Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Do citizens matter in the world of multinational food business?

During the course of history, humans have fought to safeguard an adequate supply of food in order to survive. Globalisation has seen the interdependence between states grow stronger and the emergence of international institutions, non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and civil society organisations to assist in dealing with a variety of challenges that globalisation carries with it.

However, in spite of recent efforts to confront issues of food security, the food and financial crises experienced over the past few decades have painfully demonstrated that providing enough food for all of the people in the world remains a challenge. These events led to increases in food prices causing many riots and leaving many countries in a continued state of instability. This has led to the number of people lacking in access to adequate food and proper nutrients to escalate. Clearly the 2007-8 global financial crises confirmed the need for a better form of governance in order to truly tackle food insecurity as the unregulated, unbridled free market was proving unable to do so as promised. The growing amount of global citizens dying from malnutrition due to a lack of enough calories compounded with twice the amount of people suffering from non-communicable diseases due to poor diets and obesity, reflects that today’s food system is driven to deliver profits to big food corporations and not considering human health and well-being.

The question of food security has slowly made its way onto the international political agenda. The most useful definition of food security came about during the World Food Summit in 1996, where it was defined as, “When all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 1996, p. 1). In order to address the growing number of hungry and under nourished people, states were advised to work together in order to effectively and efficiently confront the threats to food security. Subsequently, many have demanded the increase of political and institutional commitment to combat the issue of food security.

Thus far however, improvement to the reduction of the number of hungry and malnourished has been unimpressive. Goals set during the 1996 World Food Summit committed to halving the number of malnourished people by 2015, nevertheless, as Jean Ziegler, writer of “The Right to Food” for the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, states that; “Hunger has increased, rather than decreased since 1996. This makes a mockery of the promises made by Governments at the World Food Summits held in 1996 and 2002, as well as the promises contained in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).” (Zeigler, 2004). At present, the attempt to reach the 2015 MDGs has failed. The FAO has estimated that the number of undernourished people in the world will soon extend past 1 billion (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2012).

The lack of progress is due to the current global economic and social order, due to both the actions and lack of actions of governments and influential institutions following the narrow ideology of neoliberalism in their approach to food security, which is exacerbating the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

Ignoring the evidence see’s these agents participating in massive human rights violations. The current global governing structures mitigating food security such as the WTO, WB and IMF implement economic arrangements that harm the global poor. Even the strategies of the FAO have been accused of following the neoliberal agenda in pursuing food security efforts as they continue to try and implement the rural poor into the global market.

Food is considered a human right under the UNDHR since 1948 and therefore demands that the global food system needs to be reformed to consider the rights and well-being of individuals above the success of the free market, as it exists today. This will entail a multifaceted approach to governance, involving the inclusion of all levels from the local, national and international levels to achieve a truly global democratic process which will better consider social justice and the ethics behind our market system.

Whilst much of the current focus is on the need to produce more food to feed a growing population, it is accused of producing the same results by encouraging the increase of production and not dealing with the failings of the system itself. In this perspective it is argued that there is a need for an entire change of the food system, contending that we already produce enough food. The problem identified for those who hold this perspective is that food is inaccessible to the poorest within populations who lack purchasing power or lack direct market access for the fair participation within the market in order to obtain the benefits promised by this system. This view considers the current food system to be unequal and unfair as it only considers the needs and interests of global elites, whether states, MNC’s or powerful individuals over the rights and well-being of the majority of populations.

Through processes of globalisation, the rapid increase in the interconnection between states across the globe has demanded attention to the rise in issues that can no longer only be solved by states individually. However, there is much contention over having an overarching authority above states. A conclusion sometimes drawn is that governance activities must now be shifted to a level above the nation-state, into the jurisdiction of more cosmopolitan or global governance institutions (Held 1996). Others argue for a shift in the opposite direction, moving governance downward in the hope that “localization” of politics and policy will keep institutions accountable to communities (Hines 2000). However, in line with Lang (2007), this study concludes that there is great importance in increasing the involvement and the cooperation at all levels in order to effectively tackle the global issue of FS and that domestic governments, as established under the UNDHR are responsible for the right to food and providing the adequate policies and public goods to ensure this right.
Securing food for populations became a responsibility of the state and soon of international institutions as the global market saw food become a commodity to be traded, which led to fluctuations within the agricultural market causing food access problems for many of the poorest living in both developed and developing states. Conceptualizing food as a right, this paper contends that food insecurity is intertwined with incoherent agricultural policies such of that of the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture policy. Upholding a right to food principle accompanied by an integrated approach to agricultural development will create an enabling environment that requires a transition from clientelism to the well-being of citizens.

Although there has over the past few decades been an increase in commitment to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, not enough is being done, and the problem of food insecurity is once again growing. The lack of progress to solving the food dilemma is due to the adoption and continuation of the neoliberal ideology embedded within approaches to food security that hinders such success.
The Neoliberal approach to development emphasizes the need for governments to resist intervention in markets, and instead, focus on providing a better environment through the creation of complimenting policies and the relaxing of impeding regulations to facilitate the smooth functioning of the free market. Since the 2007-8 global economic crisis, this approach has proven a failure as it has attempted to leave the responsibility of the free market to manage the production and distribution of food. As the economic crises demonstrated, the market was unable to secure all nations and peoples against shocks and fluctuations caused on one side of the world but felt across the entire globe.
The instability of the market, along-side the recommendations from drivers of neoliberalism such as international financial institutions like the IMF and their strategies of structural adjustment programs, saw many of the developing countries reduce social safety nets and focus on debt repayment which ultimately took away any possible shelter for the citizens of weaker states when these economics shocks occurred. This has led to an increased number of people in the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

These tensions have not gone unnoticed and are facing a pushback from grassroots movements such as La Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty movement. Such alternatives to the neoliberal approach argue for a more humanistic concentration, where human rights and well-being are considered above the market and entitlement to self-determining resources for food are a necessity. These movements have recognised the inability of this system to provide the economic benefits it had promised in providing more equal and fair distribution and realisation of wealth around the globe and advocate for the power of the people to be enhanced, allowing them to make decisions about how their food is produced, distributed and consumed. Their participation however is criticised because such non-governmental groups lack legitimacy, and are accused of taking authority away from states without a form of accountability. It has also been acknowledge that with the presence of more and more groups, each taking on similar responsibilities and not coordinating their efforts, they have been acting without efficiency or much success. However, these groups are needed to offer voices for those without the power to participate in decisions that involve them. Food cannot be seen as just another commodity. It is a necessary right for all human beings promoted under the UNDHR. Therefore a global governing structure that involves all levels of governance to participate in the policy making process makes this process more ethical and socially just, thus making this system more democratic.

The problem of food security simply cannot be solved by one set of actors or within one level of governance. There is no question that national governments, local NGOs and organisations must play a role in the delivering the effective and efficient programs and services, from a bottom up approach, in order to achieve this goal. As the history of food security has shown, a co-coordinating and supervisory authority for the world food security can not be located in a single agency with a limited sectoral mandate and membership. Nor can food security depend from a patchwork of hundreds of uncoordinated operational and substantive bodies.

At the national level, it is also important to introducing back some control over food to the nation state. National governments can create better food policies that reflect the needs and demands of their citizens which provides a more democratic system. At the local level, NGO’s and civil society are also an important feature in the creation of fair and equal policies about food as they represent the interests of the people from a grassroots perspective and can in many instances achieve goals more quickly and efficiently than government bodies. The international level, including institutions to act as platforms for negotiation, the provision of information, coordination of funds and effective communication can help implement programs that would have significant results. Having a system consisting of the local, national and global level of governance will help to provide a more democratic system, as long as the neoliberal ideology within the institutions and agents of food security is shifted to maintain a more human rights oriented perspective where human rights are considered as priority above profits.

With the reform of the CFS and their allowance of greater participation from civil society and NGO’s, we are starting to see an institutionalised form of cooperation at the local, national and global level offering the ability to create better, well rounded approaches that are more legitimate and accountable. This holistic approach may be the answer.

Unfortunately, the underlying motivations which have hindered the progress towards eradicating hunger and obesity are the current focus on economic growth and profits above human security which accounts for the lack of political will to commit to progress. When one looks closer into the debate around solutions to food security, it is not an increase in the production of food that is really needed, but a change in our current systems and processes that allow us to ignore and marginalise the human right to nutritious food. Understanding these contemporary tendencies in international relations can help us to better appreciate the need for increased state cooperation, as food security is a global issue, and requires the participation and network of international institutions, national governments, non-governmental and civilian organisations in order to realise necessary changes.

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