A dramatic rise in global prices threatens the basic human right to food and may undermine others like health and education, a top United Nations official said on Thursday.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told the 47-country Human Rights Council that the soaring costs of corn, wheat, rice and other foods "jeopardise the well-being and rights of countless people".
"This crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food. Such access is a right protected by international law," the former Canadian Supreme Court justice said.
The recent commodity spikes have driven up prices around the world, causing hunger, shortages and protests. They have hit hardest in poor nations where food takes up the bulk of families' budgets.
High prices will last for next decade
Some 854 million people are facing acute food shortages, according to reports issued by the UN and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
They concluded high prices are likely to remain at or above current levels for the next decade as a result of demands for a richer diet and the use of crops for biofuels. Argentina, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Russia, South Africa and Morocco are among the countries that have seen demonstrations and strikes in response to soaring prices.
Arbour said the crisis "stems from a perverse convergence of several factors, including distortions in supply and demand, unfair trade practices, as well as skewed policies involving incentives or subsidies".
"A failure to act in a comprehensive manner may also trigger a domino effect by putting at risk other fundamental rights, including the right to health or to education, when people are forced to forego competing basic necessities or services in order to feed themselves and their families," she told a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Farmers urged to plan ahead
More than 30 countries, including Cuba, Indonesia and Switzerland, sponsored a resolution that was adopted by consensus by the two-year-old Council, saying the food crisis threatens to derail the world's fight against poverty.
"States have a primary obligation to make their best efforts to meet the vital food needs of their own population, especially of the vulnerable groups and households," the resolution read, calling for increased local farming and efforts to reduce child and maternal malnutrition.
"The international community should provide, through a coordinated response and upon request, support to national and regional efforts in terms of providing the necessary assistance for increasing food production," it continued.
Olivier De Schutter, an independent UN expert on the right to food, said it was essential that sub-Saharan African farmers get access to seeds and fertilisers before the end of the planting season in June to prepare for the next harvests.
"They need help. This is urgent. We must feed the hungry now, but we must also prevent famines from occurring tomorrow," he told the one-day talks.
Investment in poor-country irrigation systems and efforts to roll back unfair subsidies and other trade barriers are also critical, De Schutter said. – (Reuters Health, May 2008)
Food crisis in SA
Food aid not nutritious