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Last Updated: 07/29/2015The Right to Food
Do human beings have a right to food? What should we do with the enormous quantities of food waste our societies produce? Shant Melkonian weighs in on this important policy debate.
In May 2015, the French National Assembly passed a new piece of legislation aimed at cracking down on food waste by banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, and donating it instead to charities or for use as animal feed. Under this new law, supermarkets will be barred from deliberately spoiling unsold food so it cannot be eaten. Those with a footprint of 4,305 sq ft (400 sq m) or more will have to sign contracts with charities by July next year or face penalties including fines of up to 75,000 Euros or two years in jail (Chrisafis, 2015).
In recent years, French media had highlighted how poor families, unemployed or homeless people, and students forage for food in supermarket bins, trying to feed themselves. As if their situation was not horrible enough in a world which can actually produce food to feed every single human being, people foraging in supermarket bins have been stopped by police and faced with criminal charges for theft. For example, a 59-year-old father of six working for the minimum wage at a Monoprix supermarket in Marseille almost lost his job after a colleague called security when they saw him pick six melons and two lettuces out of a bin (Chrisafis, 2015).
As soon as the legislation was passed the ideological battle between left and right came to the fore. The Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution, which represents big supermarkets, criticized the plan. “The law is wrong in both target and intent, given that the big stores represent only 5% of food waste but have these new obligations,” said Jacques Creyssel, head of the organization.” “They are already the pre-eminent food donors, with more than 4,500 stores having signed agreements with aid groups” (Chrisafis, 2015).
This brings us to the question of the right to food and if it is a fundamental human right.
The answer to this question begins with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Right of 1966. Article 11 of the Covenant states that: 1) 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. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. 2) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed: a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources, b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need (OHCHR).
In 1999, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the international body that monitors the implementation of the ICESC issued a General Comment on the right to adequate food (General Comment 12). In it the Committee asserted that the right to food is indivisibly linked to dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfillment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. The Committee also stressed that the right to adequate food is indivisible from social justice, which requires the adoption of economic and social policies (on national and international level) for the eradication of poverty and the fulfillment of all human rights (CESCR, 1999)
The Committee continued by arguing that the roots of hunger and malnutrition are not the lack of food, but the lack of access to food because of poverty by a large portion of the world's population. It is the obligation of State Parties to the Covenant to take steps to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food. Moreover, they are obliged to ensure for everyone under their jurisdiction access to the minimum essential food, to ensure their freedom from hunger (CESCR, 1999).
Like other human rights, the right to adequate food imposes on State Parties three levels of obligations; the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill. Violations of the Covenant occurs when states fail to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, the minimum essential level required to be free from hunger. However, there exists an important criteria: In determining which actions or omissions amount to a violation of the right to food, it is important to distinguish the inability from the unwillingness of a State party to comply. Furthermore, violations can occur through the direct action of States or other entities insufficiently regulated by States. For example, a violation occurs when States fail to take into account its international legal obligations regarding the right to food when entering into agreements with other States or with international organizations (WTO, IMF, etc.) (FAO).
The main impediments for the enjoyment of the right to adequate food are poverty and discrimination. The vast majority of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition live in the rural areas. About 50 % of people suffering from hunger are smallholders and 20 per cent rural landless people. Usually the rural poor lack access to productive resources such as land, fertilizers, water and seeds. This in turn can cause the denial of the right to food. The denial of the right to food of the poor rural landless people can happen in the context of unfair competition with large agribusiness, extractive industries or development projects (FAO). This implies that when governments enter (or are forced to enter) trade agreements, or give concessions to multinationals, they are denying and violating the rights of their citizens to adequate food. People living in urban areas are not immune from this problem as well. To obtain food, they purchase it. This implies employment, and having an adequate income; if jobs are hard to come by and/or wages are low, this may affect the right to food and other basic needs such as housing, health care, education in a negative way. Another interesting fact is the way women are disproportionately affected by poverty, in what is called the feminization of poverty. According to the World Food Programme, around 795 million people around the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy life. Nearly half the deaths of children under the age of 5 is caused by poor nutrition (3.1 children each year). In the developing world, 66 million primary school-aged children attend classes hungry (WFP, 2015).
There is an important factor which is the direct responsibility of governments. The malfunctioning of social security programs or social security nets further hinders the enjoyment of the right to food. A report released by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO), the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development concluded that economic inequality is a key reason why 795 million people do not have enough food to eat. Jose Graziano da Silva, the director general of FAO mentioned that "What we need is to put in place a more distributive [mechanism] of growth, and we have learned from Latin America a very important tool, which is social protection. Expanding social protection schemes helps a lot to tackle undernourishment". According to the report, social safety nets 150 million people have been kept from falling into extreme poverty (thus, increasing the probability that they would enjoy their right to adequate food) (Anderson, 2015).
As mentioned above, the right to food is a human right, which is enshrined in international law. Despite this fact, the right to food, and socio-economic rights in general are sometimes treated with contempt by politicians, officials, political parties, etc. that are on the right of the political spectrum. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick has described the socio-economic provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a letter to Santa Clause" […] Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of entitlements, which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors" (cited in Chomsky, 2009). A similar attitude was expressed by Paula Dobriansky, who served as Undersecretary of State for Global affairs under the George W. Bush administration, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Human Affairs in the Reagan and Bush senior administrations. She mentioned that there were certain myths about human rights, the most important being the myth that the socio-economic rights constituted human rights. The United States have also vetoed a Security Council resolution that emphasized that the development of nations and individuals is a human right (Chomsky, 2009).
International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are also guilty of formulating policies that run counter to binding international commitments (treaties), and imposing them on states. The structural adjustment programmes advocated by the IFIs (Privatization, austerity measures, deregulation of the markets, etc.) have a negative effect on the possibility of the fulfilment of the socio-economic rights, among them, the right to food. The case of Greece represents the most recent example. The demand of further and further austerity measures by the troika, in return for badly needed funds. The Greeks, led by the leftist Syriza government of Tsipras responded in the most exemplary and ideal fashion. It was one of the most authentic demonstrations of true participatory democracy, supposedly adhered by the European bourgeois elites of the EU, in recent memory (Eventually though, it looks as if the EU will be able to crush the democratic aspirations of the Greeks and the sovereignty of their country) . It is interesting, and ironic, to see how UN reports are ignored (in this case the abovementioned report that states more social protection and safety nets is important for the enjoyment of the right to food) and policies furthering the interests of economic/financial and political elites at the expense of the population.
Thus, the legislation that was passed by the French National Assembly can be regarded as a small step towards fulfilling an international commitment France has willingly entered. There is of course a long way to go. The key to the battle for social justice, inter alia the right to food, is education, awareness and social responsibility.
Anderson, M. (2015, May 27). The Guardian. Retrieved July 2, 2015, from The Guaridan Web site: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/may/27/hunger-social-protection-schemes-food-insecurity-fao-inequality
(1999, May 12). United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved June 21, 2015, from OHCHR Website: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2f1999%2f5&Lang=en
Chomsky, N. (2009, October 29). Noam Chomsky. Retrieved June 24, 2015, from Chomsky.info: http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20091029.htm
Chrisafis, A. (2015, May 22). The Guardian. Retrieved June 22, 2015, from The Guardian Web Site: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/22/france-to-force-big-supermarkets-to-give-away-unsold-food-to-charity
(n.d.). United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved June 22, 2015, from OHCHr Web site: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet34en.pdf
(n.d.). United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved June 22, 2015, from OHCHR Web Site: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx
(2015). World Food Programme. Retrieved june 23, 2015, from WFP Web site: http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats
Shant Melkonian is currently based in Armenia, where he works with the Ombudsmna's office (legal analysis department) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on sexual and reproductive health rights. He previously interned at the Human Rights Centre at the University for Peace.