Fortune is pleased to take part in an unusual but
very productive collaboration with other media
outlets in Africa and Europe. Organized by
www.afronline.com, and together with newspapers in
Senegal, Mali, and Madagascar, Fortune has
participated on an online interview of Olivier De
Schutter, a special rapporteur to the United Nations
on Right to Food.
De Schutter spoke on issues of the consequences of
the economic crisis after the riots of 2008; the 20
billion dollars promised by the G8 to address the
issues of crisis in food; the ongoing land grab in
Africa by investors in the West and Asia; as well as
the impact of climate change on the right to food in
De Schutter was a professor of Law at the University
of Louvain (UCL), Belgium, from where he earned is
PhD in law. He also holds a LL.M. from Harvard
University. He has been lecturer in law at the
University of Leicester (UK) and has been teaching
European Union law, international and European human
rights law and legal theory at numerous universities
in New York, France, Finland, Portugal, Benin and
He is the author of several expert reports for the
Council of Europe. He is the author and co-author of
dozens of books and articles about issues ranging
from European law to immigration law, from
trans-national corporations to international law.
De Schutter is an expert on social and economic
rights and on trade and human rights, who served
between 2004 and 2008 as a Secretary General of the
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). He
was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to
Food by the Human Rights Council in March 2008 and
assumed his functions in May 2008.
“I am working on a dossier which will become a
report that will be delivered to the Human Rights
Council in March 2010,” he said in this interview.
“It will include concrete proposals to improve the
respect for food rights in the agro-food system.”
In 2007 and 2008, Africa was subject to growing
riots, due to the booming food prices. In the second
semester of 2008, prices registered a 40pc decrease,
but in the last few months they have started going
up once more. Is Africa protected from another food
De Schutter: We cannot understand the tragedy of
hunger based only on the evolution of food prices on
international markets. By focusing on these aspects
alone, we ignore all the problems related to the
production chain and to the distribution of food.
Poor people in African countries do not buy rice or
manioc (cassava) on the Chicago Stock Exchange, but
in local markets or village shops; producers sell
the goods to intermediates, and not to the
Therefore, even when prices do go up, few producers
may in fact enjoy an increase in revenues.
Similarly, the decrease of prices in the global
markets does not automatically lead to lower prices
for consumers. In April 2009, Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) published a report made in 58
developing countries showing that in 80pc of the
countries being looked at, foodstuffs were being
sold at higher prices compared to April 2008, and
40pc of those surveyed had seen prices increases
from January 2009.
In January 2008, hunger affected 923 million people,
but today the hungry amount to 1.02 billion people
worldwide. The crisis has never been this strong.
That being said, the increase of prices does weigh a
lot on the balance of payments and on the trade
balances of poor countries, among which are many
African net-food-importing countries. Due to this
dependence - resulting where for the past 30 years,
investment has been in crops for the export market
to raise foreign currency rather than growing food -
countries remain extremely vulnerable.
It is obvious to all that the link between
agricultural production and oil is an intolerable
situation. To date, we have not acted on the root
causes of price volatility and other jolts are
The United Nations has several agencies to alleviate
the problems of global food shortages, in particular
among poor countries; the FAO and WFP. What more can
a UN Right to Food Rapporteur do to help world’s
poor access food?
De Schutter: Hunger is usually seen by the
international agencies either as a production
problem or one of availability - the FAO seeks to
encourage more production, and the WFP to deliver
food where it is needed, for instance following bad
harvests or resulting from conflict situations. The
root causes of hunger are discrimination and
marginalization, lack of accountability of
governments to the needs of their population, or in
adopting of policies that aggravate hunger instead
of alleviating it.
A framework based on the right to adequate food
obliges us to include these questions - questions of
governance if you like, or of accountability - into
our answers to the hunger issue. Without this -
without accountability mechanisms and a protection
of the entitlements of the poorest - our solutions
will remain short-term, insufficiently targeted, and
ultimately ineffectual. It may result in increased
production but completely fails to reduce the
scourge of hunger. The right to food is therefore a
vital part of the panoply of answers we have to
develop against hunger.
In a recent article, The Economist claims that until
agricultural productivity in poor countries
increases, the balance between supply and demand
will remain precarious. Do you agree?
Although not false, this assertion is
over-simplified. It focuses on supply side without
taking demand into account. For instance, the desire
for animal protein by northern countries, and more
recently our thirst of agro-fuels, plays a role in
the reduction of stocks and mounting tensions
between supply and demand in the international
It is dangerous, however, to diminish the issue of
hunger to an issue of just supply and demand. In
2008, harvests were excellent, but the number of
hungry people increased. Why?
Of course, the answer does not lie in a lack of
production. The problem is that 80pc of families do
not have access to social protection, the purchasing
power of poor countries did not increase
sufficiently and small-holders are not being helped
out. And we cannot consider production without also
considering distribution … it is a very important
one. Many production systems now do not minimize the
problem but by accelerating the duplication of the
sector, the system is creating rural exodus and
poverty as towns grow.
Close to one billion people are facing hunger, the
population of the United States, Canada, and the
European Union combined. It is a population that is
often described as ‘bottom-billion’. A challenging
phenomenon to governments in ‘bottom-billion’
societies is the additional need to import food.
This has brought about a serious imbalance in the
balance of payments, leading to yet another cycle of
foreign debt. Ironically, the world has not moved
fast enough to disperse the 50 billion dollars
promised in 2005 at the G20 Summit, in Gleneagles
(United Kingdom). What is your office doing to speed
We have to stop mystifying numbers. The last G8
Summit in L’Aquila pledged 20 billion dollars in
three years to boost agriculture in developing
countries. But what does it mean exactly? This is
not sufficient compared to the 25 billion to 30
billion dollars per year for a period of five years
which the UN agencies, and firstly FAO have said is
needed for African agriculture alone.
All too often pledges are not respected. Last year,
both the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan and the Food
Summit in Rome promised more funds, but they have so
far only given half of the sum pledged. However, we
also care about the way in which these funds are
going to be invested, the kind of projects they will
support and whether policies are planned at a
I recommend two things: Governments need to be made
more accountable and a more severe control on
pledges must be put into place; but this can be made
through a reform from the FAO Committee on World
Food Security, (CFS). Furthermore, more should be
invested in families and sustainable agriculture
through providing such as storage tools,
communications and stronger investment in agro
ecological practices, rather than in simply
supplying farm inputs. My mandate requires that I be
a ‘vigilante’ and not to personally manage
allocation of funds.
Why have poor and rich governments as well as
international institutions abandoned agriculture
over the last decade?
Since the 1980s, agriculture has increasingly been
ignored in many developing countries. This has
happened both in development cooperation policies -
where the share for agriculture dropped from 18pc in
1980 to four per cent in 2007 - and in national
budgets. There are three main reasons.
Looking at the huge supports [such as export
subsidies] to agricultural producers in the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) area - 258 billion dollars in
2007 – and the high competitiveness of agriculture
in nations such as Argentina, Thailand or Uruguay;
the agricultural sector came to be seen as
unprofitable in the majority of developing
countries, particularly the least developed
Why concentrate one’s efforts upon agriculture,
while this sector appeared to be destined to remain
It seemed easier to export raw materials such as
minerals, oil, diamonds or crop cultivations such as
cotton, coffee, tea and tobacco; and to import
foodstuffs which were often already transformed,
rather than strengthen family and subsistence
Then structural adjustment plans of the 1980s
stimulated a production fall-off, for instance
through either the organization of production
processes or of mechanisms that would allow to
maintain price levels, with the aim of favouring the
emergence of “the truth of prices”. However, the
private sector has not taken up the relay and
agriculture has been deserted, sometimes in a
Finally, small farmers displaced in the countries
are relatively marginalized on a political level.
Their demands do not have clout compared to
inhabitants of cities, for whom it was decided that
less expensive imported foodstuffs bought on
international markets should be encouraged with the
use of food aid, at the expense of local production
which accelerated the rural exodus. All the
ingredients of the disaster we are now paying for
were in the making.
Genetically modified (GM) products have been
introduced, mainly in the cotton sector. Are you
The GM debate is currently not on the right track.
It must be framed in the context of improving
agriculture and food. It is not about deciding
whether we are for or against GM but about what kind
of agriculture we want to promote and which kind of
possibilities we have to improve and renew our
systems. ‘Agro-ecological’ methods, which intensify
production on a sound ecological basis, have strong
In Berlin, you took part in a consultation with many
representatives of food companies. The finger is
often pointed at these groups for being responsible
for an increase in food prices. What was the outcome
of the meeting?
Many NGOs, companies and experts took part in this
multi-stakeholder consultation to reflect on the
private sector’s role to attain the right to food.
Today, there is a form of consensus which allows to
state that companies have to respect human rights,
and that means food rights too. Nations have to do
more to protect these rights against possible harm
provoked by companies.
L’Express de Madagascar:
A growing number of foreign investors are planning
to use land for cultivation in Mali, Madagascar and
other African countries. Do you foresee any problems
arising from this?
Considering that governments have neglected such
land, could this be rather an opportunity for poor
nations? A lot of land cultivated during colonialism
has since been neglected, depriving the countries of
a valuable source of income.
The pace at which cultivable lands are currently
sold to public investors or more frequently, to
private ones; the size of the arable lands that are
involved in this process and land speculation which
started during the food crisis in 2008, leave many
Farmers and nomadic breeders’ rights of access to
the land are at risk of not being taken into
account. Frequently, they do not have property
titles to the land upon which they depend for their
survival and well-being and they do not have
possibilities of legal recourse in the event of
It is necessary to be cautious about talks
concerning land that is “available” or “not used” or
“not exploited”, which even though not used
intensively, is very often useful to semi-nomadic
agriculture or to livestock breeding, which can
ensure support and help maintain local populations.
Furthermore, investors are not forced to generate
local employment, transfer new technologies or
respect the environment. Negotiations are,
therefore, often unbalanced, because they are made
without transparency and without the local
population on-board. This approach could very well
increase the dependence of these countries for
investments on the international markets.
It seems like a paradox, but as these countries are
showing that they will be able to increase their
production capacity, their dependency upon external
forces will increase, and this could occur when they
start re-exporting agricultural produce to foreign
With global markets now being less reliable, prices
will climb and be subject to fluctuation. That is
why investors want to buy lands instead of
foodstuffs on international markets; it appears to
give more guarantees.
We do not have any guarantee that the earnings made
through the handover of lands will benefit the local
population, in terms of new infrastructures, schools
Land represents not only the most important means of
access to food for millions of small farmers and
their families; it is also part and parcel of the
identity of certain people and communities. But, if
the agreements for investing go against these
realities, it could lead to the opposite effect.
Non-food growing countries with a bounty of oil
riches are currently obtaining lands in poor
countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Obviously, where there is the supply, those with the
demand are moving in. The UN is one of the
multilateral organizations against this new
development, which it describes as ‘land grabbing’.
Various positions have been taken within the UN
system on this issue. In June, I drew up eleven
principles which, based on Human Rights, should
ensure that these large-scale leases or acquisitions
of land benefit the local population, rather than
undermining their livelihoods and increasing
inequalities within countries.
In my view, if those principles are complied with,
‘land deals’ can work for the benefits of both
investors and local communities, and I am therefore
delighted that the Mr. Taro Aso, Prime Minister of
Japan, has more recently proposed that such
principles form the basis of an international
consensus on this issue - which he hopes to achieve
at the September session of the UN General Assembly.
We must view the recent interest of investors in
agriculture as an opportunity. But we must also be
aware of the risks, which are considerable.
L’Express de Madagascar:
Would you not say that banning poor countries from
relinquishing land that can be farmed to Asian
companies is a deft move from the West to provide
Asia with cereal?
It is vital that the North-South aspect not be used
to hide the main issue: The tension between the
interests of the elite countries who host
investments and those of local communities which the
investments will directly affect insofar as their
subsistence is concerned - small farmers, indigenous
populations and cattle breeders.
The North-South aspect is naturally still there and
this is why the phenomenon of acquiring land on a
large scale needs to be put in a multilateral
context: The Human Rights Council, the United
Nations General Assembly or the Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO), or even preferably at a forum
like that of the G8.
But let us not forget that a lot of these
investments are made in the private sector most
notably big investment funds - generally American -
who speculate on the increase in prices on arable
L’Express de Madagascar:
What kind of guarantees and what exactly could be
offered to poor countries in an international
development framework so that they do not feel
obliged to sell their land?
It is in developing countries’ interest not to
mortgage their futures by making concessions which
are too great in a long-run or by totally giving up
their land. Due to climate change and the exhaustion
of our oil reserves, in the future food prices will
become higher and more and more volatile on
It is very dangerous to count on international
markets to guarantee food security on a national
scale. Countries that rely on imports too much to
feed their populations saw the consequences in the
food crisis in 2008.
I, therefore, call on these countries to negotiate
with interested investors whilst keeping a certain
margin of manoeuvre and if possible, as Senegal
does, develop long-term contractual relations in
preference to giving up land.
Africa is preparing for the Copenhagen Climate
Summit in December 2009. Since 2006, some experts
have been saying this is the last chance for the
continent to put across a clear common position. In
what way does the climate question influence food
The impacts of climate change on food security are
clear. It could have negative impacts, particularly
in Sub-Saharan Africa. The frequency and timing of
rain will change for example; both of which are
crucial for agriculture.
Even if it is hard to measure with certainty the
impact it will have on every region, an increase in
arid and semi-arid zones by around 60 million to 90
million hectares is possible. Research of the GIEC
predicts a halving of agricultural productivity in
rain-related agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.
By slanting the agricultural relaunch towards the
use of chemical fertilizers, it runs the risk of
contributing to climate change and strengthening
dependence on fossil fuels. The manufacture of these
fertilizers is highly energy-consuming.
On the other hand, investing in sustainable
agricultural models cannot only reduce greenhouse
gasses, but also bring to the fore the development
of more climate change resilient systems, and even
stock carbon, as seen in the case of agro-forestry
This is why the crucial question today is not only
the amount re-invested in African agriculture - in
terms of billions of dollars or percentage of GDP -
but in the direction in which it is heading and in
the earmarking of funds for specific activities.
This is what I developed in my “green African
revolution”; a position I reiterated in my letter to
African heads of state.
There could be a serious slide-back in the
achievements so far towards halving poverty by 2015.
Does the UN still consider that Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) are feasible?
I fear that the MDGs are typical of a ‘top-down’
mentality in which technocrats - experts - set
priorities and policies, with little or no
involvement of those from ‘the bottom’, who often
are the real experts about what they need most
In many regions and for many of the MDGs, the
targets set will not be achieved. With global
hunger, the outcomes will be much worse than
The MDGs belong to what the Norwegian economist,
Erik Reinert, refers to as ‘palliative economics’.
They seek to help. But they leave untouched, for the
most part, the structural causes of hunger and
malnutrition, or more broadly, underdevelopment: an
inequitable multilateral trading system, an
international division of labour that locks
countries into the production of raw commodities and
does not allow them to climb the development ladder.
These are deep imbalances between North and South
that money alone cannot solve.
Sharing money is important, but it is not enough; it
is sharing production and technology that counts.
This does not mean the MDGs were misguided, or that
adopting them was foolish. They are like a
scoreboard; not all members of the class can achieve
the highest grades, yet, having a scoreboard and
measuring progress remains useful.
It is fair to say, in fact, that the MDGs have been
tremendously useful in mobilizing forces behind a
short-list of well-defined development objectives,
which correspond to certain areas of human rights.
At the same time, the MDGs also have clear limits as
a means to channelling development efforts. They
leave out the questions of accountability and
empowerment, which are central in a human rights
approach to development objectives.
No sanctions are attached to governments, whether
donors or their partners, whose efforts have been
insufficient, whose pledges have not been fulfilled,
or whose priorities have not been appropriately set.
I think this is a problem. We must put an end to
this sort of impunity, because in the long-term, it
will create a problem of credibility, and it can
have deeply demobilizing effects.