Large agribusiness hurting small landholders, says UN rights expert

5 March 2010

In an increasingly globalized food sector dominated by large transnational corporations, small landowners are getting a smaller portion of the food dollar, the independent United Nations expert on the right to food warned today.

“Agribusiness can play a key role in realizing the right to food. But States have to give more support to their small producers and push corporations to change their pricing and standards policies,” said Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter, presenting his second annual report to the UN Human Rights Council now underway in Geneva.

He noted that smallholders have a very limited number of buyers, and are in a deeply unequal bargaining position in respect of a fair price for their crops.

“This situation partly explains why smallholders in developing countries are the single most important group of those suffering hunger in the world today,” the Special Rapporteur added.

In addition to tax incentives and other tools that States can use to enhance the small producers’ ability to obtain higher prices for their produce, Mr. De Schutter said States should act when foreign suppliers abuse national sellers.

The development of private standards – such as hygiene and food safety – has worked against smallholders, the report noted. Compliance has often required higher levels of capitalization than many small producers could afford, and the high costs of monitoring compliance of a large number of units have been an incentive for export companies to switch from smallholders to larger commercial farms.

The report also highlighted the importance of protecting the rights of agricultural workers to ensure that wages and working conditions are held to standard.

“Agribusiness companies must not contribute, directly or indirectly, to human rights abuses through their relationship with suppliers,” Mr. De Schutter said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month that smallholders and rural producers have a vital role to play in overcoming global hunger and poverty at a time when more than 1 billion people suffer from hunger, the highest number in human history.

“We need to continue creating diverse and innovative partnerships that can help people and communities achieve greater productivity, nutritional health and self-reliance,” he said in a message to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome.

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