Adequate Food Supply and International Trade Rules: A Contradiction that Undermines Global Responsibility to Ensure Food Security

 - Executive Summary -

—The Inter Action Council can improve the Universal Declaration on Human Responsibilities 1997 to make clear and specific reference to the individual and collective responsibility to ensure Food Security. This will serve as a strong signal to the international community that Food Security is crucial to any holistic and integrated policy geared towards development, and the current trade laws do not promote food security.

There is a natural relationship between international trade rules and a State’s ability to ensure Food Security. This is so given that current international trade is based on the policy of the removal of barriers to trade which invariably affects the supply and flow of food. Food Security is a human right as recognised in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights 1966. Food Security is also a national security issue, this has been long recognised by the FAO; and had been restated very recently in its pronouncements on the situation in Burma with the shortage of food that now exists there.

The State in its responsibility to provide national security is therefore enjoined to undertake initiatives that are geared towards ensuring Food Security as well. However, the international trade rules as they now obtain are underscored by a policy of trade liberalization that is contradictory to a state’s duty to ensure Food Security. Food Security requires governments to have available to it, policies that can be used easily to protect and promote productivity in local agricultural supply. Through commitments that WTO Member States make, their policy recourses are restricted and any of the safeguard mechanisms that do exist are very costly and complex. These do not assist small developing countries as they rarely have the legal and institutional capacity to utilize these mechanisms.

Consequently, Net-Food-Importing-Countries are hard-pressed to implement policies that can promote agricultural productivity and rural development. As is evident from the present food crisis, these States are vulnerable to external shocks, because they are open economies, which have negatively affected their agricultural sectors and market access of the main trading commodities.  Given that the world food crisis is looming and Food Insecurity is on the increase, the opportunity in the ongoing Doha Negotiations should be used to amend the trade rules to provide this policy space for the Net-Food-Importing-Countries, such that they may be better placed to address the grave issue of Food Insecurity. Specifically, we must change the international trade laws to truly liberalize trade by removing agricultural subsidies in Europe and North America, or allow developing countries to implement tariff barriers to nurture their local agricultural sector as they do not have the resources to provide subsidies comparable to the more developed economies—


In 1998, Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations said that “[g]ood governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development.” Governance involves the management of a country’s business through the exercise of economic, political and administrative power. It is well-documented that those who suffer from acute Food Insecurity are to be found in countries with the weakest governance framework. Governance as is readily appreciated is a varied notion. For the purposes of this paper it is the component that deals with regulation. That is, the policy initiatives that are available to the officers of government in the discharge of their duty to govern. In order for any government to discharge its duty effectively it must have the policy space to implement appropriate measures. Anything that restricts this space is inherently counter-effective to governance.

It is argued in this paper that effective governance is a crucial to achieving the human right of Food Security, which is a national security issue. The International Trade Rules should be such as to allow Net-Food Importing-Countries the policy space to implement measures to promote agricultural and rural development, which will enhance food productivity and reduce Food Insecurity.

Rights and Freedom have Corresponding Responsibilities

“All persons have attributes inherent to their human dignity that may not be harmed; these attributes make them possessors of fundamental rights that may not be disregarded…” these rights are “superior to the power of the State, whatever its political structure.” This is the basis of human rights. In the same line, it is common knowledge that rights imply responsibilities. It is these responsibilities that contain us in the exercise of and insistence on our rights, therefore demarking our boundaries and demonstrating that our rights are not absolute. Otherwise surely, there will be chaos and lawlessness.

The connection with human dignity and individual and communal responsibility in securing these rights have long been established. This can be found in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as far back as 1948, and both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966. Where, it is recognised that the individual has duties to other individuals and to the community to which they belong. It continues that they are under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance of human rights. The human family, or put another way, the human community, has also been recognised in these same documents. The point being made here is that we all have the responsibility to preserve and promote respect for human dignity, whether at the individual level, the state level or the global level.

Food Security is a Human Right

The Food and Agriculture Organisation in its 2006 Report of the State of Food Insecurity noted “[t]he knowledge and resources to reduce hunger are there, what is lacking is sufficient will to mobilise those resources to benefit the hunger.” Put another way, we do not have the will as a community to move from rhetoric to solid actions to ensure, for all people, at all times, that there is “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The international community has a responsibility to combat Food Insecurity and is failing to perform while the cries of the hunger increase. A few months shy of the 12th Anniversary of the World Food Summit in Rome and sadly virtually no progress has been made on the commitment to halve world hunger by 2015. In fact, the number of undernourished people worldwide has reduced by only 3% and, if the present trends continue proportional to global population, will increase marginally by then.

The very essence of human dignity enjoins a collective responsibility grounded in solidarity as human beings to ensure, at the very least, decency for all. Decency being a varied notion comes to us in many forms, but at its centre is the very simple requirement “the ability to eat when you are hungry.” Without this all other rights we hold to be equal and inalienable, necessary for the foundation of freedom, peace and justice is this world, will be rendered nugatory. Food Security is central to human security. Human security is central to human dignity. And it is not less true that Food Security is a human right.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights binds us to the recognition of Food Security as a human right. Consequently, States are enjoined to strive for the promotion and observance of Food Security. “States Parties… recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living… including inter alia adequate food.” “States Parties… recognise the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” The States Parties also undertook obligations to engage in individual measures and collective action that is through international co-operation, to reduce and eradicate hunger. These include inter alia improved methods of production, food distribution and developing and reforming agrarian systems. The States Parties further undertook to ensure the equitable distribution of world food supplies ‘in relation to need’ taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting.

There are four things of note from Article 11 of the International Covenant. (1) Food Security is an internationally recognised human right; and an inalienable right. (2) States undertook to work individually and collectively to eradicate hunger, the consequence of Food Insecurity. (3) World food supplies should be distributed in relation to need. (4) International trade is recognised as having an impact on States’ ability to ensure Food Security.

Article 9 of he Universal Declaration on Human Responsibilities 1997 recognises that everyone, given the necessary tools, has a responsibility to make serious efforts to overcome poverty and malnutrition. This is an individual responsibility. However, there is also a collective responsibility where everyone should ‘promote sustainable development all over the world in order to assure dignity, freedom, security and justice for all people.’ Article 11 outlines that ‘[a]ll property and wealth must be used responsibly in accordance with justice and for the advancement of the human race.

When read with Article 11 of the International Covenant there is no doubt that individually and collectively we have a right to Food Security. And also individually and collectively we have a responsibility to promote the realisation of that right. While a tabulated approach to reading these conventions and Declarations together will show that we have a responsibility to work towards achieving Food Security, it would serve the 1997 Declaration well to make specific reference to this responsibility. The International Covenant has stipulated clearly the right to Food Security. As a corresponding instrument the Declaration should follow suit, showing that it is flexible enough to accommodate on-going issues in the international community.

Food Security is also a National Security Issue

The United Nations bears as its fundamental mandate in the post-World War II world the maintenance of international peace and security. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute as recently as December 2007 stated “[t]he FAO of the UN was one of the first global institutions created at the end of World War II, because the international community recognised the need to ensure adequate food for all as a precondition for security and peace.” This is a resounding recognition that national security requires an integrated approach; it is more than armies and fighter jets, it involves flourishing farms. The FAO itself recognises this in its recent pronouncements on the situation in Burma. The FAO noted that the shortage of food in Burma presented a real threat to Food Security. The FAO also noted that the food shortage “posed a risk to national security.” It easily and seamlessly follows that Food Security is a precondition to, and underscores, national security.

Put another way, it is often said a hungry man is an angry man. A mass of angry men without question is a threat to national stability and security. It is not difficult to envision an army of angry farmers or men marching on to the government’s house. This is an issue at the top of the agenda in Gambia as we speak. Haiti is another illustration of this fact. The need to eat is one of the most primal traits of a human being; it is not difficult to appreciate that masses of people will not sit and starve to death, particularly where it can be prevented. Further, the international community has a responsibility to engaged in collective action to maintain peace and security. Creating the conditions to ensure that the hungry is fed today and can work to feed themselves tomorrow is vital to the performance of this responsibility.

The United States of America in its November 2002 publication of its National Security Strategy implicitly recognises the strong and undeniable link between Food Security and national security. Where the US’ food supply and production is threatened, strategies geared at protecting the agricultural productivity of the country are implemented. If the US sees Food Security as a national security issue and treats it as such, one is indeed hard-pressed to understand why other states are not given to the opportunity to do likewise. While the nose is not being thumped at the US, a call is being made to our shared consciousness of human dignity and the inalienable right to secure our community; to ensure our national security.

The international recognition of Food Security as a national security issue is not new. This can be traced back as far as immediately World War I. The basic and naked reality is that a country that has to rely on imports to feed itself invariably will be held at ransom in hard times. Developed countries have recognised this which has led to their strong hold on their agricultural sector in the advent of trade liberalization. They protect their national productivity by providing subsidies to their farmers. And there has been extensive public investment in these sectors to improve efficiency in production. So strong is this recognition that, even though very many developing countries, even Net-Food-Importing-Developing-Countries, have rolled back subsidies, the developed countries’ insistence on maintaining their ability to provide farm and export subsidies has led to the deadlock in the WTO Doha negotiations.

The point being made here is that, as states are given the policy space or flexibility to deal with the conventionally high politick issue of national security they should be given the policy space or flexibility to treat with Food Security accordingly. The work of all the armies in the world to defend ones country will be meaningless where the peoples to be protected are allowed to starve to death.

While it is understood that international co-operation is key our survival, this co-operation must not be of the kind that prevents states from doing that which the international co-operation is geared towards. States are to work together to enhance each others capacity to protect its people, not the contrary, which is the implementation of policies that restrain a state’s recourse to certain policy initiatives that will provide security.

Food Insecurity is Worsening

I raise the issue of Food Insecurity because it demonstrates more resoundingly than any other, our failure to perform our responsibility. There are approximately 854 million undernourished people in the world, this figure is steadily moving to 900 million. 820 million are found in the developing world, 9 million in the developed world and about 25 million in transitioning countries. It is chronic for African States generally, where 1 in every 3 people do not have access to sufficient food.

The problem is getting even more acute due to increased demand. According to the Food Policy Research Institute, many parts of the developing world have experienced high economic growth in recent years. Developing Asia has experienced real GDP growth of 9 percent per annum between 2004 and 2006. Sub-Saharan Africa also experienced growth of 6 percent in the same period. Of the world’s 34 most food-insecure countries, 22 had average annual growth rates ranging from 5 to 16 percent between 2004 and 2006. All this while global economic growth rate is expected to slow to 4.8 percent in 2008. This increased demand is happening while world cereal production decreased by 2.4% in 2006; and the European Union and United States wheat and maize production decreased by 12 to 16 percent between 2004 and 2006. The result is that global cereal stocks, which are staple foods for the majority of the world’s population, are at their lowest levels since the early 1980s.

The situation is bleak, but we can fix it. The world is richer than it was 12 years ago at the World Food Summit. We have enough food and we can produce more without incurring too greater a bill. The problem is, the distribution is not fair. The problem is, we enjoin ourselves to realise these rights in international legal documents but we do not have the will to see them done.

Reform of International Trade Laws is Necessary

It has been established that there is a right to Food Security and a corresponding responsibility to ensure Food Security. Similarly, Food Security is a national security issue, and states have a responsibility to provide national security. The question that arises immediately is how can this responsibility be performed and in so doing ensuring this right? Before going on to that step, reference must be made to the causes of Food Insecurity. They are many; climate, disasters, war, civil unrest, populations size and population growth, agricultural practices, environment and trade.

However, of all the causes, one is firmly within our control: trade. The way in which the international community engages in trade through the trade rules that have been established without doubt has an impact on global Food Security. Through trade rules, reform can be effected in the sorts of agrarian practices that also contribute to Food Insecurity. On this premise, this paper will address the issue of International Trade Rules as they now obtain as a causative factor in the Food Insecurity that we experience worldwide.

In order to avoid doubt, it is not being suggested that International Trade Rules is the only cause of Food Insecurity. It is being submitted that, it is one of the causes, which can be readily addressed. And given the current increase in world food prices and the increasing gravity of the world food crisis; now is an appropriate time to address present trade rules, appreciating well that a negotiating round at the WTO is currently underway.

The World Trade Organisation is committed to “the substantial reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade and to the elimination of discriminatory treatment in international trade relations.” Simultaneously, it recognises that trade should be geared at raising standard of living, ensuring steadily growing volume of real income, while allowing for the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development. The WTO also recognises the need of developing and the least developed countries to be able to secure a share in the growth in international trade commensurate with the needs of their economic development.

Noting that Food Security is critical to the economic development of developing countries and to sustainable development; is the effect of the International Trade Rules in accordance with the just-stated recognition?

The current policy that underlies International Trade Rules is trade liberalisation. This policy of trade liberalisation runs counter to a State’s Food Security responsibility. States, and particularly small developing countries, by committing to the progressive removal of tariff and other barriers to trade are effectively reducing and eliminating their policy space or flexibility to respond to crises such as the current world food crisis and the constant weakening of the livelihood of small farmers. Beyond economies of scale which gives larger and more advanced economies an advantage, the existing practice of agricultural subsidies in Europe and North American, whose products are then exported to the developing world, further exacerbates the situation by rendering local agricultural efforts futile. The concept of comparative advantage underscores the policy argument of trade liberalisation that undermines the argument of self-sufficiency in ensuring Food Security. The result of the inter-relations of the two policy arguments is the out-sourcing of Food Security.

That conclusion is reached noting that, with the decrease in tariff, for which trade liberalisation advocates, there is an increase in imports in the markets of developing countries. This results in a displacement of the domestic products and producers and a reduction in the income, hence a weakening of the standard of living for domestic producers. Put another way, the current rules for trade liberalisation will only lead to better Food Security for the developing world when their domestic producers are able to participate in the trading system.

Trade liberalisation constantly sees to the opening of economies and a price increase or decrease in one country surely affects trading in another. And where the traders in the other countries are not able to effect these price changes, more often than not lowering of prices, invariably, they will go under. Consequently, Food Insecurity becomes a strong possibility as food supply is no-longer certain. Such is the effect of out-sourcing Food Security.

With the opening of the markets and the increased imports, there will be a decrease in exports as the domestic products have been displaced by the more competitive products. Food supply now becomes vulnerable and will be affected by the simplest of changes in the world trading system. Countries become dependent on food imports as they are no longer self-sufficient or anywhere close to. Access to food, particularly in the long term, becomes uncertain.

The Caribbean can be used as an illustration of this point. Since the 1990s to the present our exports in agricultural products has been consistently lower than imports. However, since the late 1990s to present the gap has noticeably increased with exports being approximately 1 billion USD, while imports are 2.15 billion USD. And, the region’s share in the global exports-market is slowly disappearing. The decrease in tariffs has opened the region’s markets to more imports, and preferential access to markets for our main trading commodities is also being lost. Their experience shows that trade liberalisation has contributed to Food Insecurity along with loss of livelihood in rural agrarian-based communities, where domestic food crops and livestock is disappearing with increased pace, where our traditional export crops have lost access to markets. Trade must be properly managed in order to prevent these negative consequences. However, the small developing states, particularly Net-Food-Importers must be given the policy space to effect this proper management. Special reference is made to Net-Food-Importing-Countries because their Food Insecurity is an acute one. Additionally, the group of countries dubbed as ‘developing states’ is diverse. There is China, there is Grenada. There is India, and there is Kenya. Noting that the flexibility that is necessary must be such as to give individual consideration to each country, a singular approach to all developing countries may not be helpful.

It is well-documented that those hardest hit by a state of Food Insecurity are found in rural areas. The clear suggestion here is that sustained reduction in Food Insecurity is only possible when rural and agricultural development is an item of focus on the development agenda. It is equally well-documented that where sustained elimination of hunger has been achieved, there was agricultural development. For the increase in and diversification of food supplies, public investment in agriculture and rural communities/economies is vital. This public investment must be broad-based, in order to reform agrarian practices that may also cause Food Insecurity. Consequently, investment is necessary in research, access to productive land, access to capital, infrastructure development including technology, and education.

These policy initiatives are necessary because farmers in the small developing countries find it increasingly difficult to compete with those in the developed world who are recipients of assistance during production. Some countries [OECD] often provide export subsidies for their products which can then be sold in the world market at prices below production. Such an environment is nothing more than caustic to products from developing countries that cannot effect similar price changes. 

Countries rely on a range of policy measures geared at increasing agricultural productivity and to create an environment that helps nascent industries to develop. Tariff and tariff revenue are vital to the policy measures for the small developing states. Such states, being States Parties to the WTO are often affected negatively by external shocks. These countries are unable to respond by applying policies that best suit the country in question. This is so because the tariff policy management has been hampered by the commitments made in the WTO. Put another way, and specifically for this context, developing countries do not have the flexibility to modify tariffs or to implement other such measures that are geared at the national objective of Food Security.

There are some mechanisms in the WTO that some will regard are protective of the States Parties’ flexibility for trade/development policy management. These mechanisms generally do not serve the purpose of small developing countries.  These mechanisms are by no means simple to ensure the immediate response that is often necessary. The process is complex and costly. Very few developing countries have the capacity, both institutional and legal to use these measures.  To illustrate, there are 15 Member States in the Caribbean Community, CARICOM. Only 3 have permanent offices in the WTO and there is one negotiator, the CARICOM Regional Negotiating Machinery that negotiates in all the multilateral trade negotiations on behalf of all CARICOM Member States. One CARICOM Member has to date mustered the resources to implement a safeguard mechanism and this took two years to do. Since then there have been constant calls to reform the process. The point to be made here is, though these mechanisms exist, small developing states do not have the capacity to implement them. Consequently, they do not lend any support to the maintenance of the policy space/flexibility that developing countries need.


It is not being suggested that trade is bad and only contributes to the hunger and displacement of the weak in the developing world. For that is very far from the truth. Trade only needs proper management. What is being suggested is that the international community has a responsibility to make trade work for the poor; to make it work in order to alleviate hunger. What is being argued is that trade rules as they currently obtains are insensitive to Food Security and that should not be the case...

If the weak, the poor and the less-able are not considered, gains from trade will neither be universal nor automatic. Focus must be given to the development of agricultural and market infrastructure, domestic policy reform and safety mechanism to must be responsive. Developing countries should be granted more flexibility or policy space to nurture their agrarian economies and rural communities. The immediate impact of international trade policies can be harsh; any safety mechanisms must contemplate this and be such that the process is immediately responsive. In sum, trading and trade policy must be a part of a coherent and integrated framework which promotes development, including agricultural development and Food Security. This integrated framework must bear enough flexibility to be able to respond to changes in the international trading system. We trade in order to ensure development and so trading rules cannot and should not be divorced from issues of development.

The recent doubling in world food prices and the constant rising in the oil prices has cause Food Security to rise to the top of the development agenda. The time is ripe for the international community to amend the existing trade rules to prepare states much better to address the issue of Food Security. The World Food Programme has been doing a commendable job in bringing food to the World’s hunger, but this cannot be a long term measure. It does not help in achieving sustainable development. People are better placed when they can work to produce their own bread. They must not rely on government to do everything; that is the basis of the free market policy of the WTO, but the rules must be such that each party can participate without being at a debilitating disadvantage. The playing feel will never be level; that is acknowledged, but it can be equitable and that it what the international community must seek to achieve.

The World Food Summit 1996 committed to ensuring that “food, agricultural trade and overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all through a fair and market-oriented world trade system.” The Summit also committed to promoting “optimal allocation and use of public and private investments to foster human resources, sustainable food, agriculture, fisheries and forestry systems, and rural development in high and low potential areas.” Twelve years on and we are yet to have made any real progress. This indicates that commitments made in a climate where the trade rules inheres contradiction to the development policy objective and necessary initiative of developing countries will not bear fruit. And so the past twelve years suggest that we need to change our trade rules. The time is ripe.

The WTO Ministerial Declaration at the launching of the Doha Round of negotiations in 2001 said that special and deferential treatment “shall be an integral part of all elements in the negotiations on agriculture…” it continued… “operationally effective and enable developing countries to take account of their development needs, including food security and rural development.” The Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration in 2005 states that “Developing country Members will have the flexibility to designate an appropriate number of products as special products, based on criteria of food security, livelihood security and rural development needs. These products will be eligible for more flexible treatment.”

In view of these Declarations it is only hoped that the WTO Members States will perform their responsibility by staying true to these words and giving the full effect to them, not to render them nugatory through the mechanism for their implementations. Through these Declaration and negotiations the WTO can acknowledge its role as being critical to the development efforts of the States Parties and to ensuring Food Security worldwide. Specifically, we must change the international trade laws to truly liberalize trade by removing agricultural subsidies in Europe and North America, or allow developing countries to implement tariff barriers to nurture their local agricultural sector as they do not have the resources to provide subsidies comparable to the more developed economies.

Note: I have specifically highlighted what is necessary. The issue as to how best to develop a programme to achieve this is one that requires a dialogue among developing Net-Food-Importing-Countries, which will serve to inform the stated intentions in the Doha and Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. I submit this Paper as further call for us to engage this discussion as this is a convenient time when we are already engaged in WTO negotiations, when we are feeling the effects of world hunger, when world food prices are increasing steadily, and when we have seen that commitments made without amending our trade rules will not lead to much progress.