Freedom from hunger: the most basic of human rights

Author: Tim Costello (World Vision), Julia Newton-Howes (CARE), Paul O’Callaghan (ACFID), Jack de Groot (Caritas),
Andrew Hewett (Oxfam), and Robert Tickner (Red Cross).

Starvation is synonymous with poverty. Food is the most basic of human needs. After all the extras are cut out, and then the necessities – clothes, shelter, education – only food is left. 

Today is International Human Rights Day, and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of that declaration enshrines the right of every person to have adequate food. Article 3 enshrines the right to life. 

But this year, more than 9.1 million people have died from hunger and poverty. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that last year, the number of undernourished people increased by 75 million, from an estimate of 848 million people in 2003-05.  
Australian families have already noticed that eating is an expensive necessity. In the past three years, the price of bread in Australia has climbed 31% to an average cost of $3.36. Similarly the price of a kilogram of potatoes has increased 41% to an average cost of $2.44 since 2005. 

Globally the situation is far more urgent, with food prices rising 83 per cent since 2005. Prices fluctuate dramatically from day-to-day, and the world's poorest people are struggling to cope. In Bangladesh a two kilogram bag of rice now costs half the daily income of a poor family. In East Africa, millions are in urgent need of emergency food supplies. Some households are beginning to sell productive assets such as tools, livestock and land to buy food, further undermining their ability to generate income and to produce food. 

More broadly, high food prices are impacting the world’s ability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and recent developmental gains in reducing malnutrition are at risk of being reversed. 

But as John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has noted, this is not just a food price crisis, but a food production crisis, a food aid crisis and a food security crisis. We must address all four issues. 

There are many humanitarian disasters in the world, all calling out for attention. Collectively we believe the global food crisis is the equal of any of them. But it is a difficult story to tell: there are many locations, it mostly unfolds in a sedate fashion and its causes are complex. Trade rules, fuel prices, climate change, population growth, urbanisation and biofuels have all combined to thrust millions more people to the brink of starvation. 

Last week the Prime Minister reiterated Australia’s support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have an obligation to uphold its principles. There are actions the Australian Government and the Australian public can take to confront the global food crisis. 

Food shortages are particularly hurting women and children. In developing countries, women produce 80 per cent of all food, and they’re often too poor to pay for agricultural inputs, meaning they struggle to feed themselves and their families. Australia’s agricultural aid needs to be targeted at supporting these women, and other small scale farmers, to help increase food security and reduce poverty. 

Australia’s low levels of agricultural protection and zero tariffs on goods from the world’s least developed countries means we’re in a good position to be able to push for trade rules that assist developing countries. 

The Australian Government should take the lead in developing a pro-poor conclusion to the Doha round of trade talks. The Australian Government has also given strong financial support to the World Food Programme, providing more than $30 million in 2008. This is vital in providing short term food aid. The funding should be continued, and other countries should also be encouraged to provide adequate support. 

However the international aid system must bridge the divide between emergency and long term development. Australian aid money must focus on disaster risk reduction, investing in food production, targeted investment in supporting small scale farmers, and providing long-term safety nets to prevent the poorest falling over the edge into starvation. 
Much has been made of the role of biofuels as both a solution to energy needs and a threat to food security. The technology is still evolving, but one thing is clear: Australia must not use food crops for biofuels. Equally, we must not divert arable land for the production of biofuels. Most importantly, the government should work through APEC and bilateral relationships to encourage our neighbours – who have committed far greater tracts of land to biofuel crops – to adopt the same policy. 

Hunger is a slow despair. Mothers are left helpless, unable to feed their children. It is a quiet tragedy, but one that can be tackled with strong, inventive leadership from government and the continued support of the Australian public.


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