An introduction to the “right to food”

    | June 15, 2009

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    In discussions about land grabbing and the growing demand for biofuels, the phrase “right to food” often arises. You and your listeners may have your own definition(s) of the right to food, and what it means for your community and your country. This article discusses the right to food, defined as the human right for access to the resources to produce or purchase food, to not go hungry, and to live a healthy life. The article will discuss how the right to food was enshrined in UN conventions. It will also discuss how land grabbing infringes on this human right, the responsibility of governments to uphold the right to food when considering land deals, and why failing to do so is a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

    The UN and the right to food

    1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    The right to food is recognized by the UN as a human right in article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25(1) states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

    1966 UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

    In the decades following the release of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN re-evaluated the right to food, and prepared guidelines on how to improve access to food for all. For example, the legally binding 1966 UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right to food. Article 11(1) outlines a government’s responsibility to take appropriate action to ensure that its people have access to food by improving methods for production, distribution, and conservation of food. It also states that, when looking at food importing and exporting, there should be an equitable distribution of food internationally. The covenant came into force in 1976 and has been ratified by 160 countries.

    Follow this link to see if your country has ratified the covenant:

    1996 Rome World Food Summit

    By 1996, the issue of food security was clearly not disappearing, and countries of the world met in Rome for the World Food Summit. At the time, it was calculated that, globally, 800 million people did not have access to food that met their basic nutritional needs. The Summit focused on finding new strategies to fight hunger. Summit participants declared that poverty was one of the main causes of food insecurity; those living in poverty do not have the resources to produce or purchase their own food. The convention ended in a declaration that committed governments to implement policies to eradicate poverty and to: “pursue participatory and sustainable food, agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development policies and practices in high and low potential areas, which are essential to adequate and reliable food supplies at the household, national, regional and global levels, and combat pests, drought and desertification, considering the multifunctional character of agriculture.”

    Voluntary guidelines for improving food security

    In 2004, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization revisited the issue of the right to food in the context of food security and created a set of voluntary guidelines for convent signatories to follow in order to achieve maximum food security in their countries. The guidelines include:

    Good governance in democracy: states should promote democracy, law and order, sustainable development, and protect human rights. Food should not be used as a “tool for political and economic pressure.”
    Strategies: governments should make pragmatic strategies to achieve their goals including, a “human rights-based” approach, poverty-reduction strategies, as well as targets, benchmarks, and time frames.
    Market systems: improve the food and agriculture markets and protect consumers.
    Institutions: governments should re-evaluate the performance of public institutions to be sure they are fulfilling their mandates and, if not, take the appropriate steps.

    To view the voluntary guidelines, visit this site:

    The right to food and land grabbing

    Land grabbing is increasingly threatening food security and the right to food as foreign investors turn to the developing world for land. It can have a large impact on those who grow food or whose livelihood is otherwise tied to land coveted by investors. This is not only true when small-scale farmland is taken over for large-scale plantations. If a government or company cuts down a forest to create a plantation, those who depended on the forest for food will have their right to food threatened. Governments interested in making a profit have sometimes considered land used by small-scale farmers or pastoral communities as “unproductive” and, if the government nominally owns the land, have felt free to sell or lease it to foreign or even local investors. By taking away land where people grow food and earn their livelihoods, the government is violating their right to food.

    What is your government’s legal responsibility?

    Under the UN covenant, the national government of a member country is a duty-bearer – that is, the party responsible – for upholding its peoples’ right to food and other human rights. The government can achieve this by:
    1) Respecting the right to food—making sure the government’s own actions do not threaten it.
    2) Protecting the right to food—preventing other actors (e.g. individuals, companies, or foreign governments) from threatening it.
    3) Fulfilling the right to food—taking actions to ensure that people can obtain food either by growing it themselves, or by earning enough income to buy it. If people cannot get enough food by other means, then the government is responsible for providing it.

    This resource was prepared by Farm Radio International volunteer Yamina Tsalamlal, with special thanks to Paul Hagerman, Public Policy Manager for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.