Although included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to food has not had the same attention as other fundamental human rights and momentum has faltered. Today, in the face of rising hunger and obesity, compounded by climate change, the right to food can no longer be ignored.
The right to food is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the international community just over 70 years ago, in the wake of the Second World War. It is guaranteed in numerous international instruments and national constitutions but the latest malnutrition numbers show a pure policy approach isn’t enough. We do not have time for policy inertia.
Ensuring the right to adequate food is more than just having enough food on the table. It means empowering people to feed themselves and their family in dignity. It is about ensuring all children everywhere have access to the healthy diets they need to reach their full potential. For this to happen, the right to food needs to be ready to fulfill the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
Evidence that the right to healthy food is being overlooked can be found in the latest FAO data that shows the number of undernourished people in the world has increased over the past three years to 821 million. Over 150 million children aged under five are suffering from stunted growth from a lack of nutritious food, 99 million children are underweight, and 50 million are wasting. Conflict and climate change are key drivers of this appalling situation. At the same time, obesity is rapidly increasing, with 672 million adults obese worldwide in 2017, and unhealthy diets are now among the top risk factors contributing to early deaths.
If current trends continue, forecasts show that in 2030 the number of people overweight and obese will have increased from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion—almost a third of the predicted global population—while more than 650 million people will endure chronic hunger.
Our reliance on resource-intensive farming has generated deforestation, water scarcity, soil depletion, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately has been inefficient and ineffective in eradicating malnutrition.
In this era of the Sustainable Development Goals, we need a reinvigorated and more holistic approach for the right to food. One that includes actions to address the triple threats of climate change, obesity, and undernutrition—or what the Lancet recently called The Global Syndemic.
Recently, this wider narrative was properly addressed in the reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, who is also a Research Professor at UCLA. She provides a revamped dimension to be incorporated into the right to food perspective: the need to address the major constraints for sustainable development, such as climate change and poverty.
Ms. Elver states that agricultural workers are among the world’s most hungry and are largely excluded from national legal protective frameworks. Many of these workers are employed in the industrial food system that focuses on increasing food production at the lowest economic cost.
Instead, we need to transform our food production systems to produce food in a way that preserves the environment and biodiversity while at the same time improving people’s nutrition and livelihoods.
Farmers must be at the center of this transformation, including family farmers who produce much of the world’s food but who conversely often are among those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This is a top priority for the UN Decade of Family Farming that started at the beginning of this year.
The Special Rapporteur also focuses on the right to food in the context of natural disasters. The impact of climate hazards on the right to food and people’s livelihoods is a major driver for the increase in global food insecurity.
The report also underlines the importance of achieving a convergence between emergency food aid, food assistance, and development cooperation while pointing out what should be done to reduce human rights violations and damage to the environment.
Other perspectives must be observed, too. Reducing food waste can contribute to realizing the right to food. Lost or wasted food, including post-harvest losses, is a wasted resource and a failure of our food systems. Often safe and nutritious food is lost through food labels that suggest to consumers to throw away food that is actually perfectly safe and nutritious. Reviewing these labels can be a simple but effective way to increase access to safe, healthy food.
FAO is also working with policymakers to support drafting national legislation across ministries that, combined, would help push the needle towards a universal right to food. Some of this work took place at last year’s Madrid Global Parliamentary Summit against Hunger and Malnutrition, and will continue next week (19 February) when I attend the Conference of Mayors in New York. Local legislation on sugar taxes or preventing junk food advertisements aimed at children are also part of this new approach on the right to food. If we are to realize the hope and promise embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must work together not only to ensure that current and future generations enjoy the right to healthy and nutritious food, but also to grant them the possibility to enjoy this right in a sustainable manner.
José Graziano da Silva is the Director-General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
José Graziano da Silva has worked on food security, rural development, and agriculture issues for over 30 years, most notably as the architect of Brazil’s Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) program and now as the Director-General of FAO.
Since assuming his mandate as FAO Director-General in 2012, he has spearheaded major transformational changes within the Organization. These reforms have entailed refocusing FAO’s work, reinforcing its institutional capacities, strengthening partnerships with civil society, private sector and academia and boosting FAO’s support for South-South Cooperation. His efforts have resulted in best value for money for the Organization and its partners.