A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food. The concept of the Right to Adequate Food

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1 The concept of the Right to Adequate Food FAO, 2007

2 Table of contents Learning objectives... 2 Introduction... 2 What is the Right to Adequate Food?... 3 Food availability... 4 Adequacy of Food... 5 Food Accessibility... 6 Stability of supply... 7 Consequences of food deprivation... 8 The Right to Adequate Food perspective... Errore. Il segnalibro non è definito. Why the Right to Adequate Food is a concern for us?... 9 What is new about the Right to Adequate Food? What the Right to Adequate Food is not Summary If you want to know more Learner Notes 1

3 Learning objectives At the end of this lesson you will be able to: define the concept of Right to Adequate Food; describe the human rights principles on which the right to food approach is based; recognize the added value of the Right to Adequate Food to human development, food security and poverty reduction programmes. Introduction The right to food is a human right indispensable for survival. International law recognizes the right of everyone to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger, which is of crucial importance for the enjoyment of all human rights. However, the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger is far from reality for many people around the world 1. The introduction of the Right to Adequate Food concept into the various ongoing development efforts provides hope for turning this situation around. 1 In the year 2005, FAO reported 852 million chronically hungry people (chronically 90% and acutely 10% undernourished) in the developing countries. This number includes some 37 million people living in industrialized countries under extreme poverty conditions. The report of the same year shows a rising trend in the total number of undernourished over the past years which raises doubt regarding achieving the proudly pronounced Millennium Development Goal No.1 to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer hunger. This does not include the 2 billion people who suffer from hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiencies), primarily women with anaemia and iron deficiency, as well as 250 million children affected by iodine deficiency, the most common cause for mental retardation, or 250 million children suffering from sub-clinical Vitamin A deficiency, which decreases their capacity to fight disease and can lead to blindness. Learner Notes 2

4 What is the Right to Adequate Food? The term Right to Adequate Food is derived from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in 2002 defined the right to adequate food as follows: Right to adequate food is a human right, inherent in all people, 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 people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective fulfilling and dignified life free of fear. This definition 2 entails all normative elements explained in detail in the General Comment 12 of the ICESCR, which states that: The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. 2 Comment on terminology: The ICESCR recognizes the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, as well as the fundamental right to be free from hunger. The relationship between the two concepts is quite complex, which leads many people to simply speak about the right to food. As an example of the difference, freedom from hunger could be measured by the number of people suffering from malnutrition and at the extreme, dying of starvation. The right to adequate food is a much higher standard and relates not simply to absence of malnutrition symptoms, but to the full range of qualities associated with food, including dignity, diversity and safety, in short all those elements needed to enable an active and healthy life throughout the life cycle. The right to be free from hunger is often described as the minimum core content of the right to food; according to General Comment 12, it is more pressing and immediate to ensure freedom from hunger. The shorter term right to food rather than right to adequate food is acceptable for convenience, but should never distract from the need for nutritional adequacy of food as well as the interdependence with other human rights. Learner Notes 3

5 Food availability A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food It is important to understand the main concepts used in the definition of the right to adequate food. For example, what does availability of food mean? Let s consider the following scenario: Scenario 1: Availability In a drought prone area there are mostly subsistence farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture for their crops. These farmers lack the resources to invest in irrigation or drought-resistant seeds. The lack of alternative income sources keeps the peasants in this risky business. When lack of rain leads to harvest failure, there is little food to go around and no money to buy it. Some food assistance or other safety net measures may be established, but these are often irregular and inadequate. In this scenario, since food production is reduced, the food available is no longer sufficient for the communities. Availability of food means the possibility of feeding oneself and one s family: 1) directly from productive land (agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, fruit growing) or other natural resources e.g. fishing, hunting, food gathering; or 2) from fresh or processed food obtained in markets and stores coming from sites both nearby and far from its production. Learner Notes 4

6 Adequacy of Food The available food must also be adequate. Here is an example of inadequacy of food. Scenario 2: Inadequacy A severe drought in the Horn of Africa has caused the cattle of many groups of nomads to die. Famine is looming over these Muslims, so the international community provides plenty of food aid and funding. The food provided includes staples, some vegetables and pork, which had recently been overproduced in Europe. To the great surprise of the camp organizers, in the beginning there was great unrest in the camps and people seemed unhappy with the food they received. A nutrition survey later revealed that many of the nomads suffered from protein deficiency. Finally it was discovered that Muslims regard pork as unclean and unsuitable for human consumption. Food can be defined adequate when it satisfies dietary needs throughout the life cycle, by taking into account needs related to gender, occupation and culture. The mix of nutrients should allow for normal physical and mental growth, development and maintenance of the body and for physical activity, by taking into account values related to food preparation and consumption, including cultural acceptability. Appropriate dietary consumption of diets and feeding patterns, including breastfeeding, are required to achieve good nutritional well-being. In addition, food must not contain adverse substances at higher levels than those set by international standards. Such substances are naturally occurring toxins, pathogens, contaminants from agricultural and industrial processes, including residues from veterinary drugs, growth promoters and hormones. Food, in the context of the right to adequate food, must include values related to food preparation and consumption. These values are perceived by informed consumer concerns and include freshness, taste, appearance, cooking features and palatability as well as cultural acceptability, e.g. the respect of religious concerns. Learner Notes 5

7 Food Accessibility A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Accessibility of food is another important condition that must be satisfied. Here is an example, where food is not accessible to poor people: Scenario 3: Access The high rates of unemployment in rural areas and lack of opportunities have led to mass migration to the urban centres where the peasants find work in the informal sectors. However, pay is low and irregular, which does not allow the purchase of nutritious food for a healthy and balanced diet. Sometimes all they can afford for long periods of time is maize meal and similar staples. Accessibility of food entails both economic and physical accessibility: A. Economic accessibility Economic accessibility implies personal or household financial means to buy food for an adequate diet. It must be at a level to satisfy the dietary needs of the individual and the household all year round. B. Physical accessibility The food must be accessible to everyone, including vulnerable individuals and groups such as infants, small children, elderly people, the physically disabled, people terminally ill or with persistent medical including mental - problems, and prisoners. The food must also be accessible everywhere to people in remote areas. Food must also be accessible to victims of natural or human-made disasters, armed conflicts and wars, as well as to indigenous peoples and ethnic groups. Learner Notes 6

8 Stability of supply Finally, the following scenario is an example of lack of stability of supply: Scenario 4: Stability Every year in an under-developed agriculture economy consisting mostly of subsistence farmers, the rice runs out in July, which is the hungry season. The reason is lack of storage facilities and transport infrastructure. During the hungry season, very little rice is available. To overcome this seasonal gap in the supply of rice, it would be necessary to improve storage and transport and perhaps, diversify consumption towards other staples. Both availability and accessibility of food must be guaranteed in a stable manner. This means adequate food must be available and accessible all year round. Learner Notes 7

9 Consequences of food deprivation The previous scenarios illustrate how individuals and groups are deprived of adequate food. What are the consequences of such deprivation for them, as well as for the state? SCENARIO CONSEQUENCES ISSUES OF CONCERN 1. Availability (related to the scenario described on page 4) Food availability is unreliable and often inadequate. Farmers who could otherwise take care of themselves are dependent on food assistance. Malnutrition is widespread because of lack of nutritious foods. The major issues of concern are: Malnutrition Food assistance and safety nets Dignity and self-reliance 2. Adequacy (related to the scenario described on page 5) Since the meat provided is not culturally acceptable, people are not receiving the required quantity of protein and many of them become malnourished. Moreover, unrest in camps increases, with consequent lack of governability and security. The major issues of concern are: Cultural acceptability Malnutrition Lack of governability 3. Access (related to the scenario described on page 6) Malnourished children today will face severe constraints in their adulthood. If a high percentage of people are undernourished, the economic development of a country will be affected and thereby the ability of a country to realize human rights. The country is on a downward spiral. The major issues of concern are: Malnutrition Rural decline 4. Stability (related to the scenario described on page 7) The hungry season can lead to malnutrition, especially for children, and pregnant or breast feeding women. The workers may also lack the energy for planting or harvesting for the next season. Regular deprivation can lead to discontent and political instability. The major issues of concern are: Malnutrition Lack of diversified diet Civil unrest Learner Notes 8

10 Why the Right to Adequate Food is a concern for us? The scenarios previously described introduce the major reasons why the right to adequate food is a concern for all members of society. These reasons are: Human dignity Vulnerable groups need to be protected following the human dignity principle. Dignity is the foremost human rights principle recognized in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.It is the prime reason why development work should be directed to and integrated with the right to adequate food concept. This will shift the focus to the many vulnerable groups already mentioned, and assign financial and other resources to ensure their dignity or restore it. Focus on dignity is also justified for ethical reasons. These can be most strongly felt when we see pictures of starving children, hungry refugees, or people having lost their dignity when scavenging in rubbish for food or beg for it. Legal obligations Many countries have ratified the ICESCR. To date, 153 States have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and thus have an obligation to progressively realize the right to adequate food. This obligation is legally binding for the state, and calls on the responsibility of all members of society. This reason alone should suffice for giving the realisation of the right to adequate food priority in the multiple tasks of the work of all members of society, including work in development and poverty reduction. In countries not having ratified the ICESCR the people, nevertheless, are human rights holders since all human rights are universal and inherent to all people, regardless of specific policies of governments. Their hope lies in taking responsibility to organize themselves and join other civic society groups committed to the right to adequate food. Thus, they can put increasing pressure on their government to change its position related to human rights. In conflict situations, when the access to food is threatened due to considerable breakdown of authority and services, human rights law is supplemented by international humanitarian law. From that are also derived legal obligations of the state to ensure humanitarian food assistance to people in immediate need for food. This assistance will need to be provided according to agreed international standards in food safety, dietary needs, traditions and cultures. Learner Notes 9

11 International commitments. A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Human rights and the right to adequate food are necessary to achieve the millennium development goals. In the past ten years the international community, joining with national governments and the civic society groups have set goals in order, once and for all, effectively and time bound, to reduce hunger and poverty in all forms. The most prominent are the millennium development goals of the year Earlier set goals set by the World Food Summit in 1996, or later by the International Conference on Financing for Development or the International Alliance Against Hunger all converge to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. In solemn declarations these goals were pronounced and now call for commitment and responsibility in programmes aiming to contribute to achieve these goals. Human rights and right to adequate food concepts are already declared integral part of some programmes. Economic reasons. Hunger, malnutrition and poverty have economic and social costs. The reduction of hunger actually can also be viewed as a good investment with high returns to be expected. This is called the economic argument to realize the right to food or the cost of hunger. The latter doesn t refer to the actual cost of implementing an anti-hunger policy but to the opportunity-costs of not doing it, i.e. the productivity losses.too little calorie intake obviously has a negative impact on the productivity of a worker and even more so if she or he conducts physical labour. Given that most undernourished people live in the rural areas and perform agricultural labour, this is clearly the case. Higher calorie intake would certainly boost production up to a certain point. But the main limitation of productivity of adults is a consequence of their undernourishment suffered during childhood. Protein-energy malnutrition before the age of two results in irreversible stunting by adulthood. Other effects include reduced cognitive ability, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, and increased susceptibility to adult onset chronic diseases later in life. The latter burdens public health budgets and services. Stunted adults suffer from impaired physical work capacity. Therefore they cannot earn as much as their non-stunted counterparts. It is also argued that hungry individuals are risk averse. Calculation in some 40 countries revealed that the productivity losses (accruing to the cohort of 2 year olds in the year 2000 over their lifetimes) presented as a percentage of GDP in 2000 varies between 0.5 and 5.9. The average was measured as a loss of 1.85% of GDP in 2000 due to Protein-energy malnutrition. Similar calculations can be made for iron deficiency, iodine deficiency and obesity. Learner Notes 10

12 Political reasons A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Politicians who implement the right to food are more popular among voters. People worldwide want to be able to feed themselves with dignity. They want legally enforceable rights and predictability. Governments can promote people s productive resources for food, establish laws conducive to industrial food production, processing, marketing, and equitable consumption. Fulfilling the obligation of the right to adequate food will strengthen governments popularity with the people. People obtaining their right to adequate food, in turn, will less threaten the political peace inside or outside their countries through social unrest, uncontrolled migration, turmoil, strikes, hunger marches, or the illegal seizing of unused productive lands, which is often a last resort of hopelessness and threatened people trying to claim their rights. Ethical reasons. Since we have knowledge and resources, it would be unethical not to act. In a world where sufficient food is produced, hunger and malnutrition are a moral outrage. We know the various causes and remedies to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Therefore, it would be unethical not to act and not to use all of our available resources for human development with the widening concept of the right to adequate food. What is new about the Right to Adequate Food? What is the added value of the right to adequate food to human development, food security and poverty reduction programmes? The definition of and the conditions for achieving food security bear close resemblance to the definition of the right to adequate food explained above. The right to adequate food complements the food security concept and programmes with the legal aspects of human rights and the human rights principles. The legal aspects make the individual an agent of change in a way that enables her or him to hold the government accountable for its obligations and to seek redress for violation of their human rights. Learner Notes 11

13 A right to adequate food approach calls for responsible action and commitment from all members of society, including the private sector. Therefore, concerned civil society makes strong calls for corporate social responsibility, fair trade, and food sovereignty. Comparing the right to adequate food concept to that of food security and to a recent, newer concept, namely food sovereignty, will clarify what is new and different about the right to adequate food. Let s start with the food security concept. The four pillars of food security are: food availability; access to food; stability of food supply; and food utilization. Food security is a technical concept and is needsbased. The beneficiaries include vulnerable groups who are objects of potential benefits. A right based approach to a food security programme broadens its scope. It changes its objective, making the acknowledgement of human rights and right to adequate food its prime objective. The individual will not remain the beneficiary of projects determined by policy goals, but will become an empowered partner of the programme. He or she will participate in the design, implementation and evaluation of the programme and claim his or her rights. Human rights are not negotiable, while policy goals change according to the political environment. Learner Notes 12

14 A right to adequate food approach makes the vulnerable groups the centre of concern and focuses on their human dignity. It calls for responsible action from all members of society, including the private sector, which has so far been more on the periphery of social development programmes. The private sector includes Transnational Corporations, which have not only contributed to economic benefits but also caused negative effects to social development. Civil society calls for change and redirection of the above mentioned forces towards equitable social benefits. National governments also become more reluctant to see their sovereignty being undermined, including their policies for food production, food trade, food processing and even food consumption. The current definition of Food Sovereignty is: Food sovereignty is the right of national governments to: define their own food and agriculture; protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; restrict the dumping of products in their markets; and give local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and right to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve people s rights to food and to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production. This umbrella statement includes right to adequate food concerns but remains contested and unapproved by the international community, unlike the right to adequate food. Learner Notes 13

15 What the Right to Adequate Food is NOT The relationship between food security and the right to adequate food is one of the issues that are most frequently misperceived. There are other questions which you might be confronted with, that reveal misperceptions about the right to adequate food. For example: Right to adequate food: does it mean that governments are obliged to hand out free food to everyone who wants it? There will always be food insecurity in the world! Is the right to adequate food not at best an aspirational goal? I feel the right based approach is too legalistic... should it not be the business of lawyers only? People do not need rights but food! Right to adequate food does not feed people. Isn t it unnecessary? There are other common misperceptions. In fact, the right to adequate food is not: 1. Equal to the Right to Be Fed Many people, when they first hear about the right to adequate food, assume that it means that governments have an obligation to hand out free food to everyone who wants it. In other words, they understand the right to adequate food as the right to be fed. The right to adequate food would then be equated with food aid, which could also have negative effects as a cause of dependency and disincentives to work. This is a misunderstanding. The right to adequate food is in fact primarily the right to feed oneself in dignity. Food aid is an emergency measure that should have a limited time frame. 2. Equal to the Right to Safe Food The right to adequate food is sometimes understood as referring to the standards for the food that is available on the market, which should be safe. This is too narrow. Adequacy refers to quantity, quality and appropriateness, taking into account cultural aspects as well as the physiology of the individual, for instance, age and health status. Learner Notes 14

16 3. A Western Concept A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Some perceive human rights as a Western concept that is culturally irrelevant to many developing countries and serves primarily the purpose of controlling the latter through aid, trade and debt conditionality. This view is mistaken. Human rights are universal and sought after by people from all cultures. No one wishes to have their human rights infringed. Every country in the world has ratified at least one human rights treaty and participated in the adoption of resolutions and declarations within the United Nations that reaffirm the universality of human rights. 4. Voluntary It is sometimes argued that the right to adequate food is not a real human right. At best it constitutes an aspirational goal, as there will always be food insecurity in the world, and the right itself does not lend it self to legal enforcement. This line of thought overlooks the fact that the right to adequate food is recognized in binding international law. Moreover, each country needs to transform the international human rights law into its own national legal system and take steps at the national level for their realization. Many countries have demonstrated that such steps can be taken. Furthermore, the fact that the right to adequate food is not yet realized for everyone does not diminish its status as a human right. 5. A Development Fad To some people in the development field, the human rights based approach to food security seem yet another fad in international development. This is not so. It is true that until recently, socio-economic rights were not considered from a human rights perspective, that is, if someone was working on food security then that was automatically equaled with the right to food, without any consideration of the process of how this was achieved or the dignity and rights of the individual. This has only recently changed, but human rights are not new; implementing these fundamental principles cannot be a fad that will be overtaken by another development focus. On the other hand, a human rights based approach does not replace development approaches, but enriches them. Learner Notes 15

17 6. Ideological A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Those who are skeptical about the human right to adequate food sometimes hint that it is linked to the political left, or to the Catholic church or even to neo-liberalism. This is incorrect. Human rights are well beyond political debates or religious beliefs. Human rights apply in each and every political system and do not easily lend themselves to a left-orright classification. During the cold war, there was an East-West divide in which the West championed civil and political rights and the East socio-economic rights, but that was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the latter. Since 1993, the interdependence and equal importance of all human rights has been undisputed. 7. Too Legalistic It is sometimes heard that human rights are only the business of lawyers and that there is a legalistic approach inherent in human rights. It is true that international human rights law is indeed law. However, the implementation of human rights requires measures in many fields, not only the legal field. Indeed, full implementation of the right to food should permeate all sectors of government and civil society. While it is important for individuals to have recourse under the law, governments have to formulate and implement appropriate policies and strategies in collaboration with an active civil society if the right to adequate food is to be fully realized. 8. Specific to Agriculture In some countries food security tends to be linked to agriculture and farming, understandably so, where sustenance farming was the norm. The right to food then tends to be understood as the right of farmers to produce food. This is a misunderstanding. While the role agriculture in some countries and some contexts is very important for the right to adequate food, the latter concept is more concerned with individual access to food, whether through production or procurement. For urban people, income security and a well functioning market is more important than production. Learner Notes 16

18 9. A FAO Invention A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food Because of the FAO Right to Food Guidelines and the priority accorded by FAO to the right to adequate food, some people think that the right to food was invented in FAO and is therefore not of concern to others. This is incorrect. This human right is recognized in, among others, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and is therefore binding international law for those 153 States that have ratified it. The FAO Guidelines do not change the legal status of the right to adequate food, but provide practical guidance on how it might be implemented. 10. Unnecessary There is a perception that people do not need rights but food. This could be correct in an ideal world. In fact, the best practices to achieve food security are well known but not implemented, for a variety of reasons. Food insecure people are the most marginalized in a society and thus deprived of political influence. The human rights approach puts those people at the center of development and empowers them to claim their rights. Implementation of the right to adequate food ensures that the wellknown techniques and instruments are actually used. 11. Too Demanding on Governments It is argued that the globalized economic system puts enormous pressure on governments to stay competitive (e.g. on taxes) which lead to lower revenues. This is said to limit the possibilities to live up to the function of primary duty bearer. Indeed, the right to adequate food does not deny that governments do face enormous pressure. But there seems to be a misperception of the magnitude of the endeavour to realize the right to food. Governments do not need to provide food for everyone but create an environment that allows everyone to feed him- or herself in dignity. Also, no matter how huge pressure on governments might be, ensuring that nobody suffers hunger always has to be a priority. Learner Notes 17

19 12. The right to adequate food does not Require a Big Government Some fear that major investments in institutions and people are needed to implement a right to food strategy. This is understood as a call for a big government and in contrast to the overall tendency to a leaner government. This is based on mistaken premises. The right to adequate food should not be understood as demanding a parallel structure that requires a complete new system. On the contrary, the guidelines highlight that right to food principles should be introduced into existing institutions and systems. If at all, right to adequate food will lead to a leaner rather than a bigger government. In essence the concept means the Right to Feed Oneself, which emphasizes dignity and self-reliance. 13. The right to adequate food is not Too Expensive for Governments Human rights are sometimes seen as luxury and too expensive, and can thus only be tackled at a later stage of development. If the right to adequate food was to be realized overnight this view would certainly be true. Instead, all State Parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are required to realize the right progressively and according to their financial capacity. While it is true that the right to adequate food should not financially overburden a State, it should be realized using the maximum of available resources. 14. The right to adequate food is not a Threat to the National Economy There is fear that the right to adequate food calls for redistribution of assets and resources as well as higher government spending, which could have harmful effects on the national economy and, in the long run, increase food insecurity. This is a misunderstanding. The right to food does not purport any particular economic systems nor does it prescribe any particular reforms of the resource base or the revenue base. Governments are free to decide on their economic policies as long as they are instrumental to realize the right to food and are in line with human rights principles. This means a focus on the food insecure and marginalized. Giving these people a fair chance to feed themselves should not be harmful to a national economy but, on the contrary, beneficial. Learner Notes 18

20 Summary The Right to Adequate Food recognizes the right of everyone to adequate food and freedom from hunger, which is of crucial importance for the enjoyment of all human rights. Following the definition of the Right to Adequate Food, individuals, including future generations, need to have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food. A right based approach to development work and poverty reduction strategies, focuses on several human rights principles: human dignity, accountability, empowerment, nondiscrimination, participation. The Right to Adequate Food is a concern for all members of society for a variety of reasons: state legal obligations, human dignity, international commitments, economic, political and ethical reasons. The Right to Adequate Food adds value by complementing the food security concept and programmes with the legal aspects of human rights and human rights principles. If you want to know more Online resources: Windfuhr,M & Jonsen,J Food sovereignty. Towards democracy in localized food systems, ITDG Publishing ( ) UNDP Governance for sustainable development. ( Bibliography: Barth Eide,W. & Kracht, U. (Eds.) Food and human rights in development, Volume 1, intersentia, Antwerpen-Oxford, p.528 Kent, G., 2005, Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, Washington, D.C., p.271 Mechlem,K Food Security and the Right to Food in the Discourse of the United Nations. European Law Journal, Vol. 10.No 5. pp Learner Notes 19

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