> debate: Trade liberalization and the right to food
Dr De Schutter said his main concern was the “fragmentation” of
international policies, in particular what he saw as governments’
failure to assess the possible impact of agricultural liberalization
talks on human rights and the right to food.
Mr Lamy summed up the debate as a difference over risk: “You think
that we should not risk opening up, that it is too dangerous; and I
say that we should take that risk — it works, in general, even for the
The debate was jointly organized by Geneva Mayor Manuel Tornare, and
3D, a non-governmental organization focusing on the three dimensions
of trade, human rights and an equitable economy.
It did reveal common ground on important points. The two speakers
agreed that neither of them were advocating self-sufficiency, or “food
sovereignty”, a term that some activists use. For Dr De Schutter, the
issue was farmers depending too much on markets. For Mr Lamy, better
regulated trade is a solution to help feed the hungry.
And they both said the right to food is important.
“The right to food does not mean producing more food. … The right to
food is the right to produce food or the right to have enough income
to buy food from the market,” said Dr De Schutter.
“The right to food … is recognized by the vast majority of states on
this planet,” agreed Mr Lamy. “So the question is not to decide
whether there is a right to food, but let us try to see whether or not
it is put into effect and how this is done.”
Dr De Schutter’s case
The UN rapporteur’s focus was on the dangers of trade, taking care
that countries are not too dependent on exporting a limited number of
products, and ensuring government have the freedom to choose their
policies without “these being dictated by the international trade
He was particularly critical of the “schizophrenia” among countries
that separates trade policies from human rights. “The world of the WTO
is one that is cut off from human rights, even though the same states
are members of both the Human Rights Council and the WTO,” he said.
He said that viewing international trade from the perspective of the
right to food is “new and different”. Instead of assessing whether
trade will allow states to increase production and exports, this
approach focuses on who the winners and losers are and whether the
losers — the small farmers, who are the most vulnerable — are
protected from the damage of trade liberalization, he said.
Dr De Schutter described four dangers:
Specialization. The benefits of trade come from divisions of labour
and specialization. But this can prevent development if it forces a
country to focus on a narrow range of goods and services instead of
Dependency. The experience of the 1980s and 1990s shows that when
countries specialize in export crops such as cotton, coffee, tea,
tobacco and cocoa, they become dependent on these products and are
vulnerable to volatile prices.
Inequality. Liberalization concentrates extremely large farms among a
tiny number of owners, with over two billion small farmers, including
large numbers who are hungry.
Too much profit for the few. The small number of powerful companies in
the agri-food chain take a larger share of the value of production,
widening the gap between retail prices and the prices farmers receive,
so that small farmers do not benefit from price increases.
“Prices are too high for consumers at the end of the chain, but are
still too low and not sufficiently profitable for small farmers, who
cannot really earn a living from their crops,” Dr De Schuter said.
“This is where the food crisis is. It is small farmers driven towards
the cities, unable to live off their fields, relegated to subsistence
farming because prices are not sufficiently profitable.”
Overall, Dr De Schutter described trade as a destabilizing force that
creates vulnerability for countries and communities that are too
dependent. International trade and WTO agreements bind countries’
hands, preventing them from dealing with the problem or forcing them
to rely on the “wager” that trade will be good for them.
“ ‘Excessive dependence’ is a deliberately vague term because it means
that states have to make choices following democratic procedures in
order to decide on their agricultural policy, what their food policy
is to be, without such policies being determined by their dependence
on international trade, either because they want to earn money from
exports by specializing in certain export crops or because they have
become dependent on international markets,” he said.
Mr Lamy’s case
The WTO Director-General said Dr De Schutter over-simplified the
problem, by focusing too much on agricultural trade and on the WTO.
Trade is needed in order to deliver food to those who need it, but
other good policies are also needed to ensure trade serves human
rights and the right to food, he said. Mr Lamy also disputed the claim
that trade inevitably makes prices volatile — economists are still
debating whether this is the case or not, he said.
More than trade. The real obstacles to the right to food are:
property ownership systems, storage facilities, transport and
distribution infrastructure, lack of credit, shortage of water, etc,
Mr Lamy said.
“When I am in the field, in Burundi, Cambodia or India, the farmer and
NGOs dealing with poverty in these countries do not raise the issue of
international trade,” he said. “They ask me all these other
More than farmers. Famine and poverty are also urban problems, Mr
Lamy argued, where the poor do not have the money to buy food and are
“excluded from the food supply circuit”. This means that hunger is not
only about producers, but also consumers, he said.
Trade does supply. “Those who produce little or badly must be given
access to those who produce a lot and well,” Mr Lamy said. This
happens through trade, whether global, regional or continental, he
He disputed the assertion in the UN rapporteur’s report that
developing countries cannot increase their productivity to compete
with developed nations. Developing countries’ yields now sometimes
exceed those of developed countries, and they export as much to them
as they buy from them, he argued.
“I am sorry but the figures no longer correspond today,” Mr Lamy said.
“This is indeed why so many countries from the South in the WTO are
arguing the opening up of agricultural trade. They may be wrong
according to you, but we have to listen to those who speak on behalf
of developing countries in the WTO.”
Mr Lamy’s main concern with trade was not dependency but distortions
caused by very high import barriers and “absolutely massive”
subsidies. The WTO’s roles are both to liberalize and to regulate,
through 600 pages of agreed rules, and the two roles should not be
confused, he said.
He said the present negotiations will lead to the steepest cuts on the
highest tariffs and “a very large reduction of around 80% in subsidies
in countries of the North” — the US, Europe and Japan.
At the same time, poorer and more vulnerable countries will have more
room to manoeuvre, Mr Lamy pointed out. For example, least developed
countries will still have the ability to raise their customs duties
to, on average, 70%, whereas the actual rates the currently charge are
only 15% on average, Mr Lamy said. The reason why they do not raise
the duties is because to do so would make food more expensive for
their urban poor, he said.
“Agriculture can be subsidized under certain conditions, there can be
higher tariffs under certain conditions, so the idea that the WTO is
going to place agriculture on the same level as socks, which I believe
is one of your fears, is not true and will not be true for a long time
to come,” he said.
Taking the argument to the WTO
Towards the end of the one-and-a-half hours debate, Dr De Schutter
asked if he could present the conclusion of his report to WTO member
governments in the Agriculture Committee or the General Council.
On 2 July 2009, Dr De Shutter was invited to a
information session where he debated his report with WTO agriculture delegates.