About the right to food and human rights

The right to food defined

For the Special Rapporteur, the right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access—either directly or by means of financial purchases— to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

This definition is in line with the core elements of the right to food as defined by General Comment No. 12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the body in charge of monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in those states which are party to it). The Committee declared that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

The right to adequate food shall therefore not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients. The right to adequate food will have to be realized progressively. However, States have a core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger even in times of natural or other disasters.

The obligations of States

The nature of the legal obligations of States is set out in article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in General Comment No. 12 also defined the obligations that States must fulfill in order to implement the right to adequate food at the national level. These obligations are:

  • To respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access;
  • To protect requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food;
  • To fulfill (facilitate) or pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people's access to and utilization of resources, and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security;
  • To fulfill (provide) the right directly when an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal. This also applies to victims of natural or other disasters.

While all the rights under the Covenant are meant to be achieved through progressive realization, some minimum core obligations have an immediate effect. For example, States are required to refrain from any discrimination in access to food as well as to means and entitlements for its procurement, on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

States are also restricted from taking deliberate measures which result in the deterioration of the current level of fulfillment of the right to food.

The Covenant requires that States take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that everyone is free from hunger and as soon as possible can enjoy the right to adequate food. States have a margin of discretion in choosing the ways and means of implementing the right to adequate food. However, States have to ensure the satisfaction of the minimum essential level required to keep people free from hunger.

Read more on the obligations of States with respect to the right to food: General Comment No. 12