The Right to Food

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), provides a reference point for human rights legislation that followed;

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966), recognizes the right to adequate food as an essential part of the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11 (1)). It also explicitly recognizes “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” (Article 11 (2)). The right to food is also recognized in other international conventions protecting specific groups, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), Article10; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989). Article11; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), Article12.

The right to food 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. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described the right to food as “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.”[1]

Certain aspects of the right to food should be emphasized:

  • Food must be available, accessible and adequate. Accessible means that food is affordable and physically accessible to all, no matter where they live. Adequate means that the food must satisfy dietary needs, be safe, and be culturally acceptable.
  • The right to food is different from food security. According to FAO, food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[2] It is a precondition for the full enjoyment of the right to food. However, the concept of food security itself is not a legal concept and imposes neither obligations nor entitlements.
  • Certain groups are more vulnerable to the violation of their rights to food: the rural and urban poor, indigenous peoples, women, and children.

Links between the Right to Food and Other Human Rights

Because human rights are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated, violating the right to food may impair the enjoyment of other human rights. For example:

  • The right to health. Nutrition is a component of both the right to health and the right to food.
  • The right to life. When people are not able to feed themselves and face the risk of death by starvation, malnutrition or resulting illnesses, their right to life would also be at stake.
  • The right to water. The right to food cannot be realized if people lack access to safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses
  • The right to education. Hunger and malnutrition impair children’s learning abilities and may force them to drop out of school and work instead, thus undermining their enjoyment of the right to education.
  • The right to information. Information is crucial for the right to food. It enables individuals to know about food and nutrition, markets and the allocation of resources.
  • Freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Deprivation of adequate food in prison or other forms of detention may constitute torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.

State Obligations

State obligations in relation to the right to food fall into three categories: to respect, protect and fulfill that right.

States have to respect people’s existing access to food and means of obtaining food. This means that any measure resulting in preventing access to food (for example denying food assistance to political opponents) is prohibited. States should ensure that public institutions, including state-run enterprises or the military, do not undermine people’s access to food by, for example, forced evictions  or contaminating or destroying farmland.

States have to protect individuals’ enjoyment of the right to food against violations. For example, governments should prevent third parties from destroying sources of food by, for instance, polluting land, water. and air with hazardous industrial or agricultural products or destroying the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples to clear the way for mines, dams, highways, or industrial agriculture

The obligation to fulfill includes both an obligation to facilitate and an obligation to provide. The States must be proactive in facilitating people’s access to and use of resources and means of ensuring their livelihoods. Typical measures include the implementation of agrarian reform programs or minimum income regulations. Whenever individuals or groups are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to food by the means at their disposal, governments have the obligation to fulfill (provide) it, for example by providing food assistance or ensuring social safety nets for the most deprived and for victims of natural or other disasters.

Related Human Rights Instruments:

  1. OHCHR Fact Sheet No. 16 (Rev.1): The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  2. [2] FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001 (Rome, 2001).