by Marion Nestle
Dec 23 2011

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur vs. the World Trade Organization

On December 19, Food Chemical News reported that Pascal Lamy, secretary-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) “traded blows” with  United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, over the role of trade in food security.

As far as I can tell, the “blows” were figurative, not literal, but the debate was real.   De Schutter had written a report questioning whether greater trade liberalization—the goal of WTO—could deliver on food security (for the basis of this debate, see below).

“Developing countries are rightly concerned that their hands will be tied by trade rules,” De Schutter said, and called for higher tariffs and targeted farm subsidies to stimulate local food production.   He labeled the “WTO’s vision as “outdated. … The right to food is not a commodity, and we must stop treating it that way.”

For some time now, I’ve been following the De Schutter’s work, not least because he is using the office of Special Rapporteur as a bully pulpit from which to promote healthier and more sustainable and equitable food systems throughout the world.

De Schutter, among other things, is my occasional colleague at NYU.

Olivier De Schutter (LL.M., Harvard University ; Ph.D., University of Louvain (UCL)), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food since May 2008, 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.

As Special Rapporteur, he is supposed to

Report both to the UN General Assembly (Third Committee) and to the Human Rights Council on the fulfillment of the mandate…In addition to addressing structural issues threatening the full enjoyment of the right to food, the Special Rapporteur may send communications to governments, called letters of allegation, in urgent cases brought to his attention by reliable sources.

Professor De Schutter has used this office to produce a remarkable succession of reports and position papers on a broad range of topics related to food, agriculture, and human and environmental health:

Take a look at the documents listed under these categories.  They are a terrific resource for anyone interested in the human right to food.

As for De Schutter vs. WTO, see:

  • Jennifer Feeney

    Isn’t this always a debate that looks good on paper until you actually put it into place and watch the cards fall?

    I lived in rural Niger, West Africa for several years. Each year the people were not able to grow enough food to feed the population. And they could not afford to buy grain at the market because, regardless of price, they had no money. At that point they relied on UN aid donations…which always managed to find their way to the market to sell. The grain I bought from the market nearly always came from a bag marked “UN aid – NOT FOR SALE”

    What is the solution to this?

  • De Schutter doesn’t dream up his position in the halls of academe. He does extensive site visits, and meets with farmers all over the world. His views are also based on very scholarly studies of agroecology. He was one of the first to explain exactly how much speculation has impacted food prices (a lot) and now people are finally catching on to that.The WTO has done nothing so far to ensure the right to food; it has further promoted food as an unaffordable commodity for export. Hence La Via Campesina’s call for getting the WTO out of agriculture.

  • Ellen

    Eden, I checked out some of the De Schutter material on Land Rights, as well as your website, and I think you’ve got to admit that to the extent your views and De Schutter’s are fundamentally anti-private-property, they’re… pretty radical to say the least. I’m thinking of your approval of “the struggle against the hegemonic ideology of private ownership of land” and De Schutter’s talk about “the worrisome criminalization of social movements carrying out agrarian reform ‘from below’, including by claiming land that is unused and, in their view, should be distributed more equitably” and his call not to let poor people have individual titles to any land they own. Knowing that De Schutter’s coming from that kind of politically radical place makes me wary of his ideas, especially when what he’s calling for in this case would almost certainly raise the price of food for the urban poor.

  • Ellen, the views on property are radical in North America but not so much in the Global South, which is De Schutter’s primary concern. Have you looked into Brazil’s MST, which has successfully settled far more landless people than any other land reform program in Brazil? As far as individual title to land, it might work in a system that is already quite equitable, but what it amounts to in many countries in the Global South is a firesale of land for quick cash shortly after titles are granted – not for long-term smallholder success.

  • Ellen

    Thanks for replying, Eden, and thanks for pointing me to the MST, which I hadn’t heard of. Although, yes, after reading about them some, they do seem extremely radical even for the “Global South.”