The Right to Food: Ensuring Access to Basic Necessities

The right to food is a human rights obligation that guarantees access to and security of food and its resources. The United Nations (UN) recognized it as a right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the UN and its specialized funds and agencies have executed several programs to combat hunger and food insecurity worldwide. As part of its Sustainable Development Goal 2, which aims to eradicate hunger and improve access to essential nutrients by 2030, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working to minimize undernutrition in several countries. Despite the organization’s well-established objectives and intentions, approximately two billion people still suffer from hunger.

Ensuring the right to adequate food is essential, yet measuring its outcomes and implementing it can be challenging. This is because state parties have the responsibility to provide sufficient mechanisms to meet the UN’s standard of basic living requirements for their society. According to the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights’s (CECSR) General Comment 12, these requirements include “the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture; the accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights”

When states fail to fulfill their basic obligations of protecting, respecting, and fulfilling the right to food (Fact sheet n34 p.17), it can result in violence, discrimination, physical and mental harm, ecological damage, and even death, as emphasized by Professor Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Additionally, during times of crisis, such as natural disasters or conflicts, food insecurity can exacerbate the situation.

For instance, the war in Ukraine has disrupted food systems, leading to widespread food insecurity and malnutrition among the affected population. In such situations, it becomes even more crucial for states to provide timely and effective humanitarian assistance to ensure access to adequate food for all. Overall, ensuring the right to adequate food requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including governments, civil society, the private sector, and international organizations, to address this complex issue. In spite of all the commitments to the right to food, many countries continue struggling to maintain food as a secure resource. 

Article 11 of General Comment 12 stressed that states were obligated to “take steps to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food.” National implementation of this right should involve establishing a strong legal framework through its inclusion in the state constitution, and the creation of national human rights institutions to evaluate policies and monitor progress toward full implementation. Various UN documents, such as the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, provide further guidance on policies to promote the right to food. Consequently, it illustrates the availability of clear documentation on how states should implement policies to promote the right to food.

In light of the abundance of documentation that outlines how states should implement policies to promote the right to food, it is puzzling that there are still many people in the world who do not have access to sufficient food. This issue is further compounded by the recent rise in the percentage of the population experiencing food insecurity. According to data collected by the FAO and archived in the World Bank’s open data portal, in 2021, around 30% of the population lived in households that experienced moderate or severe food insecurity. In addition, Figure 1 shows a steady increase in the percentage of people living in such households from around 20% in 2015 to close to 30% in 2021.

The rise in the percentage of individuals living in households with severe food insecurity implies a decline in the ability of people globally to exercise their right to food. This is particularly perplexing given the abundant food supply that can potentially feed everyone globally. Moreover, with extensive documentation available on how states should implement the right to food, it is essential to assess whether the increase in severe food insecurity sheds light over the current ineffective methods in promoting this right.

The choropleth map in Figure 2 depicts the percentage of households experiencing food insecurity, categorized by country and based on the same data used to generate the previous line graph. Darker shading indicates a higher prevalence of food insecurity. Central and Southern African countries, which are mostly low-income according to the World Bank’s classification, show the greatest severity of food insecurity. This highlights the difficulty that many of these states face in promoting the right to food, as they lack the necessary infrastructure and resources to do so.

In summary, ensuring the right to food is a fundamental human right that requires the collective efforts of governments, civil society, private sector, and international organizations. Despite the progress made by the United Nations in addressing global hunger and malnutrition, around two billion people still suffer from hunger, and the proportion of the population facing acute food insecurity continues to increase. This highlights the urgent need for more effective solutions to promote the right to food. Despite the extensive literature on how states should implement the right to food, current techniques appear to be ineffective in addressing the issue of food insecurity. The problem lies not in production but in distribution, and nations have a legal obligation to take steps towards achieving the full realization of the right to adequate food.

To this end, policymakers must prioritize the development of a comprehensive legislative framework that promotes the right to food. Moreover, it is crucial to address the root causes of food insecurity, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change, through evidence-based interventions and innovative solutions. One promising solution is the promotion of sustainable food systems that prioritize local food production and consumption, reduce food waste, and mitigate the impact of climate change.

Additionally, as illustrated in Figure 2, the global community must support low-income countries in addressing this issue. By adopting a holistic approach that considers the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of food security, we can build a world where everyone has access to adequate food, and no one is left behind.

About the authors

Luiza Wadge Oliveira is majoring in International Relations with a minor in Sociology at Drew University.

Scott Feinstein is studying Philosophy and International Relations at Drew University.

Shreya Aher is majoring in International Relations with a minor in Middle East Studies at Drew University.