A Food Treaty to secure food for all in the future

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“Between the strong and the weak, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free” 

Henri-Dominique Lacordaire

More than 4 billion people in the world eat in ways that damage their health. Hunger affects one in seven people and it is the largest single contributor to mortality worldwide, causing 35% of total under-five year old deaths. Despite years of international anti-hunger efforts and rising per capita food availability, the number of hungry people has being growing since 2005. An estimated 148 million under-five children remain undernourished and nine out of ten of the 19 million most severely malnourished children remain untreated as there is no money to save their lives. On the other side, more than one billion people worldwide are overweight and at least 300 million are obese. Overweight and obesity cause, worldwide, 2.8 million deaths.

However, although there is much discussion on the issue and governments repeatedly commit themselves to address the problem, there is a huge gap between the promises that they make and the scale of their subsequent actions. In most international settings, each nation-state tends to seek to maximize its own benefit – for its citizens, economy or environment – giving only subsidiary attention to achieving the maximum benefit for all, as the tragedy of the commons theory has already proven. Put simply, the world is doing badly with hunger reduction and the obesity epidemic.

The prevailing food system must be reinvented as it has failed to fulfill its basic goals: feeding people in a sustainable manner and avoiding hunger. The three major driving forces to justify new approaches relate to: a) the persistence of high levels of hunger and malnutrition as well as the dramatic growth of overweight and obesity; b) the depletion of the fossil fuels on which our food production system are so heavily based, and c) the threats to future food production pose by climate change.

Nowadays, the global food system is highly dependent on oil and gas for production and trading. The oil peak will arguably be reached before 2020 and it is forecasted that before 2050 oil will no longer be a commercial source of energy for the world. On top of that, climate change will contribute to exacerbate food and water scarcity, the spread of crop pest and diseases, mass migration and the further weakening of fragile states which in turn may increase the likelihood of global instability. By 2080, 600 million additional people could be at risk of hunger, as a direct result of climate change.

Moreover, cohabiting with hungry people is more expensive than remedying their situation. The World Bank estimates that chronic malnutrition reduces the GDP of developing countries by 3%. It would cost about 30 billion USD a year to enable 1 billion people to rise above the hunger threshold and prevent more than 1.1 million child deaths annually. The cost of eliminating severe acute malnutrition would be only 3.5 billion USD per year. It is ethically unacceptable to know that only 10% of money owned by the ten richest persons in the world would be enough to get rid of hunger.

In such a scenario, a legally-binding Food Treaty to end hunger and obesity with time-bound goals, an agreed plan of action, predictable funding and redress and sanctioning mechanisms seems to be, at least, an option that deserves serious consideration, having in mind the post-MDG talks to be initiated in 2013. A food treaty, to be useful, would give hierarchical priority to human rights and environmental norms over obligations contained in trade and investment agreements, with a good example being the right to food. Such a Food Treaty has already been unveiled to feed discussions towards the Rio+20 Summit and the Doha COP 18 on Climate Change. It has already appeared in newspapers in Spain and Guatemala.

Why should Governments support a Food Treaty? Many governments have already experienced the huge perils of inaction about food issues, namely food riots, mounting budgets for food imports, high dependence of foods produced in other countries and land grabbing. Food security reduces migration towards developed countries and provides incentives for poverty-fuelled terrorism. The great economic benefits to be gained from reducing hunger and malnutrition should be a major argument in a market-dominated world. Getting rid of hunger is a worthy investment. The increasing evidence that well designed national programmes anchored in appropriate legal and institutional frameworks can work – i.e. Brazil, Thailand, Ghana and Peru. And, finally, the recognition of benefits of shifting from “soft” to “hard” legally binding commitments to achieve major global objectives, as for Climate Change and Health.  Previous non-binding agreements have been toothless in moving global challenging issues in the positive direction. The post-MDG Consensus can be that of the binding agreements to address global imbalances.

The legally-binding Food Treaty should enable those governments and institutions that subscribe to the goal of eradicating hunger to register their financial and technical commitments to time-bound actions and to be held accountable for delivery and results. The Food Treaty should also trigger the issuance of food security and nutrition laws. The process itself, however, will from the outset generate awareness, commitment and institutional support.

The goal should be eradication of hunger and obesity no later than 2025 with binding and monitorable long-term commitments. The Treaty should link the commitments of developing country parties to embark on long-term programmes to with commitments by donor countries to assist in funding those programmes in a predictable manner. Whereas the signatories of the Treaty would be nations, the governance arrangements should be broadened to engage other interested stakeholders representing food producers, traders and consumers.

The secretariat of the Treaty could be hosted by the Committee on World Food Security. The Treaty should have a double accountability system, being operating at national and international level. The international mechanism could be based on a peer-review process whereas the national accountability system could be led by a Human Rights institution. The Treaty should bring the failure by any state party to honour its commitments to the attention of the Conference of the Parties and put in place procedures to remedy the situation.

Finally, the process leading to the creation of an international Food Treaty should ideally be accompanied by a well-orchestrated international campaign to demand anti-hunger actions by governments, and request them to formally commit themselves to eradicating hunger through the Food Treaty. This campaign would be launched under one “banner” and a joint leadership, and it would combine different anti-hunger initiatives, as those recently launched by important NGOs. The campaign should be based on existing movements/campaigns, networks and initiatives, fostering partnerships, based on a common commitment to hunger eradication, while respecting the autonomy and special focus of different campaigns at national level.

Preventing death from hunger and obesity would be a huge moral victory for those who believe in a more just and equitable global society. It would add credibility to the processes of globalization and it would also release a huge amount of latent human energy and creativity for the benefit of mankind.