Food as human right

Everyone has the Right to be Free from Hunger

1948 – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Food was first mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

This is the foundational document that sets out a common understanding of human rights and freedom for all peoples and all nations. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris 1948.

The Right to Food is framed as an essential element of adequate living.

Eleanor Roosevelt - First Lady of the United States reads the Declaration (photo: UN)

Article 25: (link)

  1. 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.
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

1966 – International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights

This was further elaborated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966.

In Article 11, the ICESCR points to 2 key elements of the right to food:

  • Identifying “adequate food” and positioning it as a component of the “right of everyone to an adequate standard of living” and,
  • Emphasizing the right “to be free from hunger” can be realized through a focus on issues of “production, conservation and distribution”.

Article 11: (link)

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

Food on the Global Agenda

United Nations efforts

1996 – World Food Summit

In 1996, nearly 20 years after the Right to Food was called into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, hunger and under-nutrition was still a widespread phenomenon. Despite the increased production of food, millions of people continued to suffer and die of hunger.

In response, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) called for The World Food Summit to accelerate progress and renew commitments from international governments to eradicate hunger.

Rome Declaration on World Food Security: (link)

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO 1996)

2015 – UN Sustainable Development Summit & Sustainable Development Goals

Nearly 70 years have passed and hunger remains high on the global agenda. Food security is now understood as closely linked to the effects of climate change.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda signed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in New York lists 17 Sustainable Development goals. It also calls to end hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

In the drive to end hunger, 2 key elements were highlighted:

  • Climate change impacts food and water security, “increasing risks associated with disasters such as droughts and floods”
  • Improving the agricultural sector can provide a sustainable solution and “is central for hunger and poverty eradication”
United Nations - Sustainable Development Goals

UN Sustainable Development Goals (2016-2030) (link)
Goal 2 Zero Hunger:

  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Food Security

Availability - Access - Use

Food Availability icon by Stan Diers for HKFoodWorks

Food Availability

Sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.

Food Access icon by Stan Diers for HKFoodWorks

Food Access

Having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.

Food Use icon by Stan Diers for HKFoodWorks

Food Use

Appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition & care (water/sanitation).

Food Security in Action

How do we eradicate hunger and provide food security for the world’s growing population? Different eras had different answers, and the way we conceive, operationalise and measure food security goals translated into very different kinds of policies and yielded drastically different outcomes.

Michael Carolan in his book Reclaiming Food Security pointed out that the concept of “food security” has gone through largely 3 phases:

Food Security
= Production ?

From the 1940’s to the 1970’s, the answer to feeding the world was through production, specifically the production of calories. The Green Revolution of the 1970’s was a direct result of this way of thinking – to produce as much calories as possible to feed the world.

example of Soy Bean Spraying

We now know that the Green Revolution has devastating effects on the environment by using large amount of chemical pesticides and herbicides to boost production.

Food Security
= Distribution ?

From the 1970’s, the world realized it was producing enough food to feed the world, but people were still suffering from hunger. So the focus was shifted to the distribution of food, and the market was then considered a solution for allocating resources.

Foreign Direct Investment

In the 1980’s as the neoliberal market gathers force, the market continues to dominate much of the decision making processes. Foreign Direct Investment allowed foreign businesses to enter new markets by investing in businesses located elsewhere, so that the foreign firms could own a substantial part of the business.

This model is particularly suited to the circulation of processed foods affecting individual and societal well-being, and reduces food sovereignty of nations.