Free trade and the human right to food: The need to re-theorise and review international agricultural trade regulation

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Over the last fifty years or so, trade across international borders has increasingly been freed from constraints as a result of globalisation. However, concerns about food security have led to questioning of this liberalisation of trade, especially in the context of the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia- Ukraine war. The interruption of food supply chains has undermined the realisation of the human right to food and the need to ensure access to nutrition for the poor is now more urgent than ever.

Nonetheless, supporters of free trade maintain that the current regulatory framework for international agricultural trade improves the accessibility, availability, and affordability of food to the world’s population. Some human rights scholars and other academic commentators, on the other hand, maintain that the current World Trade Organisation’s  (WTO) model of liberalisation-based governance for agricultural trade exacerbates global hunger, rural underdevelopment and contributes to environmental degradation, especially in developing countries.

Despite these different points of view, the idea that liberalising agricultural trade should comply with obligations related to the human right to food is gaining momentum in multilateral agricultural trade negotiations.

A study conducted by Dr Shelton Mota Makore, postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Law, Professor Patrick Osode of the Faculty of Law and Dr Nombulelo Lubisi, also of the Faculty of Law, argues that current rules for the regulation of trade are not supportive of the realisation of the human right to food especially in developing countries. In making this argument, the three researchers question the set of principles and beliefs underlying the existing regulatory framework.

The study itself drew on a literature review involving a critical examination of pertinent legal instruments and scholarly writings. The review of the literature was conducted in order to demonstrate the need for the WTO to consider non-trade concerns, the most important of which involves the human right to food.

For the three researchers, the ideological thinking underpinninG the liberalisation of agricultural trade is problematic on a number of counts especially when evaluated against the human right to food.

Their study, therefore, argues that the WTO needs to re-theorise and reform its Agreement on Agriculture and, in doing so, pay attention to whether continued adherence to the established international Law principle of lex specialis, orthe idea that more specific rules should prevail over general rules, is appropriate as the promotion and protection of human rights is one of the most important goals of contemporary international law.

The framing of WTO rules (set out in the Agreement on Agriculture) in a way that undermines the human right to food and food security therefore creates the compelling need to re-think those rules from a perspective that prioritises state compliance with obligations arising from the human right to food. Free trade and the human right to food: The need to retheorise and review international agricultural trade regulation.

The human right to food is not the only reason for the need to review WTO rules identified by the three researchers, however. A reform of pertinent global trade law rules would also benefit small-scale farmers and people living in rural areas who are affected by agricultural trade liberalisation.

Once again, another study by University of Fort Hare researchers demonstrates a commitment not only to the rigorous production of knowledge but also the goal of using knowledge to contribute to greater equality.