Food Justice

The Right to Food

The Right to Food

When the world can produce more than enough food to adequately feed the global population, it shames us all that hunger and malnutrition exist.

December 7, 2012

In the time it takes to read this sentence, a child under the age of ten will die of hunger-related causes somewhere in the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 870 million people have suffered from undernourishment in the past two years, and more than two billion live with “hidden hunger” – micronutrient deficiencies – which has devastating long-term effects, such as mental retardation and brain damage. When the world can produce more than enough food to adequately feed the global population, it shames us all that hunger and malnutrition exist. 

The Right to Food: What is it?

Food is the basis for human wellbeing and survival. Food was first accorded universal recognition as a human right as a matter of law in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was subsequently amplified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are several definitions of the Right to Food. The Office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, led by Olivier de Schutter, uses the following definition: 

The Right to Food is the right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

In other words, the Right to Food is a fundamental human right. All human beings are entitled to access nutritious, healthy food. In order to feed oneself, a person must be able to either produce his or her own food or purchase food items from markets. Producing food requires that a person have regular, unrestricted access to resources such as land, seeds and water. Purchasing food requires access to markets and the financial means or bartering ability to buy food. Also, the right requires that food for a balanced nutritious diet is culturally acceptable and affordable, so that people do not have to compromise other basic needs, such as housing or medicine, in order to obtain food.

However, there are some misconceptions about the Right to Food. Special Rapporteur de Schutter states, “It is not simply the right to minimum calories or a right to be fed. It is about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself,” either by purchasing food or producing it. 

Realization of the Right to Food: Country Case Studies

Historically, the Right to Food has been largely a rhetorical device. Although the right to food is protected under international human rights and humanitarian law, it is up to each country to adopt and implement it. Under international law, governments are the primary bodies responsible for meeting the human rights of its citizens. The 1996 FAO World Food Summit provided the first coherent plan outlining the state’s obligation to abide by the Right to Food by developing national laws, strategies, policies and programs. Since the summit, some countries have included the right to food in their constitutions, others have adopted national food security strategies, and many countries have largely ignored it.

In 1996, the Republic of South Africa became the first country to include the Right to Food in its constitution. In 2005, a case was brought before the South African Equality Court demanding the right of small-scale fishermen to take and sell a certain number of lobsters and other specialties of fish per day during the fishing season and in 2007 the Equality Court agreed with the fishermen, demanding the development of a legislative and policy framework that accommodated traditional fishers. Right to Food advocates saw this as a major victory for fisherman in the country. For more information on countries tackling hunger with a right to food approach, click here.

Like South Africa, Brazil is often quoted as a country that has achieved great success in tackling hunger since affirming the right to food. In 2003, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva came to power created a ministry to fight hunger, and with a budget of $2 billion a year created a national food safety net with its Zero Hunger initiative. Brazil has already achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG 1) of reducing poverty by half, created more than 10 million jobs and achieved agricultural exports among the largest in the world. (Brazil has reduced child mortality 73 percent since 1992 – 20 years.) The examples of these two nations illustrate that national governments can effectively fight hunger as they reaffirm the Right to Food.

What’s the Future We Want?

In June 2012, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed “Rio+20.” At the end of the conference, governments adopted “The Future We Want,” an agreement between the 193 Member States of the United Nations that reaffirmed “commitments regarding the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.”

This mention of the fundamental right to food was not merely symbolic; it has the power to be incorporated into national dialogues about food. According Special Rapporteur de Schutter, once put into law, the right to food can provide a buffer against serious threats to food security such as “land grabbing, overexploitation of natural resources or unregulated investments, or against a form of development that is insufficiently participatory and inclusive.”

Food is essential to survival and wellbeing, but it is also imperative to consider why the Right to Food is important. A lack of access to adequate food can impair a person’s ability to work or attend school. It can also affect a person’s ability to afford shelter, buy medicines or provide for his or her family. Conversely, a lack of money to purchase food or resources such as land, seeds and water to grow food, also affect a person’s ability to live successfully under the other provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sarika Mathur works for the Global Justice office at United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 12/6/2012 11:00:00 PM