No sustainable development without food security

By P.-E. Bouillot

On the eve of the United Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Rio +20), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls for a greater consideration of food security issues in the debate. As the FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said, it seems obvious that sustainable development cannot be realized without the eradication of hunger and malnutrition.

In the framework of sustainable development, the equation between agricultural and food systems seems simple. On the one hand, farmers must produce enough food for the population and live with the incomes of their activities. On the second hand, consumers must access food in sufficient quantity and quality. Finally, the system must avoid the destruction of the environment so that the Earth can also provide food for the future generations. However, if this equation seems rather simple in theory, making the transition to sustainable agricultural and food systems can be more complicated in practice.

As it is explained in the FAO report “Towards the future we want”, many levers must be operated to carry out these systems: agronomic tools for sustainable intensification and climate-smart agricultural production systems should be created, public policies should be set to encourage sustainable consumption and laws should be passed to guarantee the access to resources and particularly to land.

Indeed, the law has a key role in the transition to sustainable food production systems, especially to “establish and protect the rights to resources”. Even today, there are still some parts of the world where inequalities in tenure of land persist, which sometimes leads to extreme situations such as the expropriation of land from farmers or the displacement of entire populations. Often the phenomenon of “land-grabbing” is the result of collusion between modern law and customary law systems related to land which allows powerful investors to lay a claim. The new law is established without taking into account how land tenure was organized by the customary law. It involves the state sovereignty, which allows the states to do whatever they want of their resources including the choice of tenure of land, which can be rented, sold or lent to local or foreign, private or public investors.

In this context, the FAO recently published Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, which suggest a frame for investment in farmland. This document would promote “secure tenure rights and equitable access to natural resources” to insure food security and support sustainable development.

Unfortunately, the impact of these tools is limited by the legal status of these guidelines and the report “Towards the future we want”. They are not legally binding for the states or the investors. The transition to sustainable agricultural and food systems stays under the will of states and the adoption of national or international laws, commitments, treaties or agreements.

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