Politics of Poverty

The right to food: 10 years on, are we winning or losing the battle?

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Rani Devi (left) and Munni Devi (right in red) walk through their field of mustard plants—an important source of edible oil for cooking—in Uttar Pradesh, India. India’s food security law has recently gained international attention, and could potentially serve as a model for other countries. Photo: Rajendra Shaw/Oxfam

A Q&A with Smita Narula on where we stand, globally, on ensuring the human right to adequate food.

Is adequate food a human right? The UN and many countries believe so. A decade ago, the UN established guidelines to promote the right to food. And this week in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organisation will look back at 10 years of progress under the UN’s voluntary guidelines in support of the human right to adequate food.

(L to R) Gawain Kripke, Smita Narula, and Frances Moore Lappe in a food justice selfie.

I recently met Smita Narula at a conference and thought it would be interesting to ask her to reflect on the state of play on the right to food today. Narula is a Fellow in human rights and public policy at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. She has led key research and advocacy initiatives on the right to food, and has authored numerous publications on the subject. From 2008 to 2014 she served as legal advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Gawain Kripke: So, what’s the state of the human right to adequate food? Are we winning or losing?

Smita Narula: Ensuring the right to food for all is a struggle that has to be waged on many fronts. In some areas we’ve made a lot of progress. For example, there is now a lot more clarity about what States and other actors need to do in order to fulfill their obligations to ensure the right to food. We’ve also made progress in recognizing the right to food as a legal entitlement, including by making it a constitutional right in countries around the globe. Global food, financial, and energy crises have also motivated calls for States to put in place laws and frameworks to protect vulnerable populations who lack physical and economic access to food or who are being displaced from land and other resources essential to their survival. 

But we still have a long way to go. Large swaths of the global population remain food insecure today. Despite much progress legitimizing the right to food and securing it as a legal entitlement, there are gnawing gaps between laws and commitments on paper and implementing these commitments in practice. Part of the problem is that while we rely on States to faithfully implement their human rights obligations, State and corporate actors, as well as domestic elites, often stand to benefit from rights-violating policies and practices, resulting in widespread impunity for violations of the right to food. 

“Food sovereignty and peasants’ rights movements are emerging and connecting across the globe, fueled by the simple yet profound demand that the people who produce, distribute and consume food should be placed at the center of food systems and policies—rather than markets and corporations.”

Kripke: This is a moment for reflection and review. What do you think the major obstacles have been? Are there any bright spots?

Narula: One major obstacle at the global level is that the rules of global economic governance often conflict with (and end up trumping) States’ paramount obligation to ensure fundamental human rights. For example, States’ human rights obligations often come into conflict with their investment, trade, or debt-servicing obligations. These conflicts are often resolved in a manner that favors the interests of powerful economic actors. Making progress on this front means challenging and reshaping the rules of global economic governance that undermine the right to food in deeply structural ways. 

Also at the global level, we need to challenge the dominant discourse that reduces the right to food to a production problem (as opposed to an access problem) and that offers large-scale land transfers and industrialized agricultural production as the solution. These assumptions, and the policy prescriptions that flow therefrom, have already proved catastrophic for rural communities in many countries.

In the midst of it all, there are many bright spots and thoughtful solutions about how to move forward in ecologically sound and rights-respecting ways. For example, food sovereignty and peasants’ rights movements are emerging and connecting across the globe, fueled by the simple yet profound demand that the people who produce, distribute and consume food should be placed at the center of food systems and policies—rather than markets and corporations. These movements have also helped bring the benefits of agro-ecological, small-scale farming practices to the forefront of global discussions on food security and food production. 

Kripke: The India food security law has gotten a lot of attention. Do you think it’s a model for other countries?

Narula: India is home to a huge proportion of people suffering from hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the world today. Concrete action by the Indian government on this issue is welcome and needed. The food security act plays an important role – that of providing subsidized food grains to approximately two thirds of India’s population of 1.2 billion people – but ensuring the right to food requires action on multiple fronts.

For India, and for all governments, it requires a holistic approach that addresses the structural, underlying causes of food insecurity, and that strengthens people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihoods. With respect to India, the real question to ask is why are so many in the country so food insecure despite decades of celebrated economic growth? The answer is that not all have benefited equally from India’s economic reforms, and many—including small-scale farmers and certain communities marginalized on the basis of their caste, gender, religion, or indigenous status – continue to be excluded. Ensuring farmers’ livelihoods and addressing entrenched forms of discrimination and exclusion have to be part of the right to food response.

Kripke: The US is seen as a blocker in international fora. Is that fair? Why?

Narula: It’s both unfortunate and ironic that the US does not treat economic and social rights, like the right to food, on par with civil and political rights, like the right to vote. It’s unfortunate because the US is a powerful global economic actor whose agricultural, trade, and fiscal policies have deep impacts on the right to food, both within and outside the United States. If US actions and policies were informed by and aligned with the right to food framework, there could be real potential for transformation in our global food system.

It’s also ironic because the idea that freedom from hunger and access to sufficient, nutritious food is a fundamental human right is not foreign to the United States; rather, it was inspired by the US government’s commitment to ensuring “freedom from want” in the wake of the Great Depression. It’s time for the US to once again embrace these values, both at home and in international forums. A first essential step is ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). 

Kripke: How does the US do with a human right to food prism?

Narula: Around 49 million Americans live in “food insecure” households, meaning they cannot afford adequate food for themselves or their families. In other words, nearly one in six individuals in the richest country in the world is struggling to put food on the table. This is a real failing of our political system. It is also a violation of human rights. 

Food insecurity in the United States is not the result of a shortage of food or of resources; it is the result of poverty and of policies that fail to prioritize the needs of low-income Americans. The time is definitely ripe for a human rights approach – such an approach can help shift the focus from food assistance as charity to access to adequate food as a human right. Such an approach calls on the US government to prioritize the basic needs of all Americans; support a robust social safety net; and comprehensively tackle the root causes of food insecurity, including by ensuring a living wage. A human rights approach also seeks to hold the government accountable for failures to ensure the availability, accessibility, and adequacy of food for all.


On a related note, Oxfam just released a new discussion paper on The Right to Adequate Food: Progress, Challenges and Opportunities. See also Oxfam’s work in El Salvador pushing for new legislation for a right to food.

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