Human rights: Food for a pandemic thought

Human Rights Reader 463

*: Also rightly called ‘corporate vectors of disease’ (Lucy Gilmore) or ‘harm industries’. (M. Welker) These industries talk about the moral high ground, but do not occupy it. (Kelly Burnell)

Food systems’ primary goal should be to nourish human beings

1. The above may well be true, yet with its profit-maximizing ethos, the current agro-industrial food system, is not achieving that goal despite producing food in excess. On the contrary, this system is among the main drivers of malnutrition, as well as of environmental degradation in our planet. We thus urgently need to approach other narratives of food (as commons or as a public good) that go beyond the hegemonically predominant ideas. This means unlocking insufficiently explored food policy options that will guarantee universal access to food for all humans regardless of their purchasing power and without mortgaging the viability of our planet. (Jose Luis Vivero) So, Here is where human rights (HR) and the right to food come in.

2. The mirage-of-structural-transformations we are being sold calls for small-scale producers to move out of agriculture and to engage in better-paid industrial and service-based employment. It is too bad that these jobs only exist in fiction. In reality, trade liberalization affects food systems the world over by actually generating new patterns of de-industrialization (and robotization) that fall dramatically short of the claimed employment expectations. This narrative diametrically contradicts the alternative visions that communities have of their possible options –increasingly adopting claim holder roles.

3. The result of this ongoing process is the dramatic shrinking of the space for small-scale food producers and the generation of extensive disempowerment of both small producers and agricultural workers. Consequently, demystifying stereotypes of rural backwardness is the first conceptual step to be adopted in embracing the new, needed HR-based vision. The rural space can indeed be seen as the last bastion of the-HR-to-food-based-resistance against the hegemonic global economy that is increasingly de-humanizing the life of rural folks. But it is not only about resistance. The rural, is also a dynamic space of re-invention of production, of HR and of social relations, as well as a laboratory for experimentation with new solutions that can truly transform lives and redress the dire current challenges. (Stefano Prato)

All in one: The web of life is a food web

4. The ecological crisis, the HR crisis, the agrarian crisis, the food crisis, the health and nutrition crisis, the crisis of democracy and of sovereignty are not separate crises. They are one and the same. And they are connected through food. When the food web is disrupted, as it is by a variety of aggressions –be they by chemicals and poisons that often come from war arsenals, or from the rules of ‘free trade’ that powerful corporations impose and that notoriously rape the earth and shatter humanity– many people die. They die either, because of hunger or because of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, as well as from other environmental and food-related chronic diseases. As for farmers, they additionally die (or commit suicide) when biodiversity* is wiped out and when their debts become untenable. (Vandana Shiva)
*: Do not disregard the fact that, in the eyes of the agricultural industrial sector, biodiversity is bad business; monoculture is much more profitable. (Jaime Breilh)

The right to food arguably remains the most consistently violated human right across the globe

5. Accountability and monitoring of the right to food remains at the center of ongoing inter-governmental processes seeking to fulfill international mandates towards sustainable development, towards HR overall, as well as towards greater food security. Overcoming the fragmentation we presently see on this matter and ensuring that processes under way (and not only outcomes) are being monitored remains essential to confirm the right to food is being progressively realized. (FIAN) Among the processes that cannot be missed to be monitored is the participation of claim holders in the realization of this right.

6. We always need to keep in mind the complex interrelationships between food security, the human right to nutrition** and the right to health. Food insecurity is an important factor in malnutrition, yes, but to ultimately reduce malnutrition, it is nutritional security steps that need to be addressed. Mind that this means that better food security must be combined with actions that enhance nutrition-relevant practices and care, as well as access to health services. Nutrition security itself goes beyond access to enough food. It encompasses access to sufficiently diversified diets and meals, in addition to using safe and culturally acceptable foods. These qualitative aspects of nutrition security are indeed of strategical importance. Only these qualitative aspects allow a full understanding of food security issues where people rendered poor may have enough to eat, but lack access to an adequate diet, both in the rich and poor countries (some colleagues say: “emphasize cuisine rather than calories”).
**: Many of us active in this field feel that it is more proper to talk about the human right to nutrition rather than the right to food –even if one adds ‘…and adequate nutrition’. (Note that exclusive breastfeeding, as crucial as it is, falls between the cracks in the classical concept of food security).

7. Diversification of food crops, micronutrient enrichment of staple foods through plant breeding, and improved food processing and storage techniques for better nutrient retention do figure among qualitative food security strategies. But it is the emphasis on qualitative nutrition security issues that will effectively stimulate the needed approaches to food systems that will contribute to nutritional improvements, including the reduction of micronutrient deficiencies, thereby bridging the gap between food and health. I do not need to tell you that women play a key role in both providing and benefiting from these qualitative aspects of nutrition security. (Helene Deslile)

The dis-ease about the commercial sector’s role is justified: Back to the harm industries

8. As you well know, harnessing the energy of the commercial sector for nutrition has been a mantra of the elite development community for decades, with renewed emphasis as we speak. Yet it has not added up to show much. More and more, the public health nutrition community is passing judgment concerning true corporate values, ethics and objectives and is recognizing their critical contribution to nutrition and health problems. (adapted from Alan Berg)

9. Do not be misled: There is little evidence that the Scaling Up Nutrition Initiative (SUN), fully embraced by the UN system, the private sector and quite a few NGOs, is contributing substantially to increased public funding/spending to combat under-nutrition and over-nutrition. SUN is rather adding to the worrying proliferation of global public private partnerships on food security and nutrition. Corporate partners within SUN, such as Mars or PepsiCo, just to name two, manage with impunity (and with flagrant conflicts of interest) to create demand for their own products and tap new markets with the blessing or even support of the UN. [A whole sad saga can be (and has been) written about this]. https://www.globalpolicy.org/images/pdfs/images/pdfs/Fit_for_whose_purpose_online.pdf

A fresh approach?

-Is it not high time that we begin referring to our area of expertise and work, not as ‘nutrition’, but as THE SCIENCE OF NUTRITION PROBLEMS IN SOCIETY AND COMMUNITIES? (Urban Jonsson)

10. We know: The food and beverages manufacturers do not self-regulate adequately and/or honestly, and national governments do not regulate this industry adequately. In many countries, the industry has far too much influence on government. What about, then, of an alternative of regulation at the community level? Has this been tried in a serious way? In many places, local communities are not allowed to tax or ban particular foods, or control advertising, or exclude particular types of businesses. What happens if local communities do get this control? Some communities may use that power well, some not. Even with that unevenness, localizing control over the issue is certainly better than what we have now. No? After all, food sovereignty is a local issue. (George Kent) A challenge for HR and nutrition activists here..?

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com

-In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: Something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation on account of the weather has all but disappeared: Today’s famines are all caused by political decisions. Yet, too often, journalists use the phrase man-made famine as if it were a surprise. Do not be fooled by pictures that show hungry people in arid landscapes: this is entirely a famine crime, and the weather has nothing to do with it. There is nothing natural or inevitable about people dying from hunger when the rains fail. Amartya Sen already showed this for the Indian famine in the 1940s. Mass starvation is still caused by the same toxic mixture of war, dictatorship and atrocity. Prosecuting starvation as murder (or extermination) faces extraordinary evidentiary problems though. But beware, counter-terrorist operations can be just as inhumane when they impede aid and harass aid workers. (Alex de Waal)
-Not being facetious, it is often said that nutrition (i.e., the science of nutrition problems in society and communities), especially child nutrition, is the story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. The story goes like this: There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. At the end, everybody blamed somebody when nobody did what anybody could have done. (adapted from a citation by Roger Shrimpton)

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