Geoff Tansey

Promoting food for all

- the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food


‘Save in situations of natural disasters or civil strife, the right to food is not the right to be fed; it is the right to feed oneself in dignity’ says Olivier De Schutter, the second UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food (1, p8). While much as been done to improve the capacity of the international community to respond to emergencies, it is the continuing and chronic hunger and malnutrition that remains a flagrant breach of the fundamental right to food.

To tackle that, you need to know who is vulnerable to hunger and why. There are three main groups:

  • “first, smallscale farmers and other self-employed food producers such as pastoralists, fisherfolk and persons living from the products of the forest (60% of the hungry) ;
  • second, landless agricultural workers (20% of the hungry); and
  • third, the urban poor (the remaining 20%).”(2, p3)

But the reason they are hungry is “not the result of too little food being produced, but rather of marginalization and disempowerment of the poorest”, he says (2, p3). The poor go hungry, the rich don’t. Poverty lies at the heart of hunger.

Core problem

The core problem has ‘its primary source in modes of production that have made small-scale farming generally non-viable, relegating it, at best, to subsistence agriculture” he says.

“Unable to compete, relegated to the poorest soils – the hilly, the arid, and the erosion-prone – small farmers have been pushed to the margins: they were valued neither as a political constituency since they were unable to mobilize effectively, nor as an economic sector since they had no access to the global supply chains and were not a source of foreign currency. They were forgotten from public policies because they were considered irrelevant.

"We know what the results were. Rural flight was massive. More than 1 billion people today – one in six people, and 43 percent of the population in developing countries – already live in slums, and by 2030, when the global population will have reached the mark of 8 billion, that figure will increase to one in three individuals. The vast majority of these urban poor have access to no social protection of any kind. Those who remained in the countryside have often been relegated to subsistence agriculture, on which they barely manage to survive. Often, they find themselves forced to sell their land, or even to abandon it, and to become landless laborers, living off seasonal work on the larger farms.

"The consequences of these developments are well known; the purchasing power of large groups of the population is now insufficient to buy the food that is available on the markets. Hunger stems, historically, from this large mass of small farmers being robbed of their livelihoods. It is not a calamity. It is a developmental process. It could have been different. And it can be changed.”(1, p2)

Challenge is to change

His task is to help governments and other actors live up to the challenge of making that change. One step on that road has been the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security by FAO in 2004. Food insecurity happens to people in households. Governments must take the plight of the most vulnerable as the starting place, know who they are – mapping as it called – and design policies that mean they can exercise their right to food. That means involving the people affected, increasing accountability of both public and private parties, empowering the poor and marginalised.

He sees the right to food as both a method: “it is a way of doing things, which is more bottom up than top down, more democratic than technocratic, and participatory rather than exclusive” and also, of course, it is “a set of legal entitlements, grounded in international law, and it imposes a number of clear obligations on States. States must respect the right to food; they must protect it from interference by private parties; and they must fulfil the right to food by appropriate policies.” (1, p 3)

Agroecological way

This understanding takes him into the heart of the way food is produced – and why a more agroecolgical way of farming which puts small-farmers, especially women, at the centre is a key requirement. Into the heart of discussions on land ownership and who get the benefits from its use – land-grabbing and biofuels on so called ‘idle’ land. Into issues of unsustainable consumption patterns in the rich countries and farming methods that affect the environmental sustainability of farming. He argues you must link production to distribution, deal with unfair exercise of power and control and work with the participation of the communities affected and have adequate social protection systems.

Key questions

When it comes to farming “The question we must ask, therefore, is not only whether certain forms of agricultural development increase the volumes of production, but primarily what their distributional impacts will be. Who will gain most? Who will not gain, and who may even lose?”(1, p3)

Doing the right research

Since such a large number of hungry people are farmers and landless labourers, it is important that the neglect of agriculture in government investment and research and development is reversed. While there are now signs that is happening he argues that “pouring money into agriculture will not be sufficient; what is most important is to take steps that facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-preserving type of agriculture that benefits the poorest farmers. This will not happen by chance. It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will, and informed by a right-to-food approach.” (3, p3)

Increasing smallholder incomes

A key requirement to tackle hunger is that “agriculture must develop in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders. Food availability is, first and foremost, an issue at the household level, and hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meet demand, but to poverty; increasing the incomes of the poorest is the best way to combat it.” (2010c, p5)

Challenges to realising the right to food

The challenges posed in tackling hunger and malnutrition – putting the most vulnerable first, reinvesting in agriculture, addressing power and control in food system, and environmental sustainability - “present a direct relationship to the realization of the right to food.

  • First, by scaling up the agro-ecological modes of production ... we not only may be providing poor farmers living in the most difficult environments with solutions that they need the most – we also preserve the soils and the water of the next generation, and its ability to feed itself; we reduce GHG emissions; and we can even stock carbon, so that agriculture, from being a major problem, becomes part of the solution.
  • Second, applying strategies to realize the right to food ensures that the policies adopted by the State will take into account such relatively long-term considerations, and that they will not be dictated exclusively or primarily by the expectation of short-term profits or by the bait of export opportunities.
  • Third, strategies for the realization of the right to food ensure accountability. It is not enough for governments to pledge to take into account the impact of their agricultural policies on climate change, on soil degradation, or on loss of biodiversity. Reneging on these pledges should come at a high political cost. Accountability raises this cost. It increases the chances that promises that are made are promises that are kept.” (1, p13)

Holding governments to account

Civil society and humanitarian organisations should play a greater role in holding governments and private actors accountable, he believes. He told me, "International pressure will not be sufficient.

"Governments will act only if they also feel the pressure from below. They will act if organized civil society, womens' groups, farmers' unions, and non-governmental organisations, mobilize on this issue, and shame governments into action. Pressure must build on donor States to support efforts of poor countries to feed themselves and to lessen their dependence on international markets. And pressure must increase on developing countries to make agriculture a priority. Not just any agriculture : but agriculture that reduces rural poverty, leads to broad-based rural development, and does not deplete the natural resources on which food security ultimately depends.

"Civil society is key, because if they do not hold governments to account, no one will, and impunity shall continue".  


1. De Schutter, “The Right to Food and the Political Economy of Hunger”, Twenty-sixth McDougall Memorial Lecture. Opening of the 36th Session of the FAO Conference, 2009

2. De Schutter, ‘Statement at the Interactive Thematic Dialogue of the U.N. General Assembly on the Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food’, 2009

3. De Schutter, “Agroecology and the Right to Food”, Report presented at the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council [A/HRC/16/49], 2010

Olivier De Schutter


Olivier De Schutter (right) during a mission to Benin.

Olivier De Schutter is a Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain and at the College of Europe (Natolin). He is also a Member of the Global Law School Faculty at New York University and is Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

This role was established in 2000 by the former Commission on Human Rights. The first Rapporteur, Mr. Jean Ziegler, continued in the role until 2008, when Prof De Schutter was appointed. His term ended in mid-2014 when the third Rapporteur, Professor Hilal Elver took up the role. Her term ended in May 2020 when Mickael Fakhri was appointed as fourth Rapporteur.

See the Rapporteur's activities

Prof De Schutter's work is available here.