When the head of FAO called for a world summit on food and hunger nearly
two years ago, no one could have predicted last summer's grain
shortage,(which drove prices to the highest level in 25 years), nor the
terrible war and resulting starvation in Zaire and Rwanda. Both events were
on the minds of many of the government delegates and NGOs at the World Food
Summit, reminding everyone of the unfulfilled promises of previous global
gatherings on food. One of the most quoted statements in Rome was U.S.
Secretary of State Kissinger's 1974 World Food Conference promise that
within ten years no person would go to bed hungry.
While it is not possible to capture the full flavor and significance of all
of the events that surrounded the Rome World Food Summit, I want to share a
few observations and my overall assessment. There were a number of
important developments that need to be widely discussed by those of us
active on food, land, and environment issues.
Like other global meetings sponsored by the United Nations, such as the
Earth Summit and the Women's Summit, this event had both an official summit
and an NGO Forum.
Analysis of the documents and speeches from both the official summit and
the NGO forum reveals important areas of agreement between NGOs and
governments and some strong disagreements. A close look at these can give a
sense of the current state of affairs in global food politics.
The most important area of agreement was the strong expression of the need
to start discussing the issue of hunger in the context of human rights,
specifically the economic, social and cultural rights guaranteed under the
UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Covenant of
Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In fact, the lone voice in
opposition to this view was the United States government which
single-handedly blocked insertion of this consensus position into the final
Despite strong pressure from NGOs in the United States, the Clinton
Administration refused to accept the concept of food security as a human
right. The head of the U.S. delegation, Melinda Kimball from the State
Department, went so far as to say that the recently enacted Welfare Reform
Law, which President Clinton supported, would not support the idea of food
security as a human right. The U.S. government opposed including this
concept in the official Summit declaration, fearing that it would subject
the U.S. to human rights violation scrutiny.
But apart from the U.S. government, there was incredible consensus among
governments and NGOs for making "the human right to food" the chief demand
and commitment to come out of the Summit. In the official Plan of Action,
for example, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights was given the task of
pulling together all of the global agencies to tackle the implementation of
the Right to Food. In his speech to the NGO Forum, the chair of FAO's Food
Security Committee, Chile's Ambassador to FAO described the incredible
level of support for making the Right to Food the central demand of a
global campaign involving both governments and NGOs. He stated that he
would take this concept to all of the important UN forums over the next few
years to move this agenda forward, despite U.S. government opposition.
At the NGO session, workshops and discussions on the Right to Food were
extremely well attended, ending with agreement on a global campaign.
The most glaring disagreements between governments and NGOs was on the
specifics of what to do about hunger and shortages. Most governments still
think of hunger as a production shortfall problem, and therefore their
final recommendations are mostly old-fashioned ideas about how to boost
production. The U.S. government, for example, argued that the solution to
the problem of hunger is more intensive production (using more
biotechnology, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irrigation, etc.),
greater freedom for the transnational food corporations, and faster
de-regulation (liberalization) of food trade.
In contrast, the NGOs stated in many different venues and situations that
these three exact same elements -- chemical and energy-intensive
industrialized farming, lack of regulation of transnationals, and
de-regulated or liberalized trade are the causes of many of the current
problems and called for reform of domestic and international policies to
reduce the industrialization of farming, to regulate inappropriate behavior
of transnationals, and to base food trade on the principles of food
security, not neo-liberal trade theory.
Where Do We Go From Here
There is no-near term accommodation that can solve or even paper over the
differences. There is a near religious fervor to U.S. government
pronouncements about the need to "unleash the corporations and technology,"
while most NGOs and other governments believe that this can only make
matters worse. But there is some room to maneuver by building upon the
level of agreement on promising proposals such as a Code of Conduct on the
Right to Food, and the negotiation of a Convention on Sustainable Food
Security. The Code of Conduct would cover all actors from NGOs and global
corporations, to national governments and the global lending institutions
like the World Bank. The momentum from this initiative can help move
toward a broader approach offered by the Convention based firmly in global
cooperation, making food security, not more de-regulated trade, the highest
priority on the international agenda.
Latin American governments are continuing to push the Right to Food agenda
at the official level, despite U.S. government opposition, while a working
group of NGOs has been formed out of the Rome Summit to continue to move
this agenda in the broader society. This continued momentum, in the face of
powerful U.S. government opposition, is truly cause for hope. It is time to
turn good ideas and hope into reality. Hunger, like slavery, is a human
rights violation and must be abolished by whatever means necessary. The
creation of hunger by governments (or by the multilateral institutions they
create) is unacceptable and must be challenged at every opportunity.
Specific campaign plans are to be developed to promote both the Code of
Conduct and the Convention on Food Security. For more information contact
Michael Windfuhr from FIAN International and Karen Lehman from the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
PO Box 102243
D/69012 Heidelberg, Germany
49-6221-830620 Phone 49-6221-830545 Fax
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
2105 First Avenue South
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404 USA
1-612-870-3403 Phone 1-612-870-4846 Fax
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
2105 First Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404 USA
main tel. 612-870-0453
direct tel. 612-870-3403