In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: February 2013

Food Security

Is Food Security a Human Right? And If So, Who is Resposible for It?

In this installment of "Ethical Inquiry" we explore the ethics of food as a human right, taking into account the supporters and the opponents of such a right. Is there a right to food? If so, who is responsible for the fulfillment of such a right?

Establishing a right to food

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the “right to food has been recognized since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.” Article 25 Part 1 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states 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 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (adopted in 1966) adds that the “States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

While traditional studies on food security were focus mainly on the availability of food in terms of agriculture and crops, in the 1990s a wider idea of food insecurity is accepted. And in 1996, the FAO organized the World Food Summit which recognized a “multidimensional nature of food security and includes food access, availability, food use and stability.”

In “US Approaches to Food and Nutrition Rights, 1976-2008” Ellen Messer and Marc J. Cohen note 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.”  

Despite increasing recognition of food security as a human right, the concept is not universally supported. Lidija Knuth and Margret Vidar note in the 2011 FAO publication “Constitutional and Legal Protection of the Right to Food around the World,” [PDF] that “56 constitutions protect the right to food either implicitly or explicitly as a justiciable right, or explicitly in the form of a directive principle of state. In addition, through the direct applicability of international treaties, the right to food is directly applicable, with a higher status than national legislation, in at least 51 countries, thus reaching a total of 106 countries in which the right to food is applicable.” Further, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has been signed by 160 countries – yet 54 nations, including the U.S., do not recognize the right to food as a human right.

Who is responsible?

Even among those who support a right to food, there are a number of perspectives on who or what should be responsible for establishing food security. Some believe that the actions of market forces are the solution. There are also programs supported by governments, efforts by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and efforts by faith-based organizations.

Market forces

Market-oriented scholars believed that food shortages can be leveled out by market forces. As the International Fund for Agriculture and Development argues, “In a primitive economy, a household ensures its food security mainly through subsistence production. As the economy grows and markets develop for a variety of products, subsistence production is gradually replaced by production for the market.” 

However some contend that the market has failed to prevent food insecurity. In  Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but also from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also argued that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.


The United Nations Economical and Social Council amended  article 11 of the International Covenant On Economic, Social  and Cultural Rights as following: “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 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. The right to adequate food will have to be realized progressively. However, States have a core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger as provided for in paragraph 2 of article 11, even in times of natural or other disasters.”

Many developed nations have international cooperation initiatives that support programs in the field of food security.

Feed the Future, for example, “is the United States Government's global hunger and food security initiative. It supports country-driven approaches to address the root causes of hunger and poverty and forge long-term solutions to chronic food insecurity and undernutrition. Drawing upon resources and expertise of agencies across the U.S. Government, this Presidential Initiative is helping countries transform their own agriculture sectors to sustainably grow enough food to feed their people.”

The European Union has a Food Security Thematic Program (FSTP) that “aims to improve food security in favour of the poorest and the most vulnerable under a medium and longer term perspective and to lead to sustainable solutions. Based on Article 15 of the EU Regulation establishing the Development Co-operation Instrument (DCI), it addresses food security at global, continental and regional levels, complements the geographical programmes and comes to the fore where geographical instruments cannot fully operate.”

Partnership between international organizations, states, and civil society

Although governments are most often held responsible for food security, it might not be feasible for all states, especially middle and low-income countries, to tackle the problem of hunger by themselves. 

The right-based approach  implies that to guarantee the right to food it is necessary to promote partnership between international organizations, states, and civil society, in order to promote all possible actions to promote access to adequate food for all.

The FAO Sustainable Development Department states “Potential partners span all sectors and exist at all levels of the global system. They range from inter-governmental organisations and international non-governmental organisations and business enterprises to village groups attempting to improve, for example, local irrigation management and even, a community's oldest resident, wizened by age and a lifetime's labour, yet the container for the experience and knowledge of this and former generations.”

A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Stop Hunger Now, Oxfam have promoted initiatives to advocate for the right to food and implemented programs in support of people in need, as have faith based organizations (FBOs) such as Caritas International.

The Current State of Food Security Around the World

One might argue that very little in practice has been done to fight hunger. If there has been a remarkable development of the legal framework defining the concept of food as a human right, it is only in the 1990s that the international community started taking concrete steps towards the guarantee of such a right.

In 1996 FAO organized the World Food Summit, whose final outcome was the Rome Declaration and the World Food Summit Plan of Action. "The Rome Declaration calls upon us to reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015” and established mechanism to monitor progresses in the fulfillment of the proposed objectives.

Additionally, in 2004 the FAO adopted the Right to Food Guidelines to support States initiatives in defense of the right to food.

Finally, in 2000, the United Nations elaborated the Millennium Declaration, “189 nations made a promise to free people from extreme poverty and multiple deprivations. This pledge turned into the eight Millennium Development Goals.” Actions to fight poverty and reduce world hunger were recognized and a world priority and put into the agenda of all UN Member States.


Nevertheless good intentions are not enough, and fulfilling right to food in practice is difficult both from a legal and practical way. The FAO “State of Food Insecurity in the World” Report states that “in 2011, 868 million people suffered from malnourishment, almost 2 billion people died for micronutrient deficiencies health consequences and almost 2.5 million children die every year for consequences of under nutrition.”

Messner and Cohen explain that “(t)he U.S. government has consistently opposed formal right-to-food legislation, labeling it as overly burdensome and inconsistent with constitutional law.”

In 2010 India considered establishing a constitutional right to food (See: “Should Food Be a Right for the Poor?”) through socialist state-driven food subsides policies. Such a constitutional reform was may have been noble in its intentions, but could not be realized in practice.

Final Thoughts

Despite the challenges, we can find some reasons to be optimistic. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Millennium Development Goal number 1 set the objective to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. Even though due to the 2008 global economic crisis we are far from reaching the goal, most countries worldwide are on track and significant results in terms of reduction of food insecurity and mitigation of famine and food emergency have been put in place since the 1990s [PDF].

After long debates and slow, but constant improvement in the fight against hunger, a new approach is taking the stage: the idea of food sovereignty

According to the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, 

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and users. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal - fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

Are we on the right track? Is the debate starting posing the right question to the problem looking for more effective and sustainable solutions?

What do you think?

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Valeria Gemello MS Candidate '13, Program in International Health Policy and Management, THe Heller School for Social Policy and Management.