US Approaches to Food and Nutrition Rights, 1976-2008

Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen

(February 8, 2009)


For sixty years, the legal, political, and cultural concept of the human right to food (HRF) has been evolving as a set of universal norms for the United Nations community, its member states, and civil society. Paragraph 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) declares: “…everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself [sic] and his family, including food…” Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966) adds: “State parties to the present Covenant recognize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger…” and agree “to take steps to the maximum of available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized, including “adequate food.” Some two hundred additional UN instruments and declarations address the right to adequate food and nutrition within civil-political, economic-social-cultural, development, indigenous, women’s, and children’s rights constructions.

Although food-and-nutrition is considered to be predominantly an economic right, which is linked to rights to land, work (just wages), health, a clean environment, and a just economic order, a decent standard of living depends also on personal security, fulfillment of civil-political rights, freedom from violence, and “freedom from fear.” Country case studies across the developing world demonstrate that those denied civil liberties suffer disproportionately from social injustices and material deprivations, including food insecurity, hunger-related disease, malnutrition, and preventable child mortality. The significance of freedom of speech, a free press, and freedom of assembly for the protection of economic rights, including the right not to starve, connects food security to democracy and good governance. Protection against starvation is also treated in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, which regulate conduct in warfare. The most recent clarifications have occurred in the form of voluntary guidelines for states to support the progressive realization of the right to food in the context of national food security (FAO 2005) and a resource manual on right to food for NGOs (Kunnemann and Epal-Ratjen 2005). Table 1 highlights key milestones in this history.

Table 1: Milestones in Elaborating the Human Right to Food

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Described in Wikipedia
1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

Described in Wikipedia
1974  World Food Conference Declaration reaffirms the right to food.

Described in Wikipedia
1976 IESCR enters into force as binding international law.


The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) begins monitoring the human right to food (HRF).

Described in Wikipedia

UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights names Asbjørn Eide as the first Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, followed by Jean Ziegler (2000) and Olivier De Schutter (2008).
1983-1984 The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) commissions a report on food as a human right, which begins the process of adding clarifications and new implementing instruments, with direct assistance from the Netherlands Human Rights Institute (Alston and Tomasevski 1984) and United Nations University (Eide et al. 1984), whose reports consider the key terms: “adequate food,” “rights,” and various levels of “obligations.” These conferences also consider how “rights” are related to national legal structures and rule of law; food, agriculture, health, and development planning; social-welfare legislation, within a larger environmental, political-economic, and health context. They also begin to define “minimally adequate food” for purposes of monitoring nutritional well-being. Finally, they are concerned with identifying where violations of human rights, particularly through social or political exclusion, enter into the causal nexus of malnutrition; this conceptual framework is later widely adopted within the UN System.
1985 ECOSOC establishes the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) to receive country reports and monitor progress on implementing the ICESCR. Committee also holds General Discussion Days to discuss relevant questions and issues General Comments to clarify the content of specific provisions. The Committee is composed of independent experts, serving in their personal capacity, elected by the states parties. Although its views are not binding per se, they are accorded “particular weight” (Cotula and Vidar 2003).
Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) is founded and offers initial guidelines on interpretation of the HRF. FIAN is particularly concerned with the ways access to land and livelihoods affect access to adequate food and nutrition.
1987 ECOSOC accepts FIAN’s initial guidelines, and opens its offices to NGOs, who are allowed to offer supplemental reports to those supplied by governments on implementation of the ICESCR.
1989 UN publishes Eide’s report on the right to food (A. Eide 1989)  See also updated version (A. Eide 1999). ECOSOC accepts FIAN’s revised RTF guidelines
Convention on the Rights of the Child
World Summit for Children (WSC) sets nutrition goals as parameters of the rights of the child. These include the right of the child to breastfeed (for four to six months) as well as implementation of country-level policies and programs that will cut childhood malnutrition in half and virtually eliminate vitamin A and iodine deficiency diseases.
1992 FAO/WHO International Conference on Nutrition affirms adequate food as a human right, specifically, the right not to starve, and reaffirms the WSC nutrition goals for children.

World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna reaffirms the universality, interdependence, and indivisibility of all human rights (as codified in the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ICESCR), and specifically reaffirms the right to adequate food (UN 1993). Creates Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

World Food Summit Plan of Action, Paragraph 7.4, asks the High Commissioner for clarifications on the HRF that will lead to more effective actions.
1997 FIAN issues a “Code of Conduct” on the HRF, addressed to states, civil society, the private sector, and international organizations, which is endorsed by hundreds of NGOs. FIAN is increasingly recognized as a key international NGO on the HRF, and plays a leading role in a series of consultations sponsored by the Office of the High Commissioner and FAO.
1999 CESCR issuesGeneral Comment 12 on Right to Adequate Food (CESCR), clarifies state, civil society, and community obligations to work together to enable a context where all meet their nutritional needs:The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman, and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.The Comment elaborates language detailing necessary steps by states and civil-society to respect, protect, facilitate, and fulfill the right to food.
2002 World Food Summit: five years later calls for establishment of Intergovernmental Working Group to develop Voluntary Guidelines that governments can follow, and also advances efforts to set benchmarks for “adequate food,” and for monitoring national food-security and nutrition performance.
2004 Intergovernmental FAO Council unanimously agrees to Right to Food Guidelines (FAO 2005).
2005 FIAN issues HRF reporting guidelines for NGOs (Kunnemann and Epal-Ratjen 2005)

As a reference point for food security policy, the right to food continues to be broadly embraced. The United States increasingly finds itself an outlier to an emerging global consensus. Presently, 158 states are currently parties to the legally binding ICESCR (this compares to 141 in 1998 and 85 in 1989). Although around 30 UN member states have not yet signed the Covenant, only four signatories besides the United States (Belize, Cuba, Sao Tome and Principe, and South Africa) have not yet ratified it. One of the non-ratifying signatories, South Africa, has nevertheless incorporated the provisions of the ICESCR into its constitution.

Another binding treaty that includes the right to food of children, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, is one of the most widely accepted international agreements, with 193 states parties. Only the United States and Somalia have signed but not yet ratified it.

In spite of the progress summarized above, country-level and international adherence to legal standards that protect food and nutrition rights remains more aspiration than achievement. Malnutrition is a major cause of death, disease, and lost human potential that costs developing countries billions of dollars and untold human capacities annually. Nevertheless, human rights offer a mobilization theme that unites international, national, and local community actions against hunger.

Attention to hunger concerns, as one among many human rights violations that afflict low-income and marginalized populations, and especially vulnerable women and children, is one “value added” of a human rights approach to food security. The construction of universal norms and focus on the principle of non-exclusion can help shape policies, programs, and projects that respect, protect, and fulfill the nutritional requirements for human dignity of all people, not only members of favored political groups, dominant males, or desired children.

Program designs that specifically use HRF social structural analysis in addition to geographic and income indicators to pinpoint individuals or groups that are exceptionally vulnerable, can help implement strategies to reach them, help improve targeting, and therefore efficiency and effectiveness of nutrition program expenditures.

As NGOs such as CARE, Oxfam America, and Global Exchange have demonstrated, peaceful political mobilization around food issues, including fair-trade and slave- and child labor-free production and marketing methods can be part of a democratization process that improves rule of law and good governance. A human rights-based approach helps empower those vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition to hold government accountable; they participate in the democratic process of policy formation and implementation, and are not mere passive beneficiaries of government programs or private charities.

Thus, a human rights approach potentially adds value along the multiple lines of moral good, cost-effectiveness (efficiency), and advance in democracy and governance processes.

In addition, HRF provides a unifying framework for individuals from diverse cultures, especially different religious persuasions, who share essential principles that no human beings should starve, and everyone should have access to a nutritionally adequate diet as part of basic human dignity.

Against this background, it is instructive to consider why the U.S. is not among the nations who have ratified major human rights instruments that promote the right to food, and in what ways U.S. food security legislation is less effective than it might be for these omissions.

US approaches to the right to food

The arguments of US proponents and opponents are summarized in Table 2. Advocates insist that HRF is consistent with the U.S. Constitutional protection of the right to life, and also grounded in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s precedent, “freedom from want.” In view of America’s food abundance, no one should starve or go malnourished. Opponents counter that the right to food is un-American, and not a legal, political-economic, or cultural value. The Constitution protects only civil-political rights. Although the US generously funds food security programs at home and abroad, these are voluntary, and do not require or admit a human rights framework.

Table 2: Key US Advocacy Points and Counterpoints

Proponents’ arguments:

  • The human right to food (HRF) is consistent with existing Constitutional protection, which protects the right to life (Simon 1975; Sunstein 2005)
  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concept of freedom from want, which is a starting point for the HRF, is definitively an American political value enshrined in the US political system (Kent 2005)
  • The clarification of food and nutrition policies within a human-rights framework should make programs more cost-effective and reduce expenditures, not increase them (Simon 1975; Eide and Kracht 2005)
  • “No hunger” is a chief and overriding American value, and the HRF as “the right to feed oneself” is entirely consistent with American can-do values of self-reliance (Proponents of H.R. 393, US Congress 1976; Beckmann and Simon 1999)

Opponents’ arguments:

  • The HRF is not protected by the U.S. Constitution (see Alston 1990; Moose 2001 a,b)
  • The HRF is associated with un-American and socialist political systems (see Alston 1990; King 2007)
  • Taking on HRF obligations would be too expensive(opponents to H.R. 393, US Congress 1976)
  • Culturally, HRF provisions are not the American way, which is self-reliance (King 2007)

Who represents the “real” American values is subject to dispute.

Anti-hunger advocates, including those who work in America’s Second Harvest food banks, networks of advocates who lobby for increases in eligibility and access to domestic food stamps, and more human rights considerations in the delivery of international food aid, argue that the HRF is central to American culture. They join Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Global Exchange, Bread for the World, and others specializing in political mobilizations in advocating the right to food.

On the other side, they confront legislators like Steve King (R-Iowa) and their constituents, who insist that “freedom from want” is an FDR invention, and food anxiety is an energizing challenge that can mobilize the needy to surmount their nutritional distress; in King’s (2007) words, the food-insecure need to “work hard” and “work smart”: “If we are free from fear of want, we will also be free of the ambition to provide for our future wants and needs. If that is the case America will go down dramatically and we will watch this work ethic in our culture collapse.” They disparage the notion of HRF accountable government as “nanny government,” to be avoided, along with its costs.

This dispute, centering on HRF legal norms and their connections to US political and popular culture, suggests that a substantive approach to achieving HRF might be more effective. Physician-human rights-HIV-AIDS activist Paul Farmer (2006) outlines possible actions with respect to a right to food. These actions begin with analysis (Who is hungry? What are their social characteristics? Why are they hungry?), proceeds to strategies (What can be done to improve their nutritional conditions in the immediate term, and address root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in the longer term?), and actions to address the causes. Similarly, Americans have been taking steps through community food security coalitions and networks; government can help strengthen and scale up such efforts. Reciprocally, these community agents and networking agencies can help build support for the legal framework, which creates the political will to obligate government to join global efforts to improve access to food for all, in ways that respect and protect human dignity and build toward democratic institutions and good governance.

There are multiple, urgent reasons to focus on the value-added of the legal covenants at this point in time, even though it is possible to advance the substantive matter of everyone accessing nutritionally adequate food in socially appropriate ways.

Most important, the US government and its people participate in a global community based on human rights. It makes no political sense for the US to continue to argue that HRF and other economic rights are “not our culture” when the US pressures other nations to accept and embrace universal civil-political rights that some argue are not their culture. Increasingly, legal, political, and cultural evidence affirm that all classes of human rights are interdependent and indivisible. It is time for the US to take this message and process seriously with respect to the right to food.

(Note: This essay updates Messer (1998) and summarizes information presented in Messer and Cohen (2007). This opinion piece are the authors alone and does not necessarily represent the views of World Hunger Education Service)

Ellen Messer is an anthropologist and specialist in human rights, food security, and religion. Professor Messer is affiliated with Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition and the Brandeis University Program in Sustainable
International Development. Marc Cohen is a humanitarian researcher for OXFAN America.


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