“The right to food is a human right.” These were the words voiced by Stefan Löfven, the Prime Minister of Sweden, during the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which took place on the 23rd-24th of September, 2021. The right to food was a topic which came up during several parts of the UNFSS, including as part of Action Track 1. However, at the same time, in January of 2021, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, had written an open letter to Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, expressing worry that the UNFSS was prioritising the interests of big corporations instead of the realisation of human rights. With the right to food having come up as a recurring theme throughout the UNFSS and being brought up as a key point of consideration which should underlie our food systems transformation, we would here like to delve deeper into the right of food as a concept. We will discuss the definition of the right of food is, its background, as well as what it does entail and does not entail.
Background and definition
Jean Ziegler, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (2000-2008) described the right to food as “…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 ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear”.
The right to food was first introduced into international human rights law with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), and was further elaborated on and legally strengthened in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR is a multilateral treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, and 171 countries have signed it to date. Since its introduction, the right to food has been incorporated in various ways into other human rights treaties beyond the UNDHR and the ICESCR.
The right to food recognises that every person has the “right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food“ as well as the “fundamental right to be free from hunger“. Moreover, in its fact sheet on the right to food, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) clarifies that: “The right to food is an inclusive right. It is not simply a right to a minimum ration of calories, proteins, and other specific nutrients. It is a right to all nutritional elements that a person needs to live a healthy and active life, and to the means to access them.”
The right to food recognises that every person has the “right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food“ as well as the “fundamental right to be free from hunger“.
As such, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) that monitors the ICESCR have stated in General Comment no. 12 that, “the right to adequate food is realised when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” It was issued by the CESCR in 1999, following a request by States at the World Food Summit in 1996 for the obligations arising from the right to food to be clarified.
The right to food encompasses four elements: availability, accessibility, adequacy, and sustainability. Availability entails that one should be able to obtain food from natural resources either through the production of food (e.g., through cultivating land or animal husbandry) or through fishing, hunting, or gathering. If that is not possible, food should be available for sale in markets and shops. Accessibility means that food should be affordable and physically accessible to all. Persons should not have to compromise on other basic needs such as medicine or rent to pay for food. Food should be accessible to those vulnerable in society, such as sick people, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and children. More so, food should be made available and accessible in remote areas, to prisoners, and areas affected by conflict or natural disasters. By adequacy, one means that food must satisfy and account for differences in dietary needs dependent on sex, occupation, health, age, and living conditions. Food should also be safe for consumption. Lastly, food should be sustainable, meaning that food should be accessible to both present and future generations.