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The challenge to frame the right to food as a human right
Writing last fall in The Nation Anna Lappe makes a powerful point about why it is hard for Americans to think of the right to food as a human right. Lappe avers that “it’s extremely difficult to get the concept of the right to food across in the United States because of your constitutional tradition that sees human rights as ‘negative’ rights – rights against government – not ‘positive’ rights that can be used to oblige government to take action to secure people’s livelihoods.”
Lappe, founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and head of the Real Food Media Project, suggests that “so embedded is this in your constitutional culture that the concept that social and economic rights are real rights is generally not accepted. While human rights to health, education, social security or food are guaranteed to a certain extent through legislation, they are still seen as suspect…. The protective role of government is denounced as paternalistic and even as paving the way for totalitarianism.”
One of the early calls for this nation to re-think the right to food was publication of Diet for a Small Planet, a bestselling book written in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappe, mother of Anna. A decade later, the concept of food as a human right was underscored when Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines in which he challenged the idea that the root cause of hunger is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power. Anna Lappe echoes Amartya Sen when she writes, “hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.”
Various agencies of the United Nations have taken a lead in re-framing the right to food as a human right. The right to food is variously defined, of course. In general, the right refers to an essential element without which human beings cannot survive. Much is written about the responsibility of the individual to fend for him/herself and the obligation of the state when the individual is not capable of obtaining food because of special circumstances such as imprisonment or military service.
“Food security” is the term currently used to describe the basics: Food must be available, i.e. in sufficient quantity for the entire population; food must be accessible, i.e. each person must be able to procure nourishment either through his own production or through the capacity to buy food; access to food must be stable and continuous; and food must be healthy, i.e. consumable and clean.
Addressing the issue of hunger as a violation of human rights Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “while it is imperative to respond immediately to emergencies and commensurate humanitarian support and aid in order to address conditions of hunger, a human rights focus will focus will contribute to making solutions more durable and more equitable in the medium and long run.”
Similarly, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has said that the food crisis is a man-made disaster with identifiable causes that obliges all States [nations] “to act without delay to bring relief to the victims.” De Schutter has said that agricultural politics, the international trade regime, climate change and food aid may appear in some as purely social, economic, or humanitarian issues, but none of them can be addressed effectively without taking the right to be free from hunger into account.
Anna Lappe’s comments may explain in part the disinclination of the United States to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has now been signed by over 160 state parties. Signees to the covenant agree to take steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food, both nationally and internationally. In the nations that have agreed to the concept of food as a basic human right that right is specified either in law or in the constitution.
It seems an anomaly that the U.S. has not ratified the Covenant for economic and social rights. Anna Lappe stresses that “the concept of economic and social rights is not un-American.” She quotes FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address in which he suggested the need for a “Second Bill of Rights” covering basic social rights as an indispensable complement to the civil liberties listed in the Bill of Rights.
Clearly, reframing an issue as complex and pervasive as the right to food takes mental agility on the part of individuals, communities and society. One opportunity for group think will take place on Thursday, March 14, when Anna Lappe will speak at Noon at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. Her talk, “Building Real Food Communities”, is co-sponsored by Minnesota FoodShare as part of this community’s celebration of March 2013 as Minnesota FoodShare Month.