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A Rant About the ‘Right to Food’

In a report in January this year the UN Special Rapporteur on ‘the right to food’, Olivier De Schutter, claimed that, 'Most of the food systems we have inherited from the 20th century have failed.' If those systems have failed, could it not be because they were not suited to succeeding within the global capitalist system?

The report’s basic assumption is not that this system is fundamentally flawed but it's just that things have got out of kilter and need reforming to bring matters back into an acceptable state. But it's not as if there is just one particular disaster to be dealt with suddenly and immediately since world hunger and malnutrition is a disaster that has been ongoing for decades. A disaster created by the world capitalist system that requires, nay demands, profit from every transaction.

How many reports do we need to read regarding the amount of available food in the world? The amount of food dumped or wasted in countries around the world? Of food not being distributed because there is no market – ie insufficient funds to buy it?

Empty rights

The report declares the rights of all people to this and that, but this doesn't translate into people getting those rights. This is not a problem restricted to the 'underdeveloped world', the 'third' world, whatever label you choose. It is also happening in your world, my world, your country, my country – everybody's, rich or poor. Poverty occurs in all countries and is rampant in many developed countries, a fact to which the report refers (in particular food stamps and poverty in the US).

The report points out that the 'exclusive focus' on increasing agricultural production has had severe environmental impacts including global warming. Whilst true, this clouds the reality that it is not the amount of food that is lacking but the distribution and availability of it. Remember, food is for paying customers not for hungry people. The report also mentions the unsustainable, destructive practices and the distorting subsidies of industrial agriculture. There is some emphasis on the contrast between high and low income countries regarding consumption and emissions; 'there is no doubt in the scientific community that the impacts of livestock production are massive,' because production of grains for animal feed is diverted from human needs.

Connections are made between the methods of large scale agriculture, putting small scale farmers out of business or off their land, and a return to subsistence farming or urban migration followed by forced reliance on imports. This, coupled with IMF loans or similar, has increased the indebtedness of states without stopping the impoverishment of their populations. De Schutter takes to task the 'weak accountability of governments to the rural poor' – foreign debt leading to the focus on cash crops for export, not food for locals. Note, none of these circumstances have been a result of the personal choice of individuals but of a policy imposed: cause and effect.

Limited choice

Choice in our democracies is limited. With regard to food, for those in the rich world choice should surely go beyond what's put on the supermarket shelves by large corporations. And for those in the poor world, who willingly chooses to give up their land, to be urbanised, to be tied to the market, to aspire to the rich world supermarket model? Have they been consulted? Will they ever be consulted while this money/profit system persists?

If, individually, or even collectively as a minority, one prefers the mass produced, chemically-rich foods of the major corporations, how legitimate is it to attempt to force it onto a majority too? Whose legitimacy will win out? If world trade agreements and international laws serve the corporations above the vast majority of the world’s population can they not be regarded as illegitimate? The market approach seeks to impose an alien process of food production which, for solely profitable economic reasons, completely changes the traditional way of life for many and totally disenfranchises others. The issue is heavily weighted against people in favour of capital. That is the norm in capitalism. But it doesn't make it right. And it isn't written in stone that it will always be so.

So, here we have a report from a world institution, part of the UN, dedicated to investigating (over a six year period) the problems of the world food supply, production and distribution with recommendations and demands which most of us should be able to recognise will not be acceptable to those in charge of the system we live in.                                     

In one paragraph, 'The Way Forward', there are calls for a change of strategy, different ways of organising, investing, diversifying, creating opportunities for income-generating activities and social protection schemes 'to ensure that all individuals have access to nutritious food at all times (even if they have access neither to productive sources nor to employment).' Now, this seems like a mighty big ask from a rather hazy conglomeration of trans-national entities and national states spread around the world currently immersed totally in the 'free market' principle. That is why the problems are as they are now. The best we could hope for from such a call is yet another voluntary agreement internationally which would have no credibility and no teeth.

In reality the majority of the world's population would cooperate gladly to the benefit of all – if they were only allowed to voice their collective opinion and be heard. It is those who currently benefit from controlling the methods used, those for whom the system – the capitalist system – works perfectly well, who will remain unconvinced by such arguments and turn a deaf ear to the call. It is against the logic of their system to be inclusive, to 'take care' of unfortunates, those who are deemed surplus to requirements.

The fact that vast numbers of people are involved in community-based initiatives, with a strong social participation component, demonstrates that people can and do know how to make things better for themselves and do want to live in harmony and cooperation in their communities. It also reinforces the fact that they prefer doing things this way rather than accepting the free market system of everything being a commodity.

Fatuous consensus

Apparently, there is now an international consensus in favour of making the full realisation of another abstract right, that to social security, a priority. This since 12 June 2012 when the International Labour Conference adopted Recommendation no. 202 with 453 votes in favour and 1 abstention. But again, how realistic is such a consensus? When many individual countries can't get political consensus for adequate social security in their own country, when even the richest countries of the world have many people homeless, living below the breadline, unemployed and hungry? It is far from likely, impossible even, however many delegates’ heads nod in agreement, for this to become a reality within this system.

Remember the Rio+20 Conference – 'The Future We Want'? Another talking shop. But who now believes anything they say? Who, if anyone, believes that those 'leaders' putting their names to the document actually believe they are going to do anything more about it than simply agree it's a good idea? The whole thing is totally fatuous.

It will be the same with the UN food report’s ‘right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.'

The big question is how to move from a model in which everyone recognises the profit imperative whether they love it or hate it; profit on a large scale or small, profit from agribusiness or market stall, from pure accumulation to simple survival, from the greedy to the needy, profit which favours minority over majority in all areas. Everyone recognizes this but far fewer question the possibility, the sense, the imperative of implementing a different model, not a few reforms here and there to give temporary help to this sector or that, but one which takes into consideration the needs, aspirations, ideas and ideals of the many rather than the few.

Genuine food security involves the democratisation of food production. It has to be about meeting the self-defined needs of people, not a profit-motivated venture for corporations, agribusinesses and their boards and shareholders. Food security is about meeting the dietary needs of all people, at all times, enabling them to live a healthy life and not to be constantly in fear of the vagaries of the market. Only by eliminating the money and buying and selling element, by coming to terms with the absolute necessity of removing any profit motive from the food supply (and from every area of life) will farmers, peasant or otherwise, consumers and all the peoples of the world have the security of knowing that sufficient food is available to all, at all times and in all situations. Food security for all the world's people is just not possible in a capitalist system.

JANET SURMAN