> Explanation in “Understanding the WTO”
> Dr De Schutter and Mr Lamy debate the right to food

Accepting that trade can help promote human rights and access to food, Dr De Schutter said this can only happen if certain conditions are met, in particular if countries can protect their vulnerable populations from surges of cheap imports. Failure to do that could mean small farmers and food producers are wiped out because of the domination of a few large traders and processors, he said.

His comments received a mixed reception from delegates, although all welcomed the opportunity to exchange views. Some criticized his analysis as unbalanced, selective in its choice of evidence, ignoring the benefits poorer populations can gain from exporting, neglecting the harm caused by distortions with an over-emphasis on the domination of big companies, and overlooking the amount of flexibility for developing countries that is actually being negotiated in the WTO. Others supported his views, and a few simply asked questions.


Dr De Schutter’s case

The special rapporteur was speaking in a 3-hour information session organized by the WTO Secretariat. He said the world’s ability to increase agricultural production is declining and therefore its ability to tackle hunger and malnutrition is suffering. This is worsened by liberalization that benefits a rich minority and hurts an impoverished majority, he said.

He called for massive investment to “relocalize local production” so that farmers depend less on volatile international markets and concentrate on supplying domestic consumers. In order to achieve this, developing countries need to be able to protect themselves against import surges, and not to open their markets unless they have made the investment.

He described liberalization efforts as a means to increase total income but at the cost of worsening inequality and a failure of a minority of winners to provide for large numbers of losers. Countries that have depended on export products such as coffee and cocoa have seen a decline in the share of the total value that they have been able to enjoy, with an increasing share going to large companies in the supply chain, and an increased vulnerability to price shocks, he argued.

Dr De Schutter said that countries that have strengthened their ability to export, such as Brazil, India and China, did so through protection that allowed import substitution.

He said he welcomed the shift from the “Washington consensus” (policy prescriptions from the 1980s and 1990s for dealing with economic crises, associated with Washington-based organizations such as the World Bank and IMF) to the “Geneva consensus” (WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy’s term) in which liberalization is no longer be seen as an end, but part of the means to achieving better economic and social welfare. The WTO, he said, should continue to play its role alongside other international organizations so that economic policies for dealing with issues such as the food crisis are more consistent.



Most critical of Dr De Schutter’s argument were Brazil, Uruguay, Australia, Paraguay, Pakistan, Argentina, the EU, Costa Rica, South Africa and Mali. They commented both on his original report (link above) and on his presentation which they said was somewhat different.

They said his comments create the false impression that trade should conflicts with the right to food. They argued that the recommendation to allow countries to protect against imports was too sweeping, ignored the benefits developing countries can gain from exporting to each other, and overlooked how protectionism can hamper improvements in productivity.

They said that the investment he is recommending for productivity, infrastructure and diversification should accompany liberalization and should not be an alternative to it. Some, such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Pakistan, said they have used combinations of these policies to enable themselves to trade, create wealth and provide social safety nets for their people. Costa Rica said it has never considered liberalization as an end, but as a means to achieve development. Mali said he should have consulted the four African countries pressing for an end to cotton subsidies.

Instead of defending protectionist policies, Dr De Schutter should target the distortions caused by high trade barriers and subsidies in rich countries, several of them said. Australia asked how Dr De Schutter’s call for price stabilization schemes would work when all past attempts have failed.

They also pointed out that his comments are misleading because they create the impression that all countries are under pressure to liberalize. In the Doha Round, least-developed countries do not have to make any reductions, other groups such as the small and vulnerable economies are also allowed considerable flexibility, and all developing countries will enjoy “special and differential treatment”.

They urged him to listen to a broader range of opinions and experiences, and incorporate that in future reports.

Supporting Dr De Schutter were Tanzania, Bolivia, Luxembourg, Cuba, India, Ecuador and Mauritius. India welcomed what it described as the first opportunity to discuss food security in the WTO.

Somewhere in the middle was Egypt, which asked what the next steps would be to bring the right to food and the WTO together


Chairperson: Mr Clemens Boonekamp, director, WTO Agriculture Division

Dr De Schutter’s report, “Mission to the World Trade Organization”,
A/HRC/10/5/Add.2, 4 February 2009:
> Go to documents list on the UN Human Rights High Commissioner website and click on the language link on the right of the entry in the document list.

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