Spotlight on the Right to Food: 10 years of Voluntary Guidelines

Ten years ago, in November 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) adopted the Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security (VGRtF). This reflects a growing understanding that hunger is not simply a problem of supply and demand, but in the first place a problem of governance, where right holders are not entitled to access to adequate food.

Major concerns to realize this right are well known: lack of access to productive resources such as land and water for small-scale food producers; limited income generating opportunities for the poor; a failure to guarantee living wages to all those who rely on waged employment to buy their food and gaps in social protection.

There is no “would be nice to have” in rights

It is one of the shining examples of international standard setting that the VGRtF  were unanimously adopted by all FAO members. By doing so the States assumed the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate food.  There is no excuse for failing to act.

The reformed Committee on World Food Security (CFS) also reaffirmed the VGRtF as a particular important overarching framework in order to achieve food security and nutrition. This means that activities at all levels designed to improve food security should be guided by fundamental human rights principles (participation, accountability, non-discrimination, transparency, human dignity, empowerment and rule of law). 

Policies, programs, strategies and legislation need to enhance the empowerment of rights –holders, especially small-scale producers and women and the accountability of duty-bearers.  There is no “would be nice to have” in rights.

The rights of one out of nine of world's children, women and men are chronically violated. The work of the CFS has the obligation to deliver on policy convergence, coordination, coherent with the human rights framework. Civil society will not allow States to loose sight of the centrality of the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the fight against hunger.

Some remarkable progress on the right to food

Since the adoption of the VGRtF, there has been an increasing recognition of the importance of a legal and policy framework grounded in the right to food. In fact, we have seen many examples of the legal implementation of the VGRtF by States. In 1994, South Africa included the right to food in the post-apartheid Constitution. A 2011 study identified 24 States in which the right to food was explicitly recognized.

Latin America has been leading towards the adoption of framework laws to support the realization of the right to food. Progress is being made on this front also in countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique Uganda, Indonesia and Thailand. Senegal and Mali adopted framework laws being centered on agricultural policies, allowing farmers’ organizations to contribute to the design of such policies. 

The remarkable success of Brazil to reducing child malnutrition rates over the past 15 years bears witness to the power of strategies such as “Zero Hunger.”  The Government of India adopted the National Food Security Ordinance providing a legal framework aiming at ensuring access to food throughout the life-cycle for two-thirds of the population.

The particular strength of the rights based approach is that it keeps focus on the most marginalized and poorest people. It challenges governments to reach out to those who otherwise would lose out.

Gaps, challenges and great risks remain

Despite the some progress having made, the journey for States and all stakeholders to obey to their obligation to realize the RtAF is still far too long. Be it the lack of accountability and policy coherence or the widespread impunity of violations of the right to food and the danger of increased criminalization of human rights defenders.

Rich countries must redress those policies that impact on the respect of the Right to Adequate Food in developing countries. Too often these governments give prominence to their own vested national interests above the common obligations to realize human rights, as shown by the unwillingness to tackle climate change, unfair trade and investment policies, support to biofuel production and consumption. 

There is a great risk that the successes achieved and the efforts at reorienting the food system governance towards a human rights based framework will be reversed. The increasing problem of corporate capture and private sector involvement in policy development poses a serious threat to achieving progress.  It is important to develop effective ways to control the powerful. The democratization of the food systems is a necessary condition for effecting change. Effective monitoring mechanisms are also key.

It would be a big step forward if the FAO would shift from only assessing the state of food insecurity in the world to assessing the progressive realization of the right to adequate food using the Guidelines as a baseline.

Eventually, the battle to realize the right to adequate food will only be over when all right holders will be able to claim their rights and that the duty bearers will redress policies and practices that prevent the full realization of the right to adequate food.

What you can do

Push the Government of El Salvador to guarantee the Right to Food

Help stop climate change making people hungry

Download Oxfam's new discussion paper: The Right to Adequate Food: Progress, Challenges, Opportunities

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