What is the Right to Food?

What is the Right to Food?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many hungry people in wealthy nations like the US, Canada and the UK long before and especially during COVID -19? This is happening even though the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized food as a fundamental human right These agreements hold nation states publicly accountable for the right to food. Human rights grew out of a recognition for basic human needs in the aftermath of World War II, just as the current “fight against COVID-19” has renewed their urgency. So what does the “right to food” mean and why does it matter? In this podcast, two guests define the right to food, and also how it differs from food charity such as food banks and food pantries. University of British Columbia Professor Graham Riches is the leading voice on the right to food in Canada. He’s joined by attorney and PhD candidate Laura Castrejon-Violante, who researches the constitutionalization of the right to food. 

Interview Summary

So, let’s begin, Graham, you were the first to make the connection between food banks and welfare cutbacks in Canada. You’ve also written extensively about the Right to Food, including in your most recent book, ‘Food Bank Nations, Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food (Routledge, 2018)

Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here. I think I’d first say that it’s crucial to understand that food is a basic human need which is essential to life itself, to nutrition and to health. Food, of course, is a marketplace commodity but at root it is a public good. It’s critical to social and economic well-being and in all cultures and all religions, it’s at the heart of family and community life. And yes, food is a fundamental human right, intrinsic to all human beings and to their human dignity.

We also know, as you’ve said Audrey, the Right to Food is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It has been ratified by close to 90% of UN member states, but sadly not by the USA. The Right to Food is universally recognized under International Law as foundational to the Right to ‘an adequate standard of living, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’.

Significantly, in 1999, the UN clarified its meaning, declaring “the Right to Food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food, or the means for its procurement.” In other words, the Right to Food is about the right to feed oneself or one’s family with dignity, either through growing, gathering, or hunting for food, or in our market economy, having sufficient money in your pocket to purchase the food of your choice in normal and customary ways.

Thank you, Graham for pointing out that choice and autonomy are key components of the right to a dignified life. Now, can you also describe the difference between food as a charitable gift and food as a human right?

This is a key question. The Right to Food is not about charity, it’s not about feeding the need, nor about reliance on the happenstance of corporate food banking, redistributing leftover food, that is surplus or wasted food, to ‘left behind’ people. Of course, there’s a moral imperative to feed hungry people, but charity is not a right, it cannot be claimed, it’s highly stigmatizing requiring people to beg for food.

The problem is, food banking has socially constructed hunger as a matter for charity. It thereby allows governments to neglect their public accountability, their obligations under international law, to realize food security for all. Consequently, food insecurity has grown and further been entrenched by COVID-19. Access to food is not only a food problem, but a matter for income security, addressing precarious work and interrupted earnings, inadequate incomes and social security benefits. And it’s also profoundly a land rights issue.

Now, just as hunger is socially constructed, so are human rights, they’re meaningless unless we normalize and institutionalize them, which leads to my next question. Laura, as an accomplished lawyer and academic with a background in human rights compliance, why does the Right to Food matter?

Thank you, Audrey. Well, the right to food matters because human rights matter. They make a difference. The Right to Food is ultimately a tool to tackle food insecurity, with a rights based approach. We need every single thing humanity has in its ingenuity arsenal to resolve massive challenges, food insecurity included. We need the certainty of science, the resolution of grass root movements, the inspiration of the arts, and we also need human rights because they function as guiding principles for more just societies. They serve, really, as a limit to the abuse of power.

There is a debate about the effectiveness of human rights, but when assessing human rights, it is important to have in mind that they tend to be compared with an ideal scenario, when in fact they should be more fairly compared with an existing scenario, from before human rights were upheld. So, even though human rights are not 100% effective, human rights are a strong, world-recognized institution including the woman’s right to vote, demolition of the slavery, the declines of death in war and conflict, and the advancement of rights recognition for indigenous people, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community.

A further argument supporting the rights-based approach to solve food insecurity is the interdependent nature of human rights. Different human rights offer a much needed approach to resolve food insecurity. The human right to just and favorable conditions to work, and the human right to social security, to health, to water and sanitation, to a healthy environment, just to mention some. Given the interdependent nature of human rights, if one becomes stronger, all human rights will benefit. If one is less so, others will deteriorate. By supporting the Right to Food, we are strengthening these rights creating a ripple effect that will impact poverty, the health crisis, the environmental crisis and everything in between.

I would only add that in the meantime that we come up with something better than the rule of law to organize us as societies, it would be irresponsible not to call on human rights to solve our most pressing challenges.

Thanks for highlighting the intersectionality and indivisibility of human rights. And also explaining how to harness their power to advance social justice issues. Now considering vast social inequalities that have only widened during the pandemic, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of progress to be made. So how can the Right to Food be realized?

Well Audrey, realization really implies awareness. So, the first step is for every person to recognize that each of us possesses the Right to Food: we are all Rights Holders. Which is the main reason of this podcast, right? To spread the word. So, the second step is to exercise our Right to Food and here, I want to come back to the notion of the Right to Food as a tool. As any tool, the Right to Food needs to be used profusely, exercised, monitored and evaluated in order to assess if it’s properly performing or if it has to be readjusted or even strengthened.

In order to use the Right to Food, all of our efforts aiming to eradicate hunger and advance food security would need to recognize and embrace two fundamental aspects. Number one: Right to Food principles and priorities. These are equitable and non-discriminatory principles. Gender sensitive with the focus on the most vulnerable, our marginalized groups from Indigenous, Black, Latin, Asian communities to migrant farm workers to low-income folks, and others. Right to Food principles ensure that people and planet come first, not profit or political gain.

Secondly, food is an entitlement, and under international law the state is the ‘primary duty bearer.’ Food is not a favor, nor a gesture of assistance that depends on goodwill or corporate food agendas. Rather, it’s the certainty rooted in the law and backed by the State apparatus. With entitlement comes the beauty of accountability and access to remedy. The Right to Food gives us grounds to ensure public accountability when any branch of government is not protecting, respecting and fulfilling the right to food. And to demand justice when the government or any entity – I am looking at you, transnational corporations – are violating our Right to Food.

Thanks Laura for laying out what it means for food to be an entitlement. I appreciate that we must hold governments accountable when they violate the right to food. And that we must not blame people for their circumstances of poverty. I’m curious now, what can civil society do to uphold the right to food?

Civil society can and must support the right to food. This human right offers procedural rights that precisely allow this. It represents access to justice but also participatory rights in the decision making process which lead to virtuous cycle of empowerment, food literacy, etc.  Acknowledging that we are not passive consumers of whatever the global food system imposes but active participants, agents of change, really. And then finally, transparency and access to information. This is why food insecurity data should be accessible, public and desegregated by gender, age, income, ethnicity, providing the palette needed to better understand the complexities of food insecurity and to monitor and evaluate food insecurity policies and programs.

I particularly like your point about participatory rights. So in this sense, human rights are not only legal mechanisms but also a tool for collective action. Civil society arguably plays a crucial role in holding governments responsible for their human rights violations. For example, migrant workers, women and black, indigenous people of color experience disproportionately higher rates of food insecurity. And this leads to my next question: how can we move towards making the Right to Food enforceable?

Audrey, let me first offer a definition of enforceability. So, enforceability can be understood as the capability to resolve a legal complaint within the legal system. Even though the Right to Food does not owe its existence to legal recognition, the expression and protection of this right in national law is crucial to its realization because the enforcement of the Right to Food in international law is complex and rather problematic, entrenching the right to food in national constitutions and laws increases its enforceability chances. Evidence shows us that the inclusion of social rights in constitutions translates into strengthening these rights because it allows them to be further developed through laws, policies and court decisions. We also know that the entrenchment of social rights in constitutions, laws and policies achieve social rights outcomes.

So far, 29 countries in the world have already included the Right to Food into their constitutions. An increasing numbers of sub-national entities have adhered to this trend. In the US, for example, Maine, Virginia and Washington have proposed amendments to their state constitutions to include the Right to Food. All over the world, legislators are enacting Right to Food laws and administrations are implementing Right to Food policies and courts are upholding the Right to Food. How can we move them towards making the Right to Food enforceable? Well, by demanding authorities to fulfill their responsibilities by taking all the steps necessary to guarantee a dignified access to healthy, fair and sustainable food for all.

Thanks for raising the issue of constitutional recognition for social and economic rights, such as the Right to Food, that’s so important. Now Graham, what specifically can civil society do to advance the Right to Food?

Civil Society can actually assist in mobilizing human rights approaches to access to food by participating in the national UN Periodic Reviews of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This process takes place every five to six years, by which governments have to give an account to the UN of their compliance with these rights. One of the very interesting points to be made is that civil society is invited to participate in this process. Governments draw up a list of issues (LOIs) which are circulates them to participating civil society organizations (CSOs).  They could include food banks, NGOs and non-profit food, health social justice organizations which also contribute and comment upon the LOIs thereby engaging debate with their respective governments and the UN regarding compliance and violations.

There are three specific ways by which one can assess whether the Right to Food is being achieved. Firstly, whether it is being respected by governments or if they are taking away peoples’ Right to Food by making food access difficult by, for example, permitting sub-poverty minimum wages or welfare benefits, by denying benefits, or through social spending cut backs. These would be noted as violations. Secondly, it concerns protecting the right to food, ensuring governments pass or enforce laws, regulating non-state actors, for example, regarding food safety and actions which protect the food sovereignty of Indigenous populations which actually is a land rights matter. In other words protecting against violations. Thirdly it is about governments fulfilling the Right to Food, acting in full compliance. In other words, the State as the primary duty bearer taking positive actions regarding, for example, employment, workers’ rights, living wages, adequate benefits, universal health care, social housing amongst a range of ESC rights. Also including the question of progressive taxation. These are all factors that are about complying with the Right to Food. Civil society has an active participant and critical role to play in this UN process by holding governments to account.

Thank you Graham. I really appreciate how you remind us that the Right to Food is something that needs to be insisted upon by civil society.

Just to add on what Graham just mentioned, I have four words in my mind: Join, talk, right and vote. Join one of the increasing numbers of civil societies that are advocating for the Right to Food. Talk and engage in Right to Food conversations. Approach your community, your local food bank, for example, and ask them about their position on the Right to Food and the burden that has been unjustly placed upon them. Write your representatives and urge them to prioritize the Right to Food, for example, to place poverty reduction at the core of food insecurity strategies. And vote accordingly, search which political party is endorsing a rights-based on food insecurity and hunger, and in a few words, vehemently exercise your Right to Food.


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