also investments which can favour the farmers’ seed systems, which in most cases is constituted by local varieties of seeds. Nevertheless these are often more suitable to that specific territory and are also more agro-ecological. So farmers can use local varieties which are sometimes more effective than improved varieties.

The direction of investments needs to be changed. This cannot be done simply by intellectual property rights. We need to redirect investments through public money.

You also take a critical stance on the production of biofuels. What is the problem you envisage with biofuels?

I think that for biofuels there are two very different problems. The first one is that increasingly crops will be diverted to the production of fuel and the pressure on the supply side of the global equation will increase as a result. Many experts agree this was a major cause of the global food price crisis of 2007-2008. The US and the EU – which are major consumers of biofuels – made the markets nervous in 2007-2008. This led to speculation on the markets as a consequence. So this is one problem: this puts pressure on markets that are by definition volatile because of weak elasticity of supply and demand. So, once you introduce the additional biofuel factor in an already strained situation, it can easily lead markets to panic.

The second problem is not limited to biofuels. It concerns many export commodities and the conditions in which biofuels are produced and marketed. In most cases biofuels are produced by large producers, often multinational companies dominating world trade, and do not benefit the small farmers living in difficult environments, which are those that need support.

Biofuels have essentially increased land concentration and inequalities in rural areas. They have not trickled down to the poorest except in very specific cases like sugar cane in Brazil, which practices contract farming. But in most cases this has not benefited the poor. This is a problem of political economy: in the biofuel chain the main benefits are reaped by those at the top. This is my second main concern.

My proposal in this respect is simply to develop a framework where states do the right thing. I am not for the prohibition of biofuels. I think that would be a completely irresponsible move, but I am for a very careful monitoring by states of the impact of the increased production and use of biofuels.

For the moment, states are not doing this correctly and are doing this unilaterally without accepting to be bound by an international framework, which I think is problematic both for states that import biofuels and states that export biofuels. So this will not stand. In the future we’ll have to have more discussions to move to a new consensus on how to manage this.

The question of biofuel feeds into the relationship between climate change and agriculture. Is there a trade-off between climate change and agriculture?

There is no trade-off. There are ways of producing food that are extremely efficient in the use of resources. These increase yields very significantly but without the negative impact on the environment which we have with traditional farming methods.

We are now in a system in which agriculture is very dependent on the price of oil because it is heavily mechanised, because it uses synthetic chemical fertilisers and because it is a type of agriculture that depletes the soil very rapidly. There are many ways to farm that are less detrimental to the environment, but in many cases farmers are not using these techniques enough because they have not been taught to use them.

And among these methods you have low-tillage agriculture, the use of different crops on the same parcel of land in order to have trees or legumes fertilising the soil. There are many techniques. And I do not want to bore you with a list of them. But what I want to emphasise here is that these are methods that – although introduced very successfully in a number of countries – have not been generally used by farmers in poor countries because they were not taught properly how to use them.

We should not confuse agroecological farming with farming by small farmers or ineffective farming. It is not a return to the past or to some form of bucolic ideal, it is something of the future and I think that we urgently need to make this transition because in twenty years’ time, maybe even earlier, it will be extremely problematic to produce food being dependent on oil, because the price of oil will skyrocket and it will become a scarce commodity. The price of food will be affected significantly if it remains linked to oil as it is today.

Do you see the world being able to stave off or prevent other food crises in the future?

I think we will have a new crisis in 2010 or 2011. It is clear is that all the conditions that created the crisis in 2008 are still in place.

However we should emphasise that the crisis we have seen was a price crisis, not a food crisis. It was a crisis linked to the evolution of prices on the international market, set by speculation. It was a financial phenomenon primarily and it was not linked to insufficient food being produced.

In fact the harvests in 2008-2009 were at very high level – an historically high level. So we will have a new food price crisis, but I am confident that we will produce enough food to feed the world in the future. Nevertheless we have not done anything on biofuels, on speculation, and on the other immediate causes of the crisis of 2008. This means that such a crisis can return very soon. In fact in the recent increase in the price of oil, we see the beginning of such a crisis.

How do you assess the behaviour of the EU leadership in tackling the problem of food security?

I think the EU has a very long experience in achieving food security. The establishment of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1962 had many negative externalities, but had one great achievement, which was food security for the European continent.

This was done by taking the view that food was not a commodity like any other. We needed to organise the market through supply management in order to provide decent revenues for farmers.

Unfortunately, there were many problems with the CAP so that it is now being questioned and revised significantly, but I think that its strengths should not be overlooked and should be preserved: in particular regulation of markets and supply management.

And I hope this experience of the EU can serve others because it is quite possible to preserve the positive sides of the CAP without maintaining the very negative impacts, particularly on farmers in developing countries, which have been absolutely ruined by the export subsidies and the dumping of food on the international market. So a way of answering your question is by saying that the EU has more to offer than is usually thought.


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