In the spotlight

In the spotlight 1

The human right to adequate food and nutrition can only be fully realized within the food sovereignty framework

There is nothing more basic to every human being than the acts of breathing, eating and drinking. These are fundamental activities that guarantee the water, the nutrients and the oxygen in our bodies, which are present in the foods we eat and drink and the air we breathe. Without them, we do not grow, become weak, sick and die. The struggles of people against exploitation, discrimination, hunger and malnutrition conquered the human right to adequate food and nutrition for all, among other rights and in the context of peoples and food sovereignty.

Eating and feeding one’s family and others are actions that most deeply reflect the richness and complexity of human life in society. The ways in which we eat are derived from our very nature but also constitute products of history and the struggles and lives of our ancestors. They are a reflection of the availability of food and water in our local environment, power relations, and economic and physical abilities to access food.

Discussions about food are inseparable from those about nutrition and health in the context of women’s rights and food sovereignty. These discussions should touch upon the diversity, quantity, nutritional composition, quality and type of food production; who produces what, how and where and who makes these decisions; access to and control over productive resources and physical and economic access to food and water; preparation methods; information on diversity and the recommended nutritional balance of diets; and the definition of healthy eating habits and the risks of consuming various foods, such as ultra-processed foods, saturated fats, and genetically modified foods, among others.

Furthermore, the definition of a proper diet cannot be reduced to a nutritionally balanced basic food ration. Food and nutrition incorporate creativity, love, care, socialization, culture, and spirituality. Thus, a proper diet is one that addresses all these dimensions and contributes to building healthy human beings, aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of their country and the world, their environmental responsibilities and the quality of life of their descendants.

Food for humans is much more than an instinctive act of collecting and hunting that is born exclusively from hunger. It goes far beyond the mere intake of nutrients present in nature that go into our digestion and transform into body and life. Throughout its evolution, humankind has developed intricate relationships with food processes, turning these into rich rituals linking humans and nature itself, permeated with the cultural characteristics of each community and family. When eating typical dishes of our childhood and culture with friends and family, individuals are renewed in their human dignity, reaffirm their identity, and much more at other levels that reach far beyond the strengthening of their physical and mental health.

The development of all human beings depends on the support of his or her parents, family, community and society from the moment of conception. This support manifests itself in the form of food, love, warmth, care, stimulation, education and security, among others. It is impossible to separate the individual value of each of these factors. Optimal infant and young child feeding practices, such as exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age and continued breastfeeding until two years of age or beyond, together with timely introduction of adequate complementary foods, are vital and involves all of these dimensions. In this sense, it is essential to strengthen the collective responsibility, in the first place at State’s level, for ensuring adequate conditions that enable women to optimally breastfeed without imposing additional burdens on them. In such an enabling environment, women’s and children rights are protected and fulfilled and breastfeeding can be exercised as the first act of food sovereignty.

Promoting food sovereignty, with the objective of the full realization of the human right to adequate food and nutrition for all, necessarily requires the full realization of women’s human rights. The impact of structural violence against women and girls and the systematic violations of women’s human rights on the nutrition of women and children have been concealed by the hegemonic vision of food security and nutrition. Cases of malnutrition in women and children can be attributed in large part to pervasive gender discrimination in regards to access to education and information, disproportionate burden of household responsibilities, child marriage, and teenage pregnancies. As main caregivers, families and especially mothers are also the main targets of malevolent marketing of unhealthy foods, such as breastmilk substitutes and high-fat/high-sugar foods, and thus receive inadequate, confusing messages about the best way to feed their families. Finally, food security policies and programs traditionally do not effectively tackle these structural issues, and in the name of “gender equality promotion” end up further increasing the burden on women, by placing additional responsibilities on them that in reality should be collectively shared.

This holistic conceptualization of food and nutrition leads us to the understanding that hunger and the different forms of malnutrition are not “natural” processes. They are in fact the result of social and economic exclusion and exploitation, particularly of:

1. The grabbing of land and other natural resources, as well as of human knowledge and practices, labour, productive and reproductive capacity and ways of life.
2. The low and unequal wage, poor working conditions and other violations of workers’ rights.
3. The indiscriminate expansion (and public promotion)of the agribusiness production model, which reduces the diversity and quality of food and poisons soils, water, workers, farming communities, and promotes global warming.
4. The accumulation of land and wealth in the hands of a few.
5. The structural violence against women and girls, including violations of their right to education, limitations on their autonomy and control over their lives and bodies.
6. The unregulated marketing practices promoting the consumption of processed food products such as breastmilk substitutes, genetically modified products, nutraceuticals, nutritional supplements and fortified food products, as well as their increasingly broad distribution.

The struggles for the human right to food and nutrition do not solely aim to satisfy hunger and nutritional needs, but rather to nourish ourselves and each other, family, friends and even strangers, to reaffirm ourselves and leverage each other as human beings in our physical, intellectual, psychological and spiritual dimensions. It is not without reason that all family and community festivities and many spiritual rituals involve acts of preparation and communion of food. In doing so, we reaffirm our identity and cultural diversity in the context of the universality of being human and we realize our food sovereignty.

In the spotlight 2

The corporate take-over of food and nutrition policy spaces

Deregulation policies over the past decades have led to an immense concentration of corporate power in global food systems and have consolidated the influence of corporations over public policy making, both at national and international levels, stripping communities and families of their abilities to transform nature and food into nutritional well-being and health. Under the umbrella of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and multi-stakeholder initiatives, private corporations are assuming an increasingly prominent role in shaping public policies, and are thereby taking over the functions of elected governments, undermining the very core of the democratic governance. This new trend carries serious implications for food sovereignty. Indeed, policies and interventions aimed at food and nutrition are increasingly oriented in the profit-seeking interests of corporations and their shareholders, rather than the physiological and nutritional needs of the general population and more specifically the communities affected by hunger and malnutrition, which become further marginalized.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2010 launched the final report of its Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) [See Readers’ Guide to the Global Redesign Initiative of the University of Massachusetts which summarizes the key proposals of the WEF. The full report here.], in which it proposes the radical restructuring of global governance towards a multi-stakeholder arrangement in which private corporations take part in negotiations and decision-making processes together with government representatives. While this may sound like wishful thinking it is unfortunately a reality, with nutrition and health issues being at the forefront of the corporate takeover of public governance spaces. According to the GRI proposal, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) would be replaced by a “Global Food, Agriculture and Nutrition Redesign Initiative” operating under joint state and non-state supervision.

In 2008, the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), the harmonising body for nutrition-related policies and programmes of the United Nations, was effectively shut down due to its relatively strong policy on engagement with private sector and the civil society constituency’s resistance to including the private sector as a constituency. At the same time, the same actors who had (unsuccessfully) pushed for private sector participation in the SCN, and subsequently led the way in discrediting and draining it out of funding, were promoting a new initiative of global reach — the Scaling up Nutrition Initiative (SUN). In contrast to the SCN, which is accountable to governments, SUN opens the door for strong private sector engagement in nutrition in line with the GRI vision. Its members (including of its Lead Group) include large transnational food and beverage corporations and agribusinesses [Companies participating in SUN include PepsiCo, Mars, Unilever, Syngenta and BASF, full list here], some of which have been involved in human rights abuses in the past and are known for their resistance to public health regulations.

Involvement of private corporations in food and nutrition governance through PPPs such as SUN presents a real threat to food sovereignty. It introduces a bias towards technical, artificial and product-based solutions, such as therapeutic and fortified food products, genetically-modified crops, and nutritional supplements, and diverts attention from the social determinants and human rights violations which underlie hunger and malnutrition.

Moreover, a blind eye is turned on the role of corporations that are causing hunger and malnutrition through inappropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes and unhealthy foods, abusive labour and contracting policies, land and resources grabbing, pollution and destruction of eco-systems and biodiversity, etc., and the urgent need for binding regulations. Perhaps most importantly, this corporate take-over of food and nutrition governance spaces has negative implications for the rich and complex socio-cultural processes of eating and nourishment for individual communities and families around the world, by promoting unsustainable production methods and global warming.

In November last year, the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) took place in Rome. In the run-up to and during the conference, social movements and civil society organisations formed a broad alliance to advocate for nutrition policies and interventions which have people — and in particular affected communities and small-scale food producers — at their centre and are based on and promote the human right to adequate food and nutrition in the broader framework of food sovereignty, indivisibility of rights and women’s and children’s rightsn [The civil society and social movement statements before and at ICN2 can be found here]. They called on States to put a coherent governance mechanism in place, charged with following-up and ensuring accountability in relation to States’ obligations and commitments on nutrition, while meaningfully engaging civil society and, in particular, groups affected by any form of malnutrition. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) should play a key role in this, ensuring policy coherence for food security and nutrition and was requested to fully integrate nutrition in its work plan. Social movements and CSOs strongly voiced their opposition to private sector participation in food and nutrition policy making and demanded the enactment of robust conflict of interest safeguards for all forms of engagement with the private sector.

Earlier this year, there have been attempts by some actors to carve out a prominent space for SUN in the CFS as the body is examining its future role in advancing nutrition. In response to these attempts, the nutrition working group of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) has called for the establishment of a transparent, informed, and participatory process within the CFS to discuss its engagement in nutrition. Last month a decision was taken by the Multi Year Program of Work (MYPOW) working group that nutrition will become a major work stream of the CFS in the coming years and that an open-ended working group on nutrition will be established.

This is a critical moment for bringing nutrition more strongly into the CFS and setting up a global harmonising body which can ensure policy coherence across sectors in line with the human right to adequate food and nutrition. However, for this to happen, CFS must develop adequate safeguards to protect its policy-making space from undue corporate influence. It is thus essential that social movements and civil society organisations, through the lens of the food sovereignty framework, bring to the centre the dimension of power in the discussions about food and nutrition governance, advocate for strengthening of conflicts of interest safeguards on the CFS and remain alert and monitor closely developments within and beyond the CFS in the nutrition arena, resisting corporate capture of this vital space and the further detachment of nutrition from food, humans and nature.