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2017 Leadership Award Winner Olivier De Schutter

Debbie Koenig

October 26, 2017

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Human Rights Law Professor, Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Honored for his research and work in redesigning a sustainable food system on the local, national, and global level.

When it comes to big-picture views of the food world, few people can claim a better perch than Olivier De Schutter. He spent six years, from 2008 to 2014, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, charged with gathering and reporting back food-related insights from around the world. In that time he visited 13 countries and undertook missions for the World Trade Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations— all while continuing his work as a professor of human rights law. Those research trips led him to issue food-centric reports on intersecting subjects as disparate as land usage, agroecology, gender, climate change, and the agriculture-food health nexus.

“Olivier conducted this cross-cultural examination of food systems that no one had done before,” says 2014 JBF Leadership Award recipient Michael Pollan, one of De Schutter’s three co-authors of a series of op-eds about the need for a national food policy. “He drew a series of very powerful, galvanizing conclusions about where things needed to go.”

“I think it’s really important to recognize that the right to food is not simply about technological security that can increase production and ensure that there’s enough food to feed the entire population,” De Schutter says. “It’s about the ability for people to be protected from the insecurity that can lead to hunger or malnutrition.”

When De Schutter completed his mandate from the U.N. in 2014, he felt his work was unfinished. To continue it, he now co-chairs the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a group of 18 professionals from around the world in a variety of disciplines. Together, they develop recommendations for governments to improve the food system. “We try to raise questions that are not usually raised by other forums,” he says. “The biggest one is the question of power.”

Examining structural power imbalances comes naturally to De Schutter, the son of a diplomat. As a child he lived in India, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia, and these experiences color his worldview. “It’s impossible not to be moved by what you see and by the people you meet,” he says. “It’s a mixture of guilt and desire to change things, I think, that’s been motivating my work ever since.”

As issues of global sustainability and food security become more and more urgent, De Schutter brings a combination of curiosity, empathy, and perceptiveness to his work. “You need kind of a pollinator to go around the world, see what’s happening, and bring back ideas,” says Pollan. “Olivier has done that more systematically than anybody else.”

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The 2017 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients were honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping on October 23. Learn more about all our 2017 Leadership Award winners.