Time to realize the Right to Food

International Edition 23'

Legal Opinion


Dr. Khaled ElTaweel

After years of steady decline, the world faces a sharp increase in hunger, reaching 811 million people in 2020, a 118 million increase compared with 2019. COVID-19, as well as conflicts and climate change, are negatively impacting the four pillars of food security, revealing the vulnerability in our economic, agrifood, and social systems, and undermining the collective efforts to achieve a world free from hunger as established in Agenda 2030.

It is time to uphold the Right to Food (RtF) and protect the most vulnerable, especially in developing countries. The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman, and child, alone and in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

Many international legal instruments have for long recognized the RtF as a defined human right. This is clearly stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as in Articles 2 and 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They require that States take appropriate steps towards the realization of this right.

The legal system governing the RtF was developed further in 2004 when the Committee on Food Security (CFS) adopted the Guidelines to support the "Progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security". Those voluntary guidelines provide guidance to States with implementation of this right to guarantee the availability of food. The quantity and quality should be sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals; physical and economic accessibility for everyone, including vulnerable groups.

Like many international legal instruments, the terminologies used in those instruments resulted from lengthy negotiations and compromises to achieve consensus among different stakeholders. The ICESR refers to taking "appropriate" steps and the role of international cooperation, which strikes a balance between the primary national responsibility for achieving this right and the international community's crucial role. In the same vein, the CFS guidelines refer to the "progressive" realization, implying its gradual nature and stressing its national context. This RtF gives rise to three obligations on States: respect, protect, and fulfill. While it is easier to claim the fulfillment of the first two through the promulgations of laws, the fulfillment obligation may require direct intervention by governments, and therefore, is more challenging.

Despite being protected under international law and many national constitutions, the RtF remains far from realization. International reports show that COVID-19 has exacerbated the already vulnerable situation of food security. The United Nations Food System summit held in New York in September 2021 sought to provide system-based solutions to fix food systems.

The pandemic is a wake-up call for the world to shift its paradigm and coordinate actions towards rebuilding agrifood systems and come one step closer to the realization of the RtF and a world free from hunger. This paradigm shift will require a system-wide holistic approach beyond health and agriculture policies and focuses only on social protection, good governance, building resilience and the smart use of investment, and trade policies to support this objective.