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The Rediff Interview/Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on food
'The neediest in India will be relatively protected from food crisis'
May 08, 2008
After taking office on May 2, as the new independent expert on the right to food, De Schutter blamed two decades of mistakes by world powers as responsible for the crisis.
'If a hundred million people are arrested in a dictatorial regime, if a hundred million persons are beaten up by police, of course, we would be marching on the streets and we'd be convening special sessions of the Human Rights Council,' he said during a news conference. 'Every single one of these hundred million individuals deserves the same degree of attention from the international community.'
A human rights expert and professor of Law at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and College of Europe, Natolin, De Schutter is also a visiting professor at the Columbia Law School in New York. He will hold office as the UN Special Rapporteur on food till May 2011.
A student in Mumbai between 1972 and 1976, he discussed the food crisis with rediff.com Assistant Managing Editor Archana Masih in an e-mail exchange.
You have said that 'the days of cheap food are over' and 'we are paying for the mistakes made in the past 20 years' -- how much are prices likely to rise and how does it affect a country like India and countries in the developing world and in Sub Saharan Africa?
India has developed remarkable social programmes, particularly work-for-food programmes, well documented, for instance, by Madhura Swaminathan, which ensure that the neediest segments of the population will be relatively protected from the crisis.
Other States such as Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa or the Philippines have cash transfer programmes in place. Still other countries, or the same, have school-feeding programmes.
The impact of the current increase in food prices will be important, however, in countries, particularly Sub-Saharan African countries which are net food importing countries, which have no such safety nets in place.
As a result, the productivity in agriculture has been growing at a much slower rhythm than the population, particularly in a situation where there is a switch to protein-richer diets in emerging economies.
Africa has been particularly neglected: It did not really benefit from the 'Green Revolution' of the 1960s, and the agricultural sector in this continent needs significant support.
I believe we should now draw the lessons from the past, and develop forms of agriculture which are more sustainable and more geared towards improving the lot of the smallest farmers.
The International Assessement of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, the result of three years of research by 400 experts which over 50 governments have approved in April, is an important step in this direction.
At the same time, we should make distinctions between different plants used for bio-energy. Sugarcane is much less environmentally damaging than maize (corn), rapeseed or palm oil; and certain plants, such as jatropha or sweet sorghum, create much less of a competition between food and fuel -- indeed, in India, certain families have been given pieces of degraded land, unsuited for agricultural production, on which jatropha can be raised in order to produce bio-energy.
There is also a need for further research into biotechnologies to be more focused on agricultural production of the developing countries, which have been comparatively severely neglected until now.
In addition, in many countries, the prices of land has been rising, leading small farmers to sell the land (particularly in order to pay back debts) and to become landless labourers, much more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the prices of food.
16 per cent of cultivated land is already almost exhausted. Some 60 to 90 million hectares of land will be lost to desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa, as result of climate change, by 2020.
The best lands are already put in use for agriculture, and it would be a disaster if, in order to increase production, we cut down the forests we have, which deliver environmental services important to all humanity.
And, yes, this occurs in a context where demand in increasing, due both to the sheer growth to the population -- some 75 million more each year, with a growth of the global population expected to peak at 9.2 billion in 2050, and to a change in dietary habits, particularly rapid in emerging economies.