Food Security and the Private Sector - Thinking about Human Rights?

Commentary, 16 September 2009

By Scott Jerbi, Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, IHRB

This week the UN released its latest findings on the extent of world hunger. The report – marking World Food Day 2009 and its theme - "Achieving food security in times of crisis" - makes for grim reading.

More than one billion people around the world are suffering from hunger. The numbers have been increasing steadily over the past decade and the global economic crisis has made the goal of food security for all even harder to achieve.

Food security is becoming a strategic issue for states. Agribusiness and a number of other industry sectors are clearly key players in this space. But a broader set of issues involving corporate use and management of natural resources – water and land in particular – are also directly linked to food security as can be seen in growing attention to issues such as "land grabbing" involving public and private actors.

So on this World Food Day, it seems a useful moment to take stock of the private sector role in food security strategies and consider some of the human rights implications for efforts to address hunger and food insecurity.

Food Security on the International Agenda

At the recent G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, following on from commitments [6 pages] made over the summer in Italy, more states added pledges of significant financial support for agriculture development, in addition to assistance for emergency food aid and nutrition programs.

G20 leaders also called on the World Bank to develop a new multilateral trust fund to scale-up agricultural assistance to low-income countries. The intention is to support innovative bilateral and multilateral efforts to improve global nutrition and build sustainable agricultural systems. The U.S. government is taking particular interest in the food security issue and signalling a real interest in partnership. The U.S. State Department has issued a Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative consultative document and is engaging a range of actors, notably the private sector, in seeking solutions.

One such effort can be seen in Angola. In August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Angola and witnessed the signing of an MOU between USAID, oil company Chevron and the Cooperative League of the United States of America (CLUSA). The new partnership will invest US$6 million in supporting small and medium holder farming in Angola as part of a broader strategy to help raise incomes, address hunger and support sustainable development.

The UN has also been scaling up efforts to involve the private sector. The World Food Programme recently launched a new five-year project with business partners including DSM, Heinz, Kraft Foods, Unilever and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to address malnutrition with specific focus on issues such as hygiene, nutrition and sustainable agriculture.

And last year the UN Global Compact released a Guide to Private Sector Action on Food Sustainability [44 pages, 2.14mb] which covers a range of topics from energy and biofuels to creating job opportunities for rural low-income populations.

Human Rights and Food Security – Thinking About Business Responsibilities

Although all of these examples signal potentially important contributions to improving food security around the world, they also raise many important questions.

For example, though it is encouraging to see leading companies engaging in combating global hunger, what do key private sector voices have to say about some of the underlying causes of food insecurity such as ongoing agricultural market distortions in rich countries which undermine domestic production and livelihoods of farmers in poor countries? Business leaders should be adding their individual and collective voices to the calls for greater policy coherence on trade and development to ensure access to food at affordable prices for all.

Questions concerning human rights also need to be addressed. How will the range of new multi-stakeholder initiatives actually impact on those who are most vulnerable to hunger? It has become increasingly clear that overall progress on achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals can obscure growing inequalities within and between countries. This means that any new food security interventions must do more to target those most in need.

Equally important, how will the various projects underway be monitored and evaluated over time with respect to their consistency with governments’ commitments to international human rights standards? Clear lines of responsibility across different branches of government must be determined which will empower institutions and support those facing hunger to demand accountability for results.

At the January 2009 High Level meeting in Madrid on Food Security, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged governments to include human rights – including the right to adequate food - “as a basis for analysis, action and accountability” in promoting food security. Are governments listening?

And what about the human rights responsibilities of the private sector? All companies have a responsibility under the UN’s "Protect, Respect, Remedy" framework for business and human rights put forward last year by SRSG John Ruggie to respect human rights and carry out adequate due diligence to ensure they are meeting that responsibility. How many of the food security initiatives underway are demanding such due diligence from the companies involved? Moving forward, there is a need for more systematic consideration of how food security issues link to a range of corporate activities.

Take for example concerns around corporate use and management of natural resources – water and land in particular. One slice of this complex issue that has been getting a great deal of attention concerns so-called "land grabbing" involving private and public actors. Experts such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and respected organizations such as the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) are all highlighting the need to address this emerging issue.

A new report on the subject by the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED) points out that land is central to identity, livelihoods and food security and private investors need to think carefully about the impacts of their involvement in land acquisition as land rights may be hotly disputed and lead to long disputes. As the report stresses, this highlights the importance of long-term engagement with local community interests (not just elites) and honest communication of what the project will bring including information on numbers and types of jobs and impacts on food security.

IHRB has also embarked on significant initiatives aimed at clarifying the human rights relevant roles and responsibilities of the private sector on issues relating to land and water. More about our work on land including a meeting in June in India is available here. IHRB’s water initiative which produced an initial mapping report - will begin its next phase soon.

Our hope is that by bringing a human rights perspective to private sector activities concerning natural resource use and management, IHRB will not only contribute to more effective state and corporate policies and practices but also raise greater awareness of government human rights obligations and company responsibilities to respect all human rights wherever they operate. Stay tuned for more information on our developing activities in this area.

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