The Human Right to Food


The Human Right to Food

December 9, 2009

Racial equality. Religious freedom. Freedom of speech. This is likely what comes to mind at the mention of "human rights." But the fundamental prerequisite to all of these essential rights is often sorely overlooked—the human right to food.

Poverty, hunger, gender injustice, racial bigotry and food insecurity are deeply interconnected. Achieving global justice is only possible when everyone has sustainable, stable access to nutritious food. When the "right to food" is fully realized, individuals are freed from hunger and malnutrition and can become partners in making policy decisions that move them closer to leading dignified, empowered lives.

The right to food was first recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The document states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food." In 1966, the 160 nations that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, legally bound themselves to protecting and fulfilling the right to food, but many of these nations failed to realize this right for their citizens. In 1996 at the World Food Summit, world leaders issued the Rome Declaration reaffirming "the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food..." Yet despite this declaration, more than 1 billion people in the world are living in hunger today and the problem continues to escalate.

Making the right to food a global priority

With increases in food prices continuing to exacerbate hunger in the developing world and beyond, the need for a human rights-based approach to addressing the root causes and developing sustainable solutions to food insecurity has never been more pressing. Yet to date, the global approach to alleviating hunger has mostly entailed wealthy nations sending food assistance to developing countries rather than creating local, sustainable solutions.

Current efforts to do so at the international level have been disappointing. At the World Summit on Food Security on November 16-18, 2009, world leaders rallied around a new strategy to fight global hunger and help poor countries feed themselves. They did not, however, pledge the $44 billion sought by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to increase agricultural aid to the world's one billion hungry people. And while the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization had hoped countries would agree to 2025 as a deadline to end the hunger pandemic, the declaration instead focused on a pledge set nine years ago to only halve the number of hungry people by 2015.

Effecting change on the ground

AJWS believes that a local approach to realizing the human right to food will most effectively halt food insecurity worldwide. AJWS implements this approach by supporting grassroots change by and for local people in myriad ways—teaching farmers to grow food using sustainable farming methods; endowing communities with seed banks and harvest storage facilities; founding agricultural cooperatives and jumpstarting profitable local markets; and empowering indigenous communities to advocate for their land and water rights. With AJWS's support, many grassroots organizations are moving closer to actualizing their right to food. For example:

  • Red COMAL, in Honduras, has organized 16,000 peasants into farming collectives
  • ROSE, in India, has conducted field trainings for 13,000 women farmers
  • ASPROCIG has established 75 new farms in Colombia
  • Lambi Fund of Haiti provides micro loans and establishes seed banks to transform impoverished mountain villages into profitable farming communities

Jaminson Pitalua, an ASPROCIG staff member, is integrating a vision for food as a human right with a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between humans and land. Pilalua shares: "We understand our lands to be dependent on a permanent relationship between the culture of the local people—farmers, women, men, indigenous persons, children and youths—and the natural environment. For us, our land is not just a geographic space, but rather a zone of life, where all walks of life can coexist. We propose that alternative rural development is a lifestyle that will defend our resources and our way of life."

Jewish tradition teaches that "Without sustenance, there is no Torah." Indeed, human nourishment is a prerequisite for all of our learning and living because, without food, it is impossible to think and impossible to thrive. As Jews, consumers and global citizens, we are responsible for safeguarding the inherent dignity every person, a process that begins by ensuring the right of every person to feed herself and to have continuous access to resources that enables her to produce, earn or purchase enough food.

It doesn't take much to help one village start a farm, but the outcome is profound: food, income, independence, life. By investing in communities' ability to grow and sell their own food, even the world's poorest people can move out of poverty.

Learn more about the ways in which AJWS is helping to realize the human right to food by visiting its campaign Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up.