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'The neediest in India will be relatively protected from food crisis'

May 08, 2008 11:04 IST
One hundred million people around the world are being deprived of the right to food. "It is a human rights crisis," says Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations's Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

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 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?

The impact of the current increase of the price of food commodities on the global markets will vary significantly from State to State, depending on the particular policy mix they have in place in order to insulate their population from these consequences of this surge.

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.

What mistakes have been made in the past two decades that has led to this situation?

As the World Bank recognises in the World Development Report 2008, we have significantly underinvested in agriculture for almost three decades. The World Bank itself bears part of the responsibility for this: Iin 1980, 30 per cent of its lending went to support agricultural projects; in 2007, this percentage was 12 per cent.

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.

How can the situation be rectified or has it become too late to do so?

Not only is it not too late we also can learn from the risks entailed by an overemphasis on productivist, industrial agriculture, with costly intrants, and which rewards large-scale farms rather than it serves the interests of small-hold farmers.

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.

You have spoken about a discussion about whether the production of bio-diesel, bio-ethanol should continue, won't that be reducing a measure to counter global warming, which is also a crisis facing humankind?

Too many hopes have been placed in the production of biofuels, which I prefer to refer to as agrofuels. They require important amounts of energy to be produced; they use considerable amounts of water; they create an important carbon debt, both because of the nitrous gas emissions in the production of agrofuels and because of deforestation for such production; and they compete with food for the use of scarce arable land.

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.

What kind of support should be given to agriculture in developing countries during these times of rising prices and food crisis?

Agriculture in developing countries needs to be supported by infrastructures (for irrigation and communication, linking better local producers to the markets), by an improved access to credit, and by facilitated access to seeds and other intrants, which small-hold farmers sometimes find too expensive for them to be able to live on their crops.

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.

Which are the nations that are worse hit by this food crisis?

The Sub-Saharan African countries which have no social safety nets and have no national strategy for the realisation of the right to adequate food will be hardest hit; certain other countries, particularly Haiti in the Caribbean, also are vulnerable, due to poor governance.

How does this affect a country like India where more than two-thirds of the population is dependent on agriculture?

For some agricultural producers, the increase in international prices is an opportunity, since, if they are well connected to the markets, they may benefit. The problem is that most are not, with most of the benefits going to middlemen or exporters buying the crops; and many small-hold producers, living on one hectare or less, are in fact net food buyers -- and will have to pay more for the food they consume, without this being compensated by the higher prices they may receive for their crops.

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.

Is the root of the problem caused because production has decreased or consumption, especially in countries like India and China, has increased?

Production has not decreased. But, while important margins of productivity gains exist particularly in Africa, we should not believe that our ability to expand production is infinite.

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.