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Delving into the Right to Food

Photo: likedok88 / Pixabay.

“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)[1]. 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 hungerMoreover, 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. 

What the right to food does and does not entail 

Unlike the human rights listed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the rights in the ICESCR, including the right to food, are, in accordance with Article 2 paragraph 1, progressive rights. This has implications for the obligations of the State Parties to the ICESCR. Whereas State Parties of the ICCPR are obligated to ensure the immediate realisation of all civil and political rights in the ICCPR, the State Parties of the ICESCR are in contrast only bound to progressively realise the rights in the ICESCR.  

However, despite being a progressive right, the CESCR clarifies, in General Comment no. 12, that this does not mean that a State Party has no obligations regarding the fulfilment of the right to adequate food. More so, the State Party is noat liberty to determine when to begin the work to realise the right.  

In fact, as in the case of the human rights that are part of the ICCPR, a State Party is obligated to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to adequate food. The obligation to respect the right to food, requires that a State Party does not take any measures to prevent existing access to adequate food. The obligation to protect, means that a State Party has to take steps to ensure that third parties such as enterprises, do not jeopardise access to food. Finally, the obligation to fulfil, entails a responsibility to facilitate access to food, as well as to provide food when a group or individual, for reasons beyond their control, is unable to enjoy the right to food with the means at their disposal. 

…as in the case of the human rights that are part of the ICCPR, a State Party is obligated to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to adequate food.

In regard to the interpretation that can be made of the term “progressive realisation”, the CESCR points out in General Comment no. 3, that its formulation recognises the difficulties associated with the full realisation of rights in varying contexts. However, it still entails that a State Party has to take action towards the full realisation of the right to food as expeditiously and extensively as possible within the confinements of resource availability. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the CESCR considers certain obligations that are part of the right to food to be of higher priority than others. 

Building on the right to food, and the right to food’s importance 

Since the right to food’s conception, it has shaped the development of other goals, initiatives, and guidelines. The right to food was considered in 2000 when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the United Nations’ Millennium Declaration through which State Parties committed themselves to reducing the number of people suffering from hunger with 50% by 2015. The same year, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food was established. Furthermore, in 2004 the FAO approved the “Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realisation of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security”, providing guidance for States in implementing the right to food. 

At the same time, the right to food’s definition as formulated under the ICESCR, remains contested. For instance, rural activists – most notably from La Vía Campesina – have opposed this officialised definition of the right. For example, they contend that it overlooks the need for autonomy of marginalised groups in food systems, e.g. small producers, family farmers, women and indigenous communities, in relation to international supply chains.  

To challenge and remedy the shortcomings perceived in the right to food’s definition, social movements have formulated alternative right claims, such as the Peoples’ Right to Food Sovereignty. The People’s Right to Food Sovereignty emphasises the importance of self-determination and one’s ability to freely participate in the governance of food systems. As such, it revitalises human rights that were established during the process of decolonisation.  

To conclude, this article has provided insight into the right to food as a concept, further describing what it does entail and what it does not entail, as well as how it has contributed to other initiatives whilst remaining contested in its definition. Concerning the UNFSS, we hope that the right to food continues to be acted upon and further enforced, as this should entail a food systems transformation that is more sustainable and equitable. 


[1] Asbjørn, E. (2014). Adequate Standard of Living. In International Human Rights Law (2nd ed., pp. 195–216). Oxford University Press. 

This news story was written by Ebba Engström (Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI) and Josefine Jacobsson (Intern at SIANI).