Agricultural Trade and Right to Food Act in India

Addressing a joint session of Parliament on June 4, 2009, the President of India Pratibha Patil announced that India would soon pass a National Food Security Act. This announcement has not only received accolades from people like Amartya Sen, who called the Government’s initiative being “a step in the right direction”, but also generated an intense debate. If passed, the Right to Food Act can become – with the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – very significant.  

The historical and political background of the right to food concerns the development of the notion of access to adequate food as a right. Lack of access to food can be due to two reasons: scarcity of food, or problem of access to available food. The issue of world hunger has been characterized as shortage of food. Guaranteeing the right to food has, therefore, been linked to food production to overcome shortage.

However, hunger and malnutrition persist even if food is abundant. For many years the website of the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C. has described India’s agriculture and rural development as “a saga of success”. It boasts, “From a nation dependent on food imports to feed its population, India today is not only self-sufficient in grain production, but also has a substantial reserve.”[1] It is true that the country now produces enough food to feed its entire population. Despite agricultural successes, India still has a huge number of malnourished people, more than any other country.

The greater cause for hunger and malnutrition, therefore, is the problem of access to adequate food. Poor and marginalized segments of the population lack purchasing power to buy minimum amount of food they need to prevent hunger. Food insecurity exists even if there is food in abundance. Trading more food will not help the poor and the marginalized, if they are excluded from production and have no means to buy the food which arrives on the markets. Producing more food will not assist them in purchasing food, if their incomes remain too low. The problem is one of accessibility of food for the poor and the marginalized. So a focus solely on increasing the supply of food could lead to policy choices that make hunger worse.[2] Policy makers should address the problem of access to adequate food and make changes in income distribution and trade policies that are needed to ensure that the human right to adequate food is realized in practice. 

Access to adequate food is funda­mental for the right to adequate food. Accessed food must be ade­quate in terms of quality, quantity and cultural accept­ability. Access to adequate food has been defined in terms of intake of nutrients, calories and proteins. Malnutrition need not be lack of quantity of food in­take, but could also be due to lack of quality food. Both are often the results of poverty and discrimi­nation.

Right to adequate food sets obligations on the state. It also helps empower those vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition to hold government accountable. Poor and marginalized are not mere passive beneficiaries of government programs or private charities, but participate in the democratic process of policy formation and implementation.

State Obligation to Right to Adequate Food

Given the crucial importance of access to adequate food in a world of plenty where massive hunger persists, it is not surprising that the right to adequate food has received attention in the community of states. More appropriately, it is a reminder to the states of their commitment to ensure that the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger and the right to adequate food is safeguarded.

For sixty years, the legal, political and cultural concept of the human right to food has been evolving as a set of universal norms for the United Nations community, its member states, and civil society. Paragraph 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declares: “…everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself [sic] and his family, including food…” Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adds: “State parties to the present Covenant recognize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger…” and agree “to take steps to the maximum of available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized, including “adequate food.” Some two hundred additional UN instruments and declarations address the right to adequate food and nutrition within civil-political, economic-social-cultural, development, indigenous, women’s, and children’s rights constructions.

Under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”[3] The core content of the right to adequate food implies the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture. The right to adequate food is “indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfillment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. It is also inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels, oriented to the eradication of poverty and the fulfillment of all human rights for all.”[4]

The right to adequate food imposes threefold obligation on States: to respect, protect and fulfill the human right to adequate food. The State is obliged to refrain from taking any measures that result in preventing existing access to adequate food (respect); to ensure that private actors or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food (protect); and pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security (fulfill as facilitate). Finally, whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfill (as provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.[5]

States have committed themselves to implement policies aimed at eradicating poverty and hunger, and improving physical and economic access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe food.[6] In 1996 in their Rome Declaration on World Food Security, world leaders and their representatives stated: “We consider it intolerable that more than 800 million people throughout the world, and particularly in developing countries, do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. This situation is unacceptable.”[7]

Reality of Poverty and Malnutrition

In spite of growing recognition and solemn commitments made by world leaders, the stark reality is that there are more hungry people today. The number of hungry people has increased from approximately 840 million in 1996 to 967 million in 2008.[8] More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger”, or micronutrient malnutrition. Majority of the hungry are in rural areas, as around 70% of the world’s poor people live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for their income, food supply and livelihoods. According to a UN-Hunger Task Force report, three out of five small farmers suffer from hunger.[9]

Action Aid International has identified the following groups as the most affected by hunger and malnutrition: agricultural laborers, landless, poor farmers, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, informal sector workers, unemployed people, street children, the homeless, people living in areas of conflict or at risk from conflict,[10] refugees, migrant workers, settlers and the internally displaced. Within these groups, women, children, especially girls, disabled people, the elderly and female-headed households are the most vulnerable.[11] 125 million people die each year from malnutrition related causes. Children and adults are left mentally and physically stunted, deformed or blind, condemning them to a marginal existence. Hunger repeats itself through the generations, as undernourished mothers give birth to children who will never fully develop.[12]

In India it is evident that, although the 1990s saw a period of sustained economic growth as the country moved towards a more market-oriented economy, this economic growth did not benefit all Indians equally. Middle and upper classes in urban areas have benefited under “India Shining”, but the poor have suffered a decline in living standards and rising food insecurity. Poverty[13] and malnutrition, especially among women, children, and people who belong to scheduled castes and tribes, remain very high. About 2 million children die every year as a result of serious malnutrition and preventable diseases. Nearly half suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition. This is one of the highest levels of child malnutrition in the world. Nearly a third of children (30%) are born underweight, which means that their mothers are themselves underweight and undernourished.[14]

Hunger and malnourishment is predominant in rural areas of India. 70% of Indians still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods (65%). Very low agricultural wages (minimum wages are not always enforced), landlessness, lack of work during the agricultural lean season, and the impacts of trade liberalization have contributed to food insecurity.

Right to Adequate Food and Agricultural Trade

As noted above, the majority of hungry and malnourished live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for their income, food supply and livelihoods. They are food producers, such as landless laborers or small farm holders. Among the factors that contribute to this paradox of hungry farmers is the agricultural trading system, according to Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The dominant trend in market-oriented globalization is “to expand the global reach for investments and to broaden market for profit.”[15] Investments in agriculture, food processing and marketing are on the rise. International trade in food has increased due to reduced trade barriers. Relentless pressure for unrestricted international trade and investment has not only constrained the policy space of governments, but also resulted in national and local governments and economies ceding some sovereignty over their markets.       

Today, agricultural trade is far from being free or fair. Many developed countries continue to protect agriculture as a question of national security and food security, while persuading  developing countries into unilaterally liberalizing their agricultural sectors, often under the programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In his address to the Future Farmers of America in Washington on July 27, 2001George W. Bush, then President, stated, “It’s important for our nation to build – to grow foodstuffs, to feed our people. Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed the people? It would be a nation subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk. And so when we’re talking about American agriculture, we’re really talking about a national security issue.”[16] In the same speech, Bush argued against “the trade barriers, the protectionist tendencies around the world that prevent our products from getting into markets.”[17]

Despite preaching the “benefits” of “free” trade in agriculture, US, EU, Japan and other industrialized countries continue to skew their farm subsidies so heavily in favor of their biggest agricultural producers. From 1995 to 2006 USDA provided $177 billion in subsidy to its farmers.[18] Top 10% of the agricultural producers received 74% of the total amount.[19] During this period US government provided nearly one billion dollar subsidy to just three American rice growers.[20] Rice is staple food for nearly 3.7 billion Asians. Nobel Prize winner in economics Joseph Stiglitz described the United States Farm Bill as “the perfect illustration of the Bush administration’s hypocrisy on trade liberalization.”

In 2004 EU paid its biggest 2,460 famers on average $667,000 each, or $1.7 billion in total. In Germany, 14% of the biggest farm producers got 65% of all payments; in France, 29% of the biggest farm producers got 72% of all payments; in UK, 31% of the biggest farm producers got 84% of all payments; and in Italy, 1.6% of the biggest farm producers got 34% of all payments.[21] These figures make a mockery of claims that the US Farm Bill and EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are geared toward small farmers and rural development. This huge subsidy allows food cartel to sell rice, wheat and other staple foods at very low price to dominate global food market. This displaces local production of basic foodstuffs and farming livelihoods in developing countries. “These subsidies continue to promote over-production and dumping, hurting poor farmers in developing countries,” said Luis Morago, Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair spokesperson. He further said, “Europe’s common agricultural policy and the US Farm Bill continue to ignore small farmers at home and cripple poorer farmers abroad.”[22]

While developed countries pay huge subsidies to their biggest food producers to dominate the production of staple foods like rice, corn/maize and wheat, and milk, developing countries are left at a severe disadvantage, as they cannot afford to subsidize their agriculture, but must reduce tariffs and open up to unfair competition from subsidized products of the developed countries. Measures to help smallholders such as farm subsidies and cheap credit policies has been opposed by international financial institutions and has fallen out of favor at  the national level of many developing countries because it does not serve the interests of those who influence the government. In most developing countries small farm holders do not have the strength to either compete in or resist the pressures of market globalization.

Right to Adequate Food and Agribusiness Companies

The agricultural trade liberalization has benefited big farms and agribusiness companies of the developed countries. It benefited 1% of farms larger than 100 hectares, while harming 85% of farms with less than 2 hectares.[23] The globalization of agriculture has been accompanied by concentration of market power into the hands of a limited number of large-scale trade and retail agribusiness companies. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) notes,  

One of the more striking features of industry changes…has been the convergence of ownership between agrochemical and seed/genomic firms. This strategy has worked well to sell proprietary bundled lines of chemicals, genetic technologies and seeds, which can be attractive to farmers as a purchased management tool. However, such bundles can increase reliance on expensive inputs, increase farmers’ costs, and reduce flexibility of on-farm management strategies for pests and weeds, as well as implementation of novel consumer-driven production systems.[24]

Transnational corporations have monopolized the food chain, from the production, trade, processing, to the marketing and retailing of food. Globally, the seed industry is increasingly driven by US and Europe based transnational agribusiness companies. Just 10 companies, which include Aventis, Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta, control one-third of the $23 billion commercial seed market and 80 per cent of the $28 billion global pesticide market. Monsanto alone controls 91 per cent of the global market for genetically modified seed. Another 10 companies, including Cargill, control 57 per cent of the total sales of the world’s leading 30 retailers.[25] 

With the trade deal between India and the United States, known as the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), the Indian markets and agricultural policies are increasingly coming under the influence of transnational companies such as Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland Company, a US grain purchaser and trader and is, with Cargill, one of the companies that maintains “oligopolistic control of the American food-manufacturing and food-processing markets”, and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.[26] These three companies are members on the KIA Board, which implements the KIA. The Board has decided to focus initially on four core areas: agricultural education, food processing and marketing, biotechnology and water management.[27] “The KIA is part of the US comprehensive strategy on revitalizing the bilateral relationship in agriculture with India,” said Susan Owens, director of the FAS Research and Scientific Exchanges Division. Owen stated: “We want to broaden the scope of the AKI (or KIA) beyond just research…We want to use the AKI (or KIA) to increase agricultural production in India….”[28]

Monsanto owns the patent on Bt cotton. In 2005 approximately 1.26 million hectares, and in 2006 nearly 3.28 million hectares of land in India was under Bt cotton cultivation. Farmers who buy GM seeds enter into a licensing agreement with Monsanto for the use of that particular gene and the company prescribed fertilizer. They are forbidden from saving seeds for the next season. They must buy new seed from the company each season. This denies farmers’ right to save seed. The implications of this are huge for poor farmers. Saved seed is the one resource that the poor farmers depend upon to carry them through the year. Denial of this right will greatly impact them economically. For they have to pay more each season to buy new seed. Monsanto is now charging 1850 Indian rupees per 450 gram pack of Bt cotton seeds as compared to 38 Indian rupees charged in China for the same quantity. In India, the price for non-Bt cotton variety is at 450 to 500 Indian rupees. India has recently allowed field trials of GM varieties of rice, brinjal and groundnut.

In many regions of the world, transnational corporations now have unprecedented control over food, and there is no coherent system of accountability to ensure that they do not abuse this power. Global food companies have become too powerful and are undermining the right to adequate food in developing countries.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs)

Introduction of the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) has become an increasingly important source of competitive advantage and accumulation in the production and trade of agricultural goods. This has resulted in the increasing concentration of control over seeds and other resources in a few transnational companies. The IPR owners, usually transnational companies, can prevent others from producing or selling the seeds or plant varieties over which they own the rights. They can set prices or royalties on the seeds, and terms and conditions for use of the seeds and inputs. This not only denies the right of farmers to save seeds for the next season, but also forces them to depend on transnational companies for seeds and inputs. With raising prices of seeds and inputs, coupled with prevention of saving seeds, small scale farmers become vulnerable whether there is bumper crop, or failure or low yield. In times of bumper crop, they get lower price for their produce, and in times of failure or low yield they incur loss. But the farming costs keep rising.

Because of their sheer size and assurance of huge financial returns due to IPRs, transnational companies are increasingly engaged in agro-biotechnology research. As the goal of companies is profit, their research and production efforts tend to focus on only a few crops, thus weakening biodiversity and sustainability caused by expanding monoculture in food production. The consequences are terrible on “minor crops”, which are commercially not profitable for the companies.

With the trends towards strengthening IPR systems worldwide (and in India), there is an increasing ability of agribusiness companies privatizing genetic resources and agricultural knowledge. The tendency will be to focus on research on lucrative developing country markets, rather than developing country needs. Therefore, IPRs are not designed to respond to socio-economic concerns such as food security of developing countries, or to protect the livelihoods of landless and small scale farmers, but to promote the greed of agribusiness companies at the expense of landless and small scale famers in these countries. Thus, IPRs can impede progress towards sustainability, food security and distributive justice.

Right to Adequate Food – the Guiding Framework for Policies and Action

The present liberalized agricultural trade system excludes millions of landless and small scale farmers, and undermines the ability of developing countries to protect their farmers. What is very clear is that in the long run hundreds of millions will die from hunger, while the markets expand.

Therefore, an approach to international trade based on human rights, particularly the right to adequate food, shifts the focus not only to the impacts of trade and its policies on the most vulnerable and food insecure, but also to enhance the welfare of the vulnerable people. The right to adequate food can only be fully realized by States within a multilateral trading system which enables them to pursue policies aimed at realizing the right to adequate food. Trading system should not only refrain from imposing obligations which directly infringe upon the right to adequate food, but also ensure that all States have the policy space they require to take measures which contribute to the progressive realization of the right to adequate food under their jurisdiction.[29] State, as part of its obligation to protect people’s resource base for food, should take appropriate steps to ensure that activities of the private business companies are in conformity with the right to adequate food.

The report of The International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development (IAASTD) provides valuable insights and recommendations recognizing the need for complementary and diversified approaches to sustainable agriculture, pointing out that agricultural models based on small farming can present alternatives appropriate for a human rights based food security. While the report was strongly welcomed by NGOs for its calls for immediate radical changes in international agriculture, there was a strong opposition from countries such as US, UK, Canada and Australia.[30] A few months before the launch of the report, major private sector stakeholders, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, resigned altogether from the IAASTD project in October 2007 as the conclusions were clearly against their interests.

Some of IAASTD’s observations and suggestions are[31]:

  • modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production. But the benefits have been spread unevenly and have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment;
  • the way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse;
  • prioritize the promotion of small farmer agriculture and the livelihood of indigenous peoples, giving special attention to the role and situation of women in food production;
  • take measures to promote and protect the security of land tenure, especially with respect to women and vulnerable groups, with special attention to equitable land distribution, with agrarian reform if necessary, as mentioned in Article 11(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Voluntary Guidelines for the progressive realization of the right to adequate food;
  • take measures to strengthen local markets, shortening the chain from food production to food consumption;
  • promote small scale agriculture as important source of employment and livelihood.
  • All national and international policies should be guided by a human rights based approach, to guarantee that they respect, protect and fulfill the progressive realization of the right to adequate food; 
  • develop mechanisms to monitor private companies in order to ensure that they respect the right to adequate food, consistent with the obligation of States to protect this right.

The formulation and implementation of national strategies for the right to food requires full compliance with the principles of accountability, transparency, people’s participation, decentralization, legislative capacity and the independence of the judiciary. Good governance is essential to the realization of all human rights, including right to adequate food.[32] When political elites recognize that promotion of human rights, including economic and social rights such as the right to adequate food, actually enhances sustainable economic growth, we can start to expect that freedom from hunger will become a matter of the past.




























[1] George Kent, Swaraj against Hunger, University of Hawaii,  August 9, 2009.

[2] “The Right to Food and the WTO,” (April 8, 2009).

[3] The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11): 12/05/99. E/C. 12/1999/5. (General Comments).

 [4] The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11): 12/05/99. E/C. 12/1999/5. 

[5] The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11): 12/05/99. E/C. 12/1999/5.

[6] The Cordoba Declaration on the Right to Food, December 12, 2008.

[7] The Cordoba Declaration on the Right to Food, December 12, 2008.

[8] The Cordoba Declaration on the Right to Food, December 12, 2008.

[9] Arun Shrivastava, “Poverty and Food Insecurity in the Developing World: For Us, Tolls the Bell,” in  Global Research (May 7, 2009).

[10] “U.S. weapons sales are likely to continue to fuel conflict and abet human rights abuses. During the two Bush terms, the majority of U.S. arms sales to the developing world went to countries that our own State Department defined as undemocratic regimes and/or major human rights abusers. And over two-thirds of the world’s active conflicts involved weapons that had been supplied by the United States.” Frida Berrigan, “Weapons: Our No#1 Export?” in Foreign Policy In Focus (July 1, 2009).

[11] Annual Report 2005-Right to Food, Action Aid International.

[12] ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: The Right to Food. Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2003/25, E/CN.4/2004/10, 9 February 2004.

[13] According to the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 (Rs. 56.13) per day, the number of poor in India during 2004-2005 was 456 million, that is, 41.6% of the population.

[14] ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: The right to food. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, Addendum MISSION TO INDIA (20 August-2 September 2005), E/CN.4/2006/44/Add.2, 20 March 2006.

[15] Asbjorn Eide, “The Human Right to Food and Contemporary Globalization.”

[16] See

[17] See






[23] “The Right to Food and the WTO,” (April 8, 2009).

[24] “Food Security in a Volatile World,” International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

[25] “ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: The right to food,” Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2003/25. E/CN.4/2004/10, 9 February 2004.

[26] Kamalakar Duvvuru, “Monsanto, a Contemporary East India Company, and Corporate Knowledge in India,” in DissidentVoice (July 25, 2009).

[27] Dinesh C. Sharma, “Preparing for New Challenges,” in Span (March/April 2007).

[28] Julia Debes, “U.S.-India Agricultural Cooperation: A New Beginning,” in FAS Worldwide (September 2006).

[29] Background Document Prepared by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Mr. Olivier De Schutter, on His Mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2009 (background study to UN doc. A/HRC/10/005/Add.2)

[30] Wenche Barth Eide and Uwe Kracht, “Official Responses to the World Food Crisis in Light of the Human Right to Food,” (February 11, 2009).

[31] Wenche Barth Eide and Uwe Kracht, “Official Responses to the World Food Crisis.”

 [32] The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11): 12/05/99. E/C. 12/1999/5.


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4 Responses to “Agricultural Trade and Right to Food Act in India”

  1. Nutritional Supplement Says:

    Agricultural scientists study farm crops and animals and develop ways of improving their quantity and quality. Nutritional Supplement

  2. Savannah Says:

    Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

  3. Sourav Roy Says:

    Hunger is a curse on mankind. With the Food Rights bill proposed by the government, there is some hope that the country is on the rise. But the major hurdle to this bill is the unavailability of proper data like how many families are below the poverty line that will require food security? There is no singular data that the country has agreed upon.

    The number of people below poverty line in India is 420 million according to the world bank, 500 million according to N.C. Saxena Committee, 600 million according to the Economic Survey of 2009, and a whooping 770 million according to the Arjun Sengupta Committee. Who do we believe in? Can this bill can ever be implemented?

  4. vanzari animale porci Says:

    The total water demand for agriculture, domestic and industrial sectors
    of India in 1995 was estimated to be about 650 KM3, of this about 90% is withdrawn for agriculture sector. The state or local community of a neighboring chapter will decide if you can join their chapter in case there is no FFA chapter in your community. These bacteria break down organic matter in the soil to feed the plants.

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