The Right to Food

Fri, 06/01/2007

On the eve of the commemoration of 60 years since the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some rights, like the Right to Food, are overshadowed by those that have received more political and public support, yet severe food insecurity affects at least one-seventh of the world’s human population.

On 16 October 2007, the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) will celebrate World Food Day with the theme The Right to Food. The Right to Food is the right of every person to have regular access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food for an active, healthy life. It is the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed. With more than 850 million people still deprived of enough food, the Right to Food is not just economically, morally and politically imperative – it is also a legal obligation.

Since 1996, following the World Food Summit, FAO has been working with governments and communities worldwide to gain recognition for this basic human right.


Given the persistent high numbers of undernourished people, in June 2002, the World Food Summit: five years later decided to develop guidelines to support Members’ efforts to realize the
right of everyone to adequate food. In 2004, after intensive negotiations, The Right to Food Guidelines were adopted unanimously by FAO members. FAO set up a Right to Food Unit to support Member countries in the implementation of the Guidelines.

The Right to Food Guidelines are a practical tool to assist countries in their efforts to eradicate hunger. The guidelines are a set of coherent recommendations on, among others, labor, land, water, genetic resources, sustainability, safety nets, education, and the international dimension. They also encourage the allocation of budgetary resources to anti-hunger and poverty programmers, such as those currently being undertaken in Brazil and Mozambique.

By recognizing the Right to Food, governments have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill this right. In order to achieve the World Food Summit objective and Millennium Development Goal number one of reducing hunger by half by 2015, efforts are needed to give a voice to the hungry and to strengthen governments’ capacity to meet their obligations.

“The right to food is not a utopia. It can be realized for all. Some countries are on the way to doing this, but everyone should contribute to make this happen,” said Barbara Ekwall, Coordinator of the Right to Food Unit.

The Right to Food is a basic human right and, as such, is universal and inalienable from other human rights. The causes of undernutrition and death from hunger and malnutrition are infinitely complex. In the apt words of Brazilian sociologist and former Chairman of the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) Council, Josue de Castro (1908-1973):

“Hunger is exclusion. Exclusion from land, income, jobs, wages, life and citizenship. When a person gets to the point of not having anything left to eat, it is because all the rest has been denied. This is a modern form of exile. It is death in life.”

The right to food can be defined as the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted, physical or economic, access to food that is adequate and sufficient in terms of quantity and quality. It is not the right to be fed, but the right to feed oneself in dignity. However, if individuals are deprived of access to food for reasons beyond their control, recognition of the right to life obliges States to provide them with sufficient food for their survival.

The right to food is recognized at national, regional and international level. At national level, some countries like India and South Africa have included this right in their constitutions. At international level, the right to food exists in several legal texts and instruments.

~ It is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
~ It is asserted in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article11.
~ General Comments 12 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the right to food places three types of obligations on States Parties: the obligation to respect, to protect and to fulfill the right to food which includes the obligations to facilitate and to provide.

The Voluntary Guidelines are not legally binding but draw upon international law and provide guidance on the implementation of existing obligations. They are directed towards States Parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and to States that still have to ratify it. But they are also intended for stakeholders working towards a better implementation of the right to food at national level.

Although recognized as a basic human right since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, no guidance on its implementation was published before 2004.

In 2002, at the World Summit: five years later held in Rome, the Member Nations invited “the FAO Council to establish at its 123 Session an Intergovernmental Working Group to elaborate a set of voluntary guidelines to achieve the progressive realization of the right to adequate food.”

For two years, some 90 Member Nations of FAO and several United Nations agencies participated in the Intergovernmental Working Group. Also involved, as observers were relevant regional and international institutions, NGOs, civil society organizations, parliamentarians, universities, foundations and the private sector.

In 2004, after two years of discussion and negotiation in the Working Group, the FAO Council adopted by consensus the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Food in the Context of National Food Security. The guidelines are divided into 3 sections: I. Preface and Introduction; II. Enabling environment, assistance and accountability; and III. International measures, actions and commitments.

Adoption of these guidelines is a major step forward in the field of socio-economic rights.

The Voluntary Guidelines propose a range of concrete measures intended to grasp the complexity of the tragedy of hunger and to create the favorable conditions for national food security.

They therefore address different factors of development, such as the legal and institutional issues, good governance and national strategies, but also aspects relating to the economy and market systems, nutrition and food policy, education and social policy, women’s rights and support to vulnerable groups, emergencies and international aid, as well as the international dimension.

The guidelines propose a human-rights-based approach. They affirm principles such as equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, accountability and the rule of law, as well as the principle that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.

The guidelines focus on the following:
I. Enabling Environment
II. Policies and Strategies
III. Legal Framework
IV. Adequate Food
V. Vulnerable Populations
VI. Emergencies