Published: 30/11/2011

As governments prepare for the December 15-17 WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, has issued a series of recommendations for overhauling world trade rules if governments are to fulfill their obligation to ensure the right to food in an increasingly hungry world.

“Food security is the elephant in the room which the WTO must address”, says De Schutter. “Trade did not feed the hungry when food was cheap and abundant, and is even less able to do so now that prices are sky-high. Global food imports shall be worth 1.3 trillion USD in 2011, and the food import bills of the least developed countries have soared by over a third over the last year.

“Higher tariffs, temporary import restrictions, state purchase from small-holders, active marketing boards, safety net insurance schemes, and targeted farm subsidies are increasingly acknowledged as vital measures to rehabilitate local food production capacity in developing countries.”

But WTO rules leave little space for developing countries to put these measures in place. “Even if certain policies are not disallowed, they are certainly discouraged by the complexity of the rules and the threat of legal action,” De Schutter said. “Current efforts to build humanitarian food reserves in Africa must tip-toe around the WTO rulebook. This is the world turned upside down. WTO rules should revolve around the human right to adequate food, not the other way around.”

It is a problem of principle: the WTO continues to pursue the outdated goal of increasing trade for its own sake rather than encouraging more trade only insofar as it increases human wellbeing. It therefore treats food security policies as an unwelcome deviation from this path. Instead we need an environment that encourages bold policies to improve food security.”

The Special Rapporteur’s policy recommendations echo much of the analysis set out in the IUF’s 2002 The WTO and the World Food System, which analyzed the impact of the WTO rules and related trade and investment treaties in violating the right to food and proposed “a common agenda for a world food system that guarantees the right of all to adequate, safe and nutritious food while protecting and advancing the rights and livelihood of workers engaged in food production.”

The Special Rapporteur’s Briefing Note “The World Trade Organization and the Post-Global Food Crisis Agenda: Putting Food Security First in the International Food System, is available here.

In 2008, De Schutter presented his excellent report on Agribusiness and the Right to Food to the annual meeting of the IUF Executive Committee, specifically urging unions to make use of its recommendations. The analysis highlights the systematic violation of the rights of agricultural workers as a leading clause of hunger and food insecurity. and the crucial importance of ensuring food workers rights to organize and bargain collectively in ensuring the right to food.