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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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September 23, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


The Human Right to Food

As food systems around the world face increasing challenges, a new dialogue is emerging.


Jon Steinman


This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


It's not often that food and human rights are spoken of in the same breath. For decades food has been at the mercy of market-driven economics and human rights are far from being a necessary or desired component of such models.


Nevertheless, food is indeed mentioned within the Declaration. Article 25 reads: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themself and of their family, including food,".


When speaking of the "right to food", the concept of food sovereignty can also be introduced. Food sovereignty is when people have the right to determine what foods are available to them. Today however, food sovereignty is threatened due to heightened restrictions stemming from food safety concerns, international trade agreements, biofuel mandates and the powerful interests of food/agriculture industry lobbyists among others.

As a result of this lack of dialogue on the subject of the human right to food, a panel of experts was gathered on August 29 at the United Nations in New York City. The event was titled "The Human Right to Food and the Global Food Crisis: Root Causes and Responses". The dialogue was sponsored by The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Department of Public Information, the NGO Committee on Human Rights and the Permanent Missions of Cuba and Malawi.


While hunger and malnourishment in the face of abundance has existed en masse for decades, there has not been any successful approach to deal with this crisis.


Sitting on the panel was Flavio Valente; the Secretary General of FIAN International an organization advocating the right to food. "The crisis we are facing now is not new," suggested Valente. "In 1996, the FAO held a summit on food that diagnosed at that time that 825 million people in the world were going hungry every day. The situation has not improved since," he added.


Also on the panel was Olivier De Schutter the recently appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Since March 2008, De Schutter has been reporting to the General Assembly of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council. He is a specialist in human rights and works for the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and the College of Europe in Poland. De Schutter believes that by placing the responses to the current global food crisis under a human rights framework, the world can avoid making the same mistakes that have been made in the past.


One of the most significant mistakes of the past that De Schutter refers to was shifting the governance of food out of the hands of nations and into the hands of industry and world trade agreements. "We need to draw our attention to the governance problems in the food production and distribution chains," suggested De Schutter at the August 29 event.


De Schutter would like to see the responsibility of managing food lie in the interests of nation states; not corporations.


As a result of so much power having been placed into the hands of profit-driven interests, the cost of farming today has skyrocketed in previous decades. The perceived need for agricultural inputs as an example has increased in part due to the demands that the global food system has placed on farmers worldwide. De Schutter would like to see that change. "We need to promote the use of the least expensive inputs in forms of agriculture," he suggested.


It's a unique approach to take to address such issues that are most often seen through different lenses. Never before have agricultural inputs been approached with a human rights framework.


De Schutter believes that any decisions made that impact global and local food systems need to pass through a human rights lens first. "The human rights approach can force an international conversation," suggested De Schutter.


He further suggested that recourse mechanisms be put in place for those who fall victim to hunger. "We need to allow persons who are hungry to call upon courts and independent institutions to hold branches of government accountable to their right to food."


This is quite a revolutionary suggestion.


That would mean that residents of British Columbia for example could challenge BC's governmental bodies that were responsible for enacting legislation in October 2007 that made it illegal for some farmers in the province to sell meat to their neighbours.


It could mean that Canadians could hold the Canadian Food Inspection Agency accountable for restricting access to raw milk, which is significantly more nutritious than pasteurized milk.


It could mean that Mexicans could challenge the Canadian, American and EU governments for instituting biofuel mandates that have pushed the price of corn so high that families there are going hungry.


Most importantly, it could mean that food sovereignty and the right to food may one day be realized for billions of people around the world who are currently not afforded such a right.


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (




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