Special Report: The Right to Food Is a Basic Human Right

(February 8, 2009) This is a special Hunger Notes report on the right to food. Why shouldn’t people have enough food, earned in the usual case by working, to keep themselves alive and alert? A very reasonable goal, but one which is far from being met, though there has been significant progress in the past 10 years. This report examines both the progress and the frustrations.

It is divided into the following sections.

The Human Right to Food

Ellen Messer and Marc Cohen in the first section of their article US Approaches to Food and Nutrition Rights, 1976-2008 provide a succinct introduction to the development of the human right to food in the United Nations system. This is a fascinating history.

The human right to food has its contemporary origin within the U.N. Universal Human Rights framework. The main reference point is located within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (U.N. 1948), Article 25, which states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.” It provided a reference point for human rights legislation that followed but is not itself a binding international legal instrument.1

The modern human rights framework for a specific right essentially consists of a legal framework in a country that establishes something as a right, including an effective procedure for enforcing the right, a process for adjudicating individual rights cases (which can involve different interpretations of the legal framework), and resources provided to address the outcome of rights decisions. In the United States two good examples would be the right to bear arms or the right to asylum. There is a legal code that defines the right, has the ability to actually influence outcomes, a procedure for adjudicating different definitions, and money provided to facilitate the process and outcomes. In the case of asylum for example, United States has provided various legal reasons permitting asylum in the United States for various groups, a process for adjudicating disputes, and billions of dollars to permit and facilitate this asylum.

What has evolved has been progressive implementation of the right to food.

Asbjørn Eide in The human right to food and contemporary globalization explores the fundamental reason why current globalization efforts have been opposed by so many: globalization in its initial formulation meant concern for poor and oppressed people thoughout the world, and not just reducing the barriers to trade and corporate investment.

Wenche Barth Eide and Uwe Kracht in Challenges ahead for the human right to food discuss official responses to the world food crisis, which have paid only slight attention to the human right to food, and briefly discuss next steps.

Arne Oshaug in Progress in reducing hunger after the World Food Summit discusses two main global initiatives to reduce hunger:

  • the World Food Summit (WFS), its commitments, and follow up
  • the Millennium development goals and their follow up

Both the World Food Summit and the Millennium development goals recognize the importance of food to alleviate hunger and its importance to human beings, though not addressing it in the context of a legal right. However, as major international efforts–if major international effort is not an oxymoron–they can facilitate the human right to food. Oshaug points out

  • the failure to meet the WFS hunger reduction goals
  • the declining practical importance of achieving these goals (even for the FAO, that convened the WFS),
  • the replacement of the WFS goal by the lesser Millennium development goal and the degree to which this goal is being achieved

The right to food has been gaining in developing countries. Right to food advocates recognize that the right to food cannot be achieved overnight in developing countries. Thus advocates–and the emerging legal framework–place great importance on two concepts–progressive implementation and voluntary guidelines.

Brazil has been a leader in implementing the right to food. Patrus Ananias in Implementing the human right to food in Brazil describes the progress that Brazil has made and the key components of its advances.

FIAN has been in the forefront of examining country polices in light of the human right to food. Specific country studies include

The FAO right to food page provides much useful information on right to food developments. The front page provides a summary of recent developments as well as links to further information on FAO efforts. There is also a valuable on-line right to food course.

The Human Right to Food in the United States

The second section of Messer and Cohen’s US approaches to Food and Nutrition Rights, 1976-2008 describes alternative US approaches to the right to food.

Thomas J. Marchione in The right to food 1998-2008: a casualty of the war on terror explains what the United States has not done, but might have, in advancing the human right to food.


Defending the right to food at the World Trade Organization Biraj Patnaik and Timothy A. Wise Food Tank December 18, 2015

The Right to Food and Nutrition 2015 released FIAN International October 12, 2015

Implementing the right to food: The debate over India’s new national food security law Hunger Explained September 26, 2015 Also see Food and Agricultural Organization State Food Provision as Social Protection: Debating India’s national food security law (80 page PDF)

Poor state of India’s food subsidies Manu Joseph New York Times March 4, 2015

Hungry for justice: Social mobilization on the right to food in India Shareen Hertel Development and Change December 2014

Legal mobilization: A critical first step in addressing economic and social rights Shareen Hertel Open Democracy February 26, 2015

WTO seeks efforts for permanent deal on food security. Asit Ranjan Mishra Live Mint November 22, 2014 US-India agreement on stockpiles of food revives a trade deal Neha Thirani Bagri New York Times November 13, 2014

Food justice is about more than food security and nutrition Geoff Tansey Devex July 23, 2014

Food’s big-picture guy Mark Bittman New York Times May 27, 2014

US opposition to ambitious Indian program a ‘direct attack on the right to food’ Timothy Wise Global Post December 3, 2013

A huge cheap-food scheme to influence voters will not end malnutrition in India The Economist August 24, 2013

India likely to approve program guaranteeing 800 million a right to food, but doubts persist Annie Gowen Washington Post August 18, 2013

indian_child_eatingPhoto: Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press

India undergoing silent rights revolution as laws guarantee social services Rama Lakshmi Washington Post July 16, 2013

Ahead of elections, India’s cabinet establishes food security program that grants the right to food Jim Yardley New York Times July 4, 2013

The right to food in Bangladesh IRIN News January 22, 2013

Indian government set to introduce bill making the right to food a legal right. NDTVJuly 24, 2011 India’s government is drafting a food security bill, but there are other areas it must address if it is to halt rising hunger levels Nilanjana Bhowmick Poverty Matters Blog July 19, 2011

india_rtf Photo: Lynsey Addario/ New York Times

India asks: Should poor people have a right to food? Jim Yardley New York Times August 8, 2010

UN Human Rights committee gives preliminary recognition to peasants’ rights– report describes marginalization of peasants, rural women and traditional fishing, hunting, and herding communities, reducing access to food among the poorest people FIAN International February 12, 2010

Brazilian Congress approves incorporation of the right to food into the Brazilian constitution FIAN International February 9, 2010

World leaders at UN summit vow to aid farmers in bid to help starving [though past record of assistance has been dismal] Richard Owen Times Online November 16, 2009

There has been a record of overall failure of governments to address world hunger. In spite of the 1995 World Food Summit commitment to reduce world hunger by half from 824 billion then to 412 billion by 2015, the number of hungry people has in fact increased to over 1 billion. Two recent studies address this failure: the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2009 by Fian International and others and Bridging the Divide by Oxfam.

fao_wheatPhoto: Kamila Hyat/IRIN

World hunger increases despite growth in food production IRIN News November 12, 2009 We can have food security, say two new reports IRIN News November 12, 2009

200 million children under the age of five in the developing world suffer from chronic undernutrition, causing one-third of deaths in children under five, the United Nations Children’s Fund says BBC News November 11, 2009

Food experts worry as population and hunger grow Neil MacFarquhar New York Times October 21, 2009 Economy has left 1 billion hungry, UN says Ariel David Associated Press/Boston Globe October 15, 2009

Seeds of trouble: the top-10 agricultural biotech firms in developed nations control 67% of the global proprietary seed market Latha Jishnu Business Standard (New Delhi) October 29, 2009

bolsa_familiar_brazilPhoto: Tyler Bridges/MCT

Countries in Latin America pioneer an anti-poverty program that works–paying poor families a stipend and requiring that school-age children stay in school Tyler Bridges McClatchy Newspapers September 21, 2009 The World Bank description of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program A United Nations Development Program evaluation of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia Brazil has been a leader in implementing the right to food as referenced in Patrus Ananias article above. This article describes a key program and its successes.

This special report on the right to food is
dedicated to our colleague and friend, Tom
Marchione, who died unexpectedly in 2008. Tom
Marchione, among other virtues, combined a
concern for poor and hungry people, a deep
understanding of nutrition and how nutrition of
the poor was affected by social and economic
structures, and a willingness to engage
institutions that he was a member of, including
the United States Agency for International
Development and anthropologists in the United
States, to be more effective actors in the
reduction of hunger.  His qualities as a
friend were very real, and, together with his
and our concern for food as a human right,
played a key role in organizing this special
report, and  us as contributors to it.

The Right to food–1998 articles


Introduction–The Right to Food, Considered on the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (June, 1998)

This issue of Hunger Notes is dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR) and to the United Nations. The creation of a statement of rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations, which establishes means by which the nations of the world may take steps to protect these rights, together represent a fundamental step forward for mankind. (Continued)

The World Food Summit: A Milestone in Developing a Human Rights Approach to Food (June, 1998)

Arne Oshaug and Wenche Barth Eide

The access to adequate food and nutrition is denied for a large proportion of the inhabitants of this globe, perhaps 800 million people of the world’s population of 3.5 billion.

This calls for a radical new approach– a human rights approach. (Continued)

The Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food: A Tool for Actors in the Civil Society (June, 1998)

Michael Windfuhr

The Right to Adequate Food is a fundamental human right firmly established in international law. This right flows from the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966. The Right to Adequate Food has been reaffirmed in many pronouncements of the international community over the last 50 years. It is the UDHR that clarifies that the realization of all human rights– civil, cultural, economic, political and social– is needed to guarantee a life in dignity for all members of the human family. A life in dignity requires 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…” (Article 25, UDHR). (Continued)

Food is a Human Right (June, 1998)

Uwe Kracht

The World Food Summit (WFS), which gathered in Rome two years ago, will hardly enter history as a landmark conference like the 1974 World Food Conference or the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. But it did open a few windows of opportunity, which could have a fundamental impact on the way we deal with food and development problems in the future. (Continued)

Human Rights and Nutrition Practice after the Cold War (June, 1998)

Thomas J. Marchione

As we approach the next millennium, food and nutrition professionals and others searching for solutions to the world’s widespread undernutrition and hunger find themselves within a new post-Cold War development era. With the diminution and conclusion of the Cold War as a global conflict over the last quarter century, the international development environment changed profoundly while hundreds of millions still remain undernourished. (Continued)

Creation of Human Rights Communities as a Means to Fight Hunger and Malnutrition (June, 1998)

Shulamith Koenig

This issue of Hunger Notes honors the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Analyzing 50 years of human rights treaties and subsequent commitments is an important responsibility for all human rights organizations and social justice activists. (Continued)

Human Rights Treaty Compliance (June, 1998)

Ellen Messer

For 50 years the legal and political concept of human rights has been evolving as a set of universal norms for the international community and its component states. Paragraph 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declares: “…everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food…” Article 11 of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) adds: “…State parties to the present Covenant recognize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger…” and “…to take steps to the maximum of…available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized.” Approximately 200 additional UN instruments address the right to adequate food and nutrition within civil-political, economic-social-cultural, development, and indigenous rights constructions. (Continued)


A right to food implies that the very existence of hunger is a violation of human rights.

The concept of a right to food is too theoretical: It is food that is needed.

There is no need to establish a right to food. Rights make people lazy.

  • World Hunger Education
    P.O. Box 29015
    Washington, D.C. 20017
  • For the past 40 years, since its founding in 1976, the mission of World Hunger Education Service is to undertake programs, including Hunger Notes, that
    • Educate the general public and target groups about the extent and causes of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and the world
    • Advance comprehension which integrates ethical, religious, social, economic, political, and scientific perspectives on the world food problem
    • Facilitate communication and networking among those who are working for solutions
    • Promote individual and collective commitments to sustainable hunger solutions.