The right to food as a human right

1. What is the right to food?

The right to food is a human right recognized under international law which protects the right of all human beings to feed themselves in dignity, either by producing their food or by purchasing it.

To produce his or her own food, a person needs land, seeds, water and other resources, and to buy it, one needs money and access to the market. The right to food therefore requires States to provide an enabling environment in which people can use their full poten¬tial to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families. To purchase food, a person needs adequate incomes: the right to food consequently requires States to ensure that wage policies or social safety nets enable citizens to realize their right to adequate food.

As authoritatively defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Committee on ESCR) in its General Comment 12:

"The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement."

For the Special Rapporteur, the right to food is:

"The right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted 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 ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”

2. What is not the right to food?

The right to food is not a right to a minimum ration of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients, or a right to be fed. It is about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires not only that food is available – that the ratio of production to the population is sufficient – but also that it is accessible – i.e., that each household either has the means to produce or buy its own food.

However, when people are not able to feed themselves with their own means, for instance because of an armed conflict, natural disaster or because they are in detention, the State is under an obligation to provide food directly.

3. What are the key elements of the right to food?

  • Availability requires on the one hand that food should be available from natural resources either through the production of food, by cultivating land or animal husbandry, or through other means of obtaining food, such as fishing, hunting or gathering. On the other hand, it means that food should be available for sale in markets and shops.
  • Accessibility requires economic and physical access to food to be guaranteed. Economic accessibility means that food must be affordable. Individuals should be able to afford food for an adequate diet without compromising on any other basic needs, such as school fees, medicines or rent. Physical accessibility means that food should be accessible to all, including to the physically vulnerable, such as children, the sick, persons with disabilities or the elderly, for whom it may be difficult to go out to get food.
  • Adequacy means that the food must satisfy dietary needs, taking into account the individual’s age, living conditions, health, occupation, sex, etc. For example, if children’s food does not contain the nutrients necessary for their physical and mental development, it is not adequate. Food should also be safe for human consumption and free from adverse substances, such as contaminants from industrial or agricultural processes, including residues from pesticides, hormones or veterinary drugs. Adequate food should also be culturally acceptable. For example, aid containing food that is religious or cultural taboo for the recipients or inconsistent with their eating habits would not be culturally acceptable.

 

4. How did the right to food emerge?

In 1996, the World Food Summit convened in Rome. It requested that the right to food, recognized in the the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights be given a more concrete and operational content.

A number of initiatives were taken as a result:

  • In 1999, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body of independent experts monitoring States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted General Comment No. 12 on the right to food. General Comments are not legally binding but are authoritative interpretation of the ICESCR, which is legally binding upon the States Parties to this treaty.
  • In 2000, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food was established by the Commission on Human Rights by resolution 2000/10 of 17 April 2000.
  • In 2003, an Intergovernmental Working Group was established under the auspices of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) in order to prepare a set of guidelines on the implementation of the right to food. This process led to the adoption on 23 November 2004, by the 187 Member States of the General Council of the FAO, of the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security. The Guidelines build on international law and are a set of recommendations States have chosen on how to implement their obligations under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

 

5. Is the right to food recognized in international law?

Yes, the right to food is protected under international human rights and humanitarian law and the correlative state obligations are equally well-established under international law.

  • The right to food is recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 25) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 11).
  • It is also recognized in specific international instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Art. 24(2)(c) and 27(3)), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Art. 12(2)), or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Art. 25(f) and 28(1)).
  • The right to food is also recognized in regional instruments – such as the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, known as the Protocol of San Salvador (1988), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003) - and in many national constitutions.
  • Several non-legally binding international human rights instruments, including recommendations, guidelines, resolutions or declarations, are also relevant to the right to food. One such soft-law instrument, and by far the most direct and detailed, is the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security (hereinafter: Right to Food Guidelines). The Right to Food Guidelines were adopted by consensus in November 2004 by the Council of FAO. They are a practical tool to help implement the right to adequate food.

 

6. What should countries do at national level?

Countries must implement at national level the right to food, as stated by the General Comment No. 12 on the right to food of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security.

The implementation of the right to food standards at national level has consequences for national constitutions, laws, courts, institutions, policies and programmes, and for various food security topics, such as fishing, land, focus on vulnerable groups, and access to resources (see examples here).

Guideline 3 of the FAO Voluntary Guidelines provides useful indications about how States could adopt a national human rights-based strategy for the realization of the right to adequate food. Such a national strategy should comprise the establishment of appropriate institutional mechanisms, particularly in order to : (i) identify, at the earliest stage possible, emerging threats to the right to adequate food, by adequate monitoring systems ; (ii) improve coordination between the different relevant ministries and between the national and sub-national levels of government ; (iii) improve accountability, with a clear allocation of responsibilities, and the setting of precise timeframes for the realization of the dimensions of the right to food which require progressive implementation ; (iv) ensure the adequate participation, particularly, of the most food-insecure segments of the population ; finally, they should (v) pay specific attention to the need to improve the situation of the most vulnerable segments of society, including girls and women whose specific situation must be taken into account, to the principle of non-discrimination, as well as to the explicit inclusion of access to adequate food as part of broader poverty reduction strategies.

 

7. Does the right to food impose obligations on the international community?

The right to food imposes on all States obligations not only towards the persons living on their national territory, but also towards the populations of other States. These two sets of obligations complement one another. The right to food can only be fully realized where both ‘national’ and ‘international’ obligations are complied with.

 

    • National efforts will often remain of limited impact in combating malnutrition and food insecurity unless the international environment, including not only development assistance and cooperation but also trade and investment regimes or efforts to address climate change at a global level, facilitates and rewards these national efforts.
    • Conversely, any efforts by the international community to contribute to these objectives will depend, for their effectiveness, on the establishment of institutional and legal frameworks at the national level, and on policies which are effectively geared towards the realization of the right to food in the country concerned.

 

Useful resources

Read 27/09/2012: "A Rights Revolution: Implementing the right to food in Latin America and the Caribbean", Briefing Note 6, by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, also available in Spanish
Read 20/06/2012: "From Charity to Entitlement: Implementing the right to food in Southern and Eastern Africa", Briefing Note 5, by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food
Read Briefing Note "Countries tackling hunger with a right to food approach. Significant progress in implementing the right to food at national scale in Africa, Latin America and South Asia", May 2010.
Read Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights "The right to adequate food”, Fact Sheet nr. 34, April 2010.
Read Seminar Report "Solutions for Hunger: a Policy Seminar on the Human Right to Food", 7 November 2008, Ottawa, Canada.
Read FAO General Council, Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security - Part 2 (23 November 2004)
Read FAO General Council, Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security - Part 1 (23 November 2004)
Read Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 12: The Right to Adequate Food (art. 11). (1999)