Just Access at the DCU meeting on Food Security and Global Diplomacy
Food security exists when “all people, at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life”1. Today, nearly 800 million people lack adequate access to food, more than 2 billion people suffer from deficiencies of essential micronutrients, and about 60% of people in low-income countries are food insecure2. Food insecurity negatively impacts human physical, social, emotional and cognitive development throughout the lifespan and is a major social and environmental disruptor with serious implications for the health of the planet.
On October 26 and 27, 2022, our Legal Intern Luca Brocca had the honour of representing Just Access at the DCU meeting on Food Security and Global Diplomacy, where he joined 21 experts from diverse backgrounds to discuss the importance of food security from different perspectives.
More specifically, attention was drawn to the role of famine, the link between food security and climate change, the importance of religious values in this issue, and the geopolitical influences on food security.
He highlighted the importance of the right to food by making reference to its recognition as a human right not only in the UDHR and in various international treaties, but also as customary international law due to its general practice and opinio iuris. Further, he made reference to the possible recognition of the human right to food as part of the ius cogens due to its relation with the prohibition of torture, as it is also pointed out in Just Access’ position paper for the meeting3.
In this blog post, Luca Brocca will develop the main points discussed during the meeting through concrete examples and by proposing some of the solutions that were identified.
A famine is an acute episode of extreme hunger resulting in a high mortality rate due to starvation or hunger-related diseases4. Despite the ambiguities surrounding the correct definition, it is evident that in recent decades the number of major, life-threatening famines has declined significantly compared to previous eras. This is in no way to downplay the very real threat posed by the approximately 800 million people currently living in a state of crisis food insecurity and therefore in need of urgent action.
Nevertheless, the parts of the world that continue to be threatened by famine are much more limited geographically than in previous eras, and the famines that have occurred recently have generally been far less deadly.
During the meeting in Prague, attention was drawn to an entirely preventable famine that struck China in the late 1950s. This famine was linked to the economic and social campaign led by Mao Zedong known as the Great Leap Forward. During and immediately after the Chinese famine, however, it remained “shrouded in mystery” as Chinese authorities and some Western observers insisted that the famine had been averted despite several crop failures. In the post-Mao era of the early 1980s, some official demographic data were republished, allowing the first systematic investigations of the death toll.
The Great Famine remains a taboo in China and is euphemistically referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disasters or the Three Years of difficulty5. The famine cost tens of millions of lives, but is barely a footnote in the history books.
There are few publicly available records of an event etched in the memory of those who survived this largely man-made catastrophe.
Another historically important famine mentioned in the meeting is the one caused by the 2008 economic crisis, which had a huge impact worldwide. World food prices rose dramatically in 2007 and the first and second quarters of 2008, creating a global crisis and causing political and economic instability and social unrest in both poor and developed countries6. There are signs that the factors that led to these types of problems are the new norm, which means that new price spikes will occur again in the foreseeable future.
Crises can cause people to react in unusual ways and things can escalate quickly, as we could see with the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Riots and violent demonstrations erupted in many developing countries, leading to military intervention and political instability. Corruption also hampered national actions to protect the nutritional needs of vulnerable people.
Later in the meeting it was highlighted the impact of famine on vulnerable people, such as children, who suffer tangible long-term consequences. For children, lack of food and nutrients during the developmental stages of life can lead to lifelong setbacks.
Children in hunger crises can suffer from “emaciation,” a condition in which a child’s weight and muscle mass are disproportionate to his or her height as a result of severe malnutrition7. Their growth may also be stunted, which in turn affects their physical and cognitive development. For these reasons, they should be paid particular attention.
Further decline of famines is by no means certain: their future will depend largely on the nature and frequency of wars and other forms of conflicts, as I will discuss in the next section. As I discussed here, however, the long-term trends that have contributed to the sharp decline in famine mortality rates suggest that it is very unlikely that the kind of catastrophic famines that occurred in the twentieth century will return.
Emergency food aid provided by aid agencies continues to play a critical role in preventing deaths, and the international aid community has recently developed much better monitoring systems, such as the Famine Early Warning System8 that has allowed for greater preparation and more timely interventions.
Overall, we can see in the rapid decline of famine mortality one of the great achievements of our time, representing technological progress, economic development and the spread of stable democracies. Seen in this light, however, it is also clear how alarming is the persistence of famines, which in the modern world are exclusively caused by man. As mentioned during the meeting, one must realize that famines are not about not having the means to acquire food, but about not having access to it. In the modern world, it can be seen that the democratic form of government, thanks to the values on which it is based, can help to prevent famines.
Food insecurity, in particular, represents a policy failure, because global food production has long since exceeded the level needed to feed everyone. Therefore, geopolitics should be given greater prominence in the food security debate to highlight its impact on a number of areas that directly affect food security.
Assessing the prospects for the Zero Hunger Goal, Sustainable Development Goal 2, requires an understanding of food security that goes beyond developmental or humanitarian issues to include linkages with geopolitics. Geopolitical challenges extend to areas such as natural resources, trade, armed conflict, and climate change, where unilateralism and zero-sum approaches to security directly impede efforts to end hunger and undermine the enabling environment for these efforts.
During the meeting, in addition to mentioning the impact of climate change on food security, the impact of the war in Ukraine on normal global grain supplies was also highlighted.
An agreement signed on July 22nd to free some 20 million tons of grain stuck in Black Sea ports has provided relative relief to the market, with prices for some grains returning to pre-invasion levels. Despite this optimistic trend, a number of immediate concerns and longer-term complications continue to point to increased levels of risk. Immediate concerns include the fact that while grain trade may alleviate some logistical problems at ports, the outcome is uncertain and there are significant complications inland that could continue to make it difficult to transport grain to customers. For instance, if the roughly 20 million tons of grain at issue were not stored in optimal conditions during the five to six months they were in Ukrainian silos, their quality may have deteriorated and they may be unfit for human consumption.
The conflict in Ukraine is shaking key pillars of the global food system in an already precarious environment. Managing the circumstances and supporting the best possible outcomes may require unequivocal action and collaboration. There is little reason to believe that the global situation will improve anytime soon. A prolonged war between Russia and Ukraine will have lasting effects on local production and grain export infrastructure that will take many months, if not years, to resolve.
In addition to the impact of wars on food security, the importance of governance on food security was also highlighted. Competition among global powers, rising right-wing nationalism, conflict, and the rise of authoritarian states are affecting food systems immeasurably. Democratization processes have been found to accompany improved food security, and the former systematically precedes the latter, creating a temporal dependency. The inclusiveness of democratic institutions is an important factor in explaining this relationship.
During the meeting, emphasis was placed on the importance of religious values such as fraternity, which can be used to achieve common goals such as preventing food waste. More specifically it has been pointed out how important it is to consider religious values during the legislative process rather than afterwards. It would be beneficial for all if food security legislation was more focused on religious values, and the dualism between law and religion must be avoided. For example, the obligation of individuals, not just the state, to reduce unnecessary waste, which is the simplest form of food price control, is clearer from a religiously motivated perspective than from a human rights perspective.
Religious groups have an extensive network, and they also have the resources and infrastructure to reach the most remote populations. Faith communities are increasingly dedicated to the contribution that religious actors can make to dialogue and advocacy. This will enable them to find multilateral responses to the major challenges facing all of humanity, such as war, climate change, food insecurity, and other threats. While food insecurity is a global problem, like any other problem, it cannot be addressed with a standard solution. Therefore, religious groups may be able to resolve local food issues by applying a bottom-up approach.
On the second day of the meeting, attention shifted to the issue of democracy and polarization and how it is perceived in the EU. Recently, polarization in the world has increased significantly. The project presented during the meeting aims to create an overview of all actors and institutions dealing with polarization in order to increasingly find ways to fight polarization from the ground.
The speaker pointed out that citizens often do not even realise that their own country is increasingly undergoing a process of polarization. For example, there is not even a proper translation of “polarization” in Arabic. This underscores the importance of raising awareness through outreach and dialogue in order to address the problem more effectively. The other two solutions focused on in this project are those of narrative intervention and institutional and legal reform. Here, the role of social media and education in addressing polarization at an early stage was highlighted.
A more practical example of the spread of polarization is that of Europe. For instance, although the EU establishes citizenship of the Union in Article 20 TFEU, citizens are still reluctant to identify themselves as Europeans. Most people identify themselves as belonging to their own European country, not as members of a larger union that includes millions of citizens who believe in the same values, apart from being geographically close to each other.
At the political level, polarization makes it increasingly difficult to negotiate between the parties and thus to form governments in the various states. The end of dialogue increases the risk of violence and mutual exclusion and the quality of democracy suffers from this development.
During the meeting, many relevant solutions were raised. First of all, it was suggested to improve education on this specific issue, as also mentioned in the section on democracy and polarization. The importance of dialogue and religious values such as fraternity to achieve food security was also recognised. These religious values need to be taken into account by legislators during the legislative process to avoid the dualism between law and religion.
Furthermore, the role of Africa was highlighted due to its critical situation for what concerns food security. Therefore, it was proposed to focus the solutions in this geographical area.
Finally, the importance of the perspective of experts in this matter has been mentioned. It is necessary to pay more attention to the perspective of food security experts and non-governmental organizations, which can have a great impact on shaping food security policies.
Apart from these practical solutions, participants acknowledged the importance of paying more attention to the issue of food waste as it has a strong impact on food security. As mentioned earlier, the food produced worldwide is enough to feed the entire population and ensure food security. However, due to the enormous amount of food that is wasted every year, this is not possible.
To conclude, one can be proud of the solutions found and of all the topics that were discussed during the meeting. There is still a lot of work to do in order to establish global food security, but thanks to the work of international actors this can be achieved sooner rather than later. The world produces enough food for everyone and the international community has solutions to food insecurity. Now is the time for us as individuals to also act and be part of the solution.