Towards Implementation: Reflecting on 10 years of the Right to Food

Today an interim report by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, made to the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly has been released. You can download a PDF copy here: Assessing a decade of progress on the right to food

The report – Assessing a decade of progress on the right to food– provides insight into practical aspects of realizing the right to food. It notes that the right to food has “become an operational tool” that is “widely recognised as a key to the success of food security strategies” (para 3).

Focusing on progress made since the 1996 World Food summit, the report identified:

  • Best practices
  • Roles of key actors: governments, parliaments, courts, national human rights institutions, civil society organisations and social movements.

The report also notes that systems of national protection are being redefined in terms of rights, a welcome move away from the understanding social benefits as charitable hand-outs. It argues that the right to food has entered a new phase: implementation. This is key as it moves from theory and law to practice. Grievance redress mechanisms (e.g. courts, social audits) are playing a role in promoting this change.

The report argues that the:

increasing recognition of the importance of a legal and policy framework grounded in the right to food reflects a growing understanding that hunger is not simply a problem of supply and demand, but  primarily a problem of lack of access to productive resources such as land and water for small-scale food producers: limited economic opportunities for the poor, including through employment in the formal sector; a failure to guarantee living wages to all those who rely on waged employment to buy their food; and gaps in social protection (para 47).

Throughout the report, examples of national right to food framework laws and rights-based national strategies are used to highlight best practices and effective processes. The report makes use of these real-world examples to show how a right to food approach can improve accountability, and enable participation of vulnerable people in decision-making and in monitoring results. It also identifies the contributions that various actors can make to support this new phase of the right to food.

Operationalizing the RTF

What’s Useful about a Right to Food Approach?

A Right to Food approach is more about production and distribution than it is about production level alone (para 6). The right to food is linked to the right to access resources (e.g., water, land, forests, seeds), as well as the right to work. It seeks to ensure access to adequate diets. From a policy perspective, a Right to Food approach is more sophisticated and comprehensive than food security which continues to maintain productionist tunnel vision. More specifically, a right to food approach is understood to operate at three levels to contribute to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition (para 8):

1)    As a self-standing right recognised in international law and various domestic constitutions.

2)    Encourages a change in how social protection is understood. A Right to Food approach transformes the social welfare benefits that individuals received under government food security schemes into legal entitlements, moving away from “handouts” or “charity” models. Indeed, policies aimed at eradicating hunger and malnutrition that are grounded in a Right to Food approach must redefine as legal entitlements benefits that have previously been seen as voluntary handouts. This requires processes of identifying the beneficiaries and providing them with access to redress mechanisms is they are excluded.

3)    Requires states to adopt national strategies that progressively realise components of the right to food that cannot be achieved immediately. It thus accepts that the capacity of governments is often limited and the focus is not of immediate change, but sustainable incremental change and longer-term planning (more on this below).

The report notes that the progress achieved across these three levels is due to the interplay of different actors including courts, parliaments, governments, national human rights institutions, civil society and social movements.

Obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil

The report makes notes of an increase of reference to the right to food across national constitutions. A 2011 report by FAO found 24 States where the right to food was explicitly recognised. For example:

  • 1994, South Africa included the right to food in article 27 of the post-apartheid constitution
  • In 2010, the new Constitution of Kenya, approved by popular referendum, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality”

Since 2011, Mexico amended its constitution to include the right to food. In Uganda and Malawi, ensuring access to adequate food and nutrition is defined as a principle of State policy.

The report notes that these advances are not symbolic: “victims of violations are entitled to ‘adequate reparation, which may take the form of restitution, compensation, satisfactions or guarantees of non-repetition’” (para 10).

Key actors

The Right to Food required the engagement of a wide range of actors. Institutional actors include courts, governments, programmes (especially those involved in the provision of food), and grievance mechanisms. Citizens play a key role as monitors. The report notes that social audits have been useful for the poor and illiterate as they are more proximate and involve communities, and not individuals acting alone. Other options include vigilance committees, citizens’ report cards or expenditure tracking surveys to identify diversions of funds in the health and education sectors (ex: Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania) (para 29). The report explains how social audits have effectively empowered women in local communities but warms that to be effective, a number of conditions must be met:

  • Adequate information to beneficiaries on the entitlements they gave a right to claim
  • Wide publicity to ensure broad participation
  • Adequate information in inputs and expenditures, making it possible to track discrepancies with actual delivery of service
  • Technical competence of an intermediary group to facilitate the process
  • Choice of indicators and appropriate level of the community involved.

The report reviews some of the framework laws and national strategies that have contributed to the progressive realisation to the right to food. Latin America has led the movement towards the adoption of framework laws. However, national strategies are recommended by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) as well as within the FAO Right to Food Guidelines. Such strategies fulfil three key functions (paras 42-46):

1)    Identify measures to be adopted, assigning responsibility and imposing deadlines

2)    Allows for a while-of-government approach

3)    Multi-year strategies make it possible to combine short-term approaches with long-term concerns.

The report also notes that a predictable framework is key to attracting investors and allowing the private sector to adapt to what the strategy entails .

A Right to Food Movement?

As a final thought, the report refers to this as a Right to Food Movement. I am reticent to enact the language of movements in this context, notably because it alludes to other UN-based initiatives, like the SUN (Scaling-Up Nutrition) initiative that framed itself as a movement. There is concern that these top-down “movements” can co-opt not only the language of social movements, but dampen the political weight associated with social movement struggle. I accept that there is something to be gained from framing the Right to Food as an emerging movement. Social movements are groups of people fighting for their rights, so of course, is fits. However, I see the Right to Food as an approach and a set of tools that can be used by social movements to ensure that their rights are realised.

To be clear, my concern is not meant to suggest that Right to Food initiatives are not often driven by communities. I acknowledge that the tools that support a Right to Food approach have been, and continue to be, effectively taken up by social movements. Furthermore, there are increasing and productive interconnections between people working on the right to food and food social movements, and the two are often blurred or inseparable. My own research has identified how this combination makes for a powerful negotiation position, insofar as through a shared commitment to values of consultation, participation and rights, the social movements can provide political legitimacy and grounded experience, and the Right to Food folks provide legal argumentation and tools for inclusive processes as well as monitoring and evaluation. In the CFS, which has at its core the objective of countries implementing the right to food, this Right to Food/Social movement partnership has worked well, especially between La Via Campesina and FIAN International.

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About FoodGovernance

Jessica Duncan is Associate Professor in Rural Sociology at Wageningen University (the Netherlands). She holds a PhD in Food Policy from City University London (2014). Jessica’s main research focus concerns the practices and politics of participation in food policy processes, particularly the relationships (formal and non-formal) between governance organizations, systems of food provisioning, the environment, and the actors engaged in and across these spaces. More specifically, she maps the diverse ways that actors participate in policy-making processes, analysing how the resulting policies are shaped, implemented, challenged, and resisted, and she theorizes about what this means for socio-ecological transformation. Participation and engagement is at the core of her approach. In turn, she is active in a broad range of local, national and international initiatives with the aim of better understanding participation processes with a view towards transitioning to just and sustainable food systems. She is involved in several research projects including ROBUST, HortEco & SHEALTHY. Jessica is published regularly in academic journals. She recently co-edited the Handbook on Sustainable and Regenerative Food Systems (2020). Her other books include Food Security Governance: Civil society participation in the Committee on World Food Security (2015) and an edited volume called Sustainable food futures: Multidisciplinary solutions (2017). Jessica has received several awards for her teaching and in 2017 she was awarded Teacher of the Year for Wageningen University (shortlisted again in 2018 and 2019, longlisted in 2020). With the funds she has received for these awards she launched a story-telling workshop for students and faculty, with storytelling trainer, Emma Holmes. Jessica is on the Editorial Board of the journal Sociologia Ruralis and is an advisor to the Traditional Cultures Project (USA). She is a member of the Wageningen Young Academy and sits on the Sustainability Board of Experts at Wageningen University.

3 thoughts on “Towards Implementation: Reflecting on 10 years of the Right to Food

  1. Hello Jessica,
    I liked your post and I have a comment and a request:
    a) Where have you taken the map from? It is very well done.

    b) I agree with your final paragraph on the complementariness between the right to food and social movements (I would say the Food Sovereignty movement), but I would have opted for having a broader perspective by also including some UN institutions and donors that have been quite instrumental in supporting and advocating for the Right to Food at world level. It is not just FIAN International, however important its work may be. It is also FAO (the driving engine behind many FS/RtF laws in Latin America) and the donors that have provided funds to keep things moving in the Right to Food arena, specifically Germany, Norway and Spain.

    Now that we can enjoy a bit of progress in the Right to Food Movement, we shall be generous in distributing the merits.

    best regards
    Jose Luis Vivero

  2. Dear Jose Luis,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    For the request, the map came from the Office of the Special Rapporteur. I take no credit for it and agree it is well done. You can access it here

    For the comment. I agree with you 100%. A broad perspective is needed as many institutions play a fundamental role. The example I used in the blog draws from events that took place within a UN forum and the interactions described were a response to UN processes. I was not trying to suggest that these were the only actors and agree that a broad perspective is needed, especially if we are worried about understanding HOW we can effectively implement policies that lead to the progressive realization of the right to food.

    I should also note that the mention of FIAN and La Via Campesina was to serve as an example of how these two movements (Right to Food and Food Sovereignty) are working together in effective ways and to highlight the value of the roles they have played towards ensuring strong policies grounded in a rights-based approach and working towards food sovereignty.

    Finally, I want to say that your new article “Food as a Commons: Reframing the Narrative of the Food System” ( contributes nicely to broader debates.

  3. Living where I do, I find myself somewhat uncertain over the Right to Food- for all of those areas shaded in on the map, there are still an awful lot of blanks.

    For me the chicken and egg question is, can a Right to Food approach work in context of diminished or state controlled civil society? If it cannot, does it still hold merit?

    In practical terms, can the FAO, which takes an exceptionally pick-and-mix attitude to what it considers core mandate issues at the national level, and which furthermore is often institutionally tightly bound to Ministries of Agriculture (and thus unfamiliar with the whole of govt approach the RtF envisions) be a committed standard bearer for an RtF?

    And most consistently noted, how to ensure that ‘progressive realization’ is not interpreted to be ‘wait this out and it’ll go away’?

    It is in no way to disparage the ideals or the validity of the idea, but to question the extent to which those tasked with elaborating this subscribe to what it proposes.

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