Political movements and academic discussions concerned with food insecurity, food sovereignty, food justice, and sustainable food security have increased significantly in the last few years. In this paper, I consider how the human right to adequate food can help address these issues. The right to adequate food is included as a human right in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976). Many international documents and institutions have affirmed and developed this right, including the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. It is helpful to appeal to the right to adequate food as it has been developed and applied internationally when addressing sustainable food security for a few reasons. First, human rights discourse is empowering for claimants and it can provide a powerful motivating force for activists. Second, it is useful to be able to draw on all the work and progress that has been made through international human rights agencies, particularly the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Third, in arguing for reforms, it allows us to go beyond our own governments and appeal to the international community for support.
At the 1996 World Food Summit, governments reaffirmed the right to adequate food and agreed to take efforts to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in half by 2015. The UN Millennium Development Goals also affirmed this commitment. Despite some important progress, 805 million people are estimated to be undernourished (11.3 percent globally and 13.5 percent for developing countries), and more than 99 million children under age five are still undernourished and underweight. The commitment to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture’ will be affirmed again in the new UN Sustainable Development Goals that will be adopted by states in September 2015.
Unfortunately within the United States, the right to adequate food has not been taken seriously. Recently, there have been significant cuts to the food stamps program at a time when there has been an increase in ‘food insecure’ households. In poor urban areas, people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food (food deserts). Why is more not being done to ensure food security? Politicians and courts within the United States have rejected the very idea of a ‘right’ to adequate food, as have various legal and political philosophers. Providing food aid and increasing food security has been largely viewed as a voluntary act of charity, not as a human rights obligation.
In this paper I will address practical and conceptual objections that have been raised against the right to adequate food and other subsistence rights. Philosophers have articulated different accounts of universal human needs or vital interests that support a right to adequate food. For example, the right to adequate food can be justified by accounts of human rights that are based on biological needs, interests that are central to autonomy, vital human interests that are central for living a life with dignity (Jones 2013), human capabilities (Sen 2009), material goods necessary for a decent life (Fabre 2000), and opportunities that are vital to leading a satisfying and fulfilling life (Macleod 2013). For the purposes of this paper, I will not evaluate these different theories. Instead, my defense of the right to adequate food is intended to be consistent with these different accounts of human rights. Given that all human beings need food to survive, this is a basic need and vital interest that can be regarded as essential and necessary in all these different accounts of human rights.
A common practical objection against socio-economic rights is that, unlike civil political rights, they cannot be transformed into legal rights or enforced by a court of law because they are not practicable or justiciable. Government officials and federal courts have expressed this view in the United States, particularly since the Reagan years (Albisa and Schults 2008, pp. 233 9). Within legal and political philosophy, we can trace this conception of rights to legal positivists, including Jeremy Bentham and Maurice Cranston. Cranston argues that socio economic rights are not real human rights because they are not practicable and cannot be translated into positive law in the same way as civil political rights. Rather, they are utopian ideals or mere manifesto rights. Other legal philosophers argue that in order for something to be a real human right it must be capable of being translated into an enforceable legal right, while leaving open the question of whether certain socio economic rights could be transformed into enforceable legal rights. Some question the justiciability of socio economic rights by arguing that these rights raise questions of resource allocation and that courts lack the institutional competency to determine this. These practical objections have been addressed by the current and former UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food in recent reports.
In my response, I begin by challenging the traditional division between civil political rights and socio economic rights because this still seems to lurk behind some of these objections. Most importantly, it is a mistake to conflate civil political rights with negative duties (not interfering with rights), and to conflate socio economic rights with positive duties to provide goods and services. Many seem to interpret the right to adequate food primarily in terms of the duty to provide food or money for food, but I will show how this is a small aspect of this right; rather, this right primarily protects people’s access to adequate food in various ways, including against external interferences with this right. I argue that securing the right to adequate food is practicable and justiciable by considering the manner in which this right and other socio economic rights have been interpreted and applied in international law and by other domestic legal systems. I also consider how some socio economic rights have been legally protected in some state constitutions within the United States and enforced by courts. While the right to adequate food and other socio economic rights cannot be translated into positive law in the same way as most civil and political rights, they have and can be transformed into enforceable legal rights. In assessing whether a state sufficiently secures the right to adequate food, courts and international bodies have used a progressive standard based on what each state has the capacity to do.
I will consider a second, more conceptual objection that concludes that the right to adequate food is a mere ideal and not a real ‘right.’ This objection is based on the conception of rights as normative claims that must correlate to assigned duties against all agents (universal duties) or specified agents (special duties). According to this view, in order to have a right, it must clear which agents have a duty to not infringe upon that right or a duty to fulfill that right. A right is empty and meaningless if we are not able to articulate which agents have the duty to do what to secure the right. Scholars have referred to this objection as the ‘claimability objection’ (Tasioulas 2007). I will consider Onora O’Neill’s defense of this view because she presents a strong version of this objection. She argues that while liberty rights entail universal duties against all others, it is unclear pre institutionally who has a duty to fulfill rights to goods and services, including the right to food. Consequently, she argues that these cannot be universal human rights or real normative claims; rather, they are mere aspirations or empty manifesto rights. She argues that it would be more effective to focus on the broader ethical notion of duties instead of appealing to such rights.
While I am very sympathetic to O’Neill’s focus on duties, I argue that she limits the concept of rights too much. First, I argue that O’Neill’s account does not adequately appreciate the practical and ethical importance of being able to claim the right to adequate food and other socio economic rights. Second, I argue that O’Neill defines the concept of a right too narrowly by requiring that correlating duties be specified pre institutionally by the idea of the right itself. I argue that while duties need to be specified or institutionalized in order for rights to not be empty ideals, these duties need not be generated automatically from the idea of the right itself. Instead, duties can be specified and institutionalized over time, by considering which agents should have a duty to respect, secure, and fulfill that right. I consider institutional and moral accounts of human rights that illustrate how duties can be specified after, and independent from, the prior justification of a right. While I will focus on defending the idea that the right to adequate food is a human right and should be protected as such, I think that the problem of hunger and malnutrition can and should also be addressed based on the broader moral duty to assist those in need, as well as through obligations of distributive justice. In some cases, access to adequate food may be better addressed by these other two broader approaches. Nonetheless, there are pragmatic and conceptual reasons for also appealing to the right to adequate food as a human right.