The right to adequate food as a human right was first formally recognized by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.
It was further recognized in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in1966, (entered into force in 1976), which stated that, “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 article also recognized “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”.
Despite this clear recognition, the application of the right to food was not safeguarded with appropriate legislative tools for a long time. Only in 1999, in fact, was the right to food finally established in international law in General Comment No 12 of the International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which establishes that: “The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. In 2004, after months of often difficult, but constructive negotiations, the Council of FAO adopted Voluntary Guidelines that would “support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”.
According to FAO, the Guidelines were conceived ‘to provide practical guidance’ to help countries implement their obligations relating to the right to adequate food. Besides, ICESCR (International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) in General Comment No 12, also imposes a three-part obligation on all member states, to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to adequate food. States are prohibited from taking action that prevents the access to adequate food of persons within their territorial jurisdiction. States are further obliged to ‘ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of (such) access. Finally, States are required both to take positive action ‘to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security’, and to fulfill the right to adequate food in instances where individuals or groups, ‘for reasons beyond their control’, do not have access to adequate food.
During the forty-first session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 41), held in October 2014, the need for States to commit themselves to implement these obligations and to sustain political commitment at the highest level was strongly emphasized, with food security and nutrition as top priorities.
Food security can be guaranteed by ensuring access to productive resources – particularly land, water, seeds, fishing for all individuals. There are links between the right to food and other human rights, such as the right to work and to social security. Employment and social security are often crucial means of obtaining food, as well as social protection programs for the most vulnerable. For instance, malnutrition and hunger, among the indigenous peoples, who are among the most vulnerable social groups, have often been caused by the denial of access to land, fishing or hunting grounds, by deprivation of access to adequate and culturally acceptable food and by contamination of food sources.
The right to access to land is, in fact, particularly interconnected with the right to food. It is important therefore to underline, how the growing exploitation of land, as a consequence of population growth, along with the effects of climate change and the increasing commercial investments, reduces the amount of land available to people, mainly those living in rural areas of poor countries, to sustain themselves.
How can individuals or communities protect themselves when their right to food is violated? The victims of such violation can appeal to the national courts of human rights when the right to food is recognized under some national laws, or else, by appealing for the respect of other human rights, such as the right to life and dignity, which are recognized by the international community as strictly linked to the right to food.
Victims can also appeal to international institutions, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as the UN human rights treaty bodies, which are committees that monitor the implementation of human rights treaties, or communications on alleged violations of the right to food can also be transmitted to the UN Special Rapporteur.
The right to food is therefore now internationally recognized and more and more countries include it in their constitutions; nevertheless, its practical implementation is still far from meeting the needs of millions of people. (S.P.)