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Food as a right

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Yesterday, October 16th, was observed around the world as WORLD FOOD DAY. A multiplicity of activities was staged in most countries to mark the occasion, and there were many messages from officials, statements of concern and pledges to take urgent action to solve the world’s food problems.{{more}} In particular, the lofty Goal I of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” will be stressed once more and re-commitments made.

It is neither the first year, nor definitely the last, that we have gone through this routine. But this year, World Food Day takes place in the context of extraordinary circumstances. The global economy itself is in crisis, brought about by the greed of financiers and the inadequacy of the prevailing world economic order to meet the needs of all of the world’s people. Even as governments grapple with the deep financial crisis and spreading recession, there are major crises where energy costs and the price of the most basic human commodity, food, are concerned.

This time, it is not just the usual picture of millions of starving Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Haitians etc. The crisis has come home even to people in the developed nations in the form of astronomical increases in the price of food. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), of the United Nations, spells out the picture vividly. World food prices rose by 8 per cent between 2006 and 2007, but multiplied three fold (that is a 24 per cent increase) last year. The FAO notes with alarm that food prices globally rose by 54 per cent between June 2007 and June 2008. For the first three months of 2008 alone, prices of major food items were the highest in 50 years.

There is, therefore, every justifiable reason for alarm. One can debate which of the contributing factors- the weather, the diversion of food crops to produce biofuels, reduction in animal stocks, high fuel and transport cost etc., is more to be blamed. But there is no escaping the fact that misguided economic and agricultural policies lie at the root of the crisis. Food and agriculture took a back seat to the drivers of finance capital and the “service industries.” The gloomy consequences are now startling us.

It calls for a fundamental shift in outlook if we are to change the situation, a recognition that food is not just a commodity to be traded, but a BASIC RIGHT of all human beings. If this becomes the fulcrum of our thinking, then we are much better placed to develop policies and programmes to enable all to be able to exercise that right and thus place our economies and people on a more sustainable footing.