Right to food

What is the right to food?

In simple terms, the right to food is the right to regular and permanent access to sufficient and appropriate food. 

This right is more correctly called ‘the right to adequate food’. 

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food proposed the following definition: 

The right to food is the right 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 the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear. 

note The right to food is not a right to a specific number of calories.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights wrote: 

The right to adequate food shall therefore not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients.

How to determine if the food is adequate?

Adequate food has the following characteristics: 

1. Availability: persons can obtain food either directly from natural resources (agriculture, hunting, etc.) or by purchasing it.  

2. Accessibility: food should be both economically and physically accessible. Thus, it should be of a reasonable price (such that would not force a person to compromise their other needs). An example of physical accessibility is a food market at a reasonable distance from a person’s home – this is especially important for persons living in remote areas. 

3. Adequacy: food must satisfy dietary needs, taking into account various factors – the individual’s age, health, gender, etc. Food must be safe and free from dangerous substances. It should also be culturally appropriate.

example Pork is culturally and religiously inappropriate food for an Orthodox Jew. It may be nutritious and absolutely safe for consumption, but it does not fully satisfy the requirement of adequacy. 

Who protects this right?

As the State is the main guarantor of human rights, it must take steps towards the realisation of this right. 

More specifically, the State has three types of obligations:

1. The obligation to respect means that the State should not violate or interfere with this right. Thus, the following conduct is prohibited:

  • preventing access to food
  • unjustified suspension of nutrition-related programmes

2. The obligation to protect means that the State should prevent violations by other parties. It includes: 

  • adopting relevant legislation
  • regulating the food market (e.g. labelling of food) 
  • preventing land, water and air pollution

3. The obligation to fulfil requires the state to adopt a set of measures to ensure the realisation of this right. It includes:

  • adopting a national food and nutrition policy
  • preventing hunger
  • providing food assistance when needed

What if the State does not have enough resources? 

The right to food is not the right to be fed. The State does not have an obligation to provide free food to its population. 

The core of this right is non-discrimination: everyone has the right to feed oneself in dignity. Accordingly, the State’s primary action should be addressing discrimination in food-related matters and preventing hunger. 

International recognition of this right

The first catalogue of human rights adopted shortly after the Second World War, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides in Article 25(1): 

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to adequate food is also recognised in other international conventions.

In context

Sources

Last updated 21/03/2024