Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to focus on the seminal issue of the human right to access to food, an issue so complex, political and gnarled that I’ve given up the quest to plumb the depths – until Pope Francis brought it up. Truth to tell, the Pontiff didn’t conjure it up out of the rarified atmosphere of the Vatican – the challenge to unravel the issue has fostered countless efforts, stymied many and challenged human rights activists for a couple of centuries.
The Pope embraced the challenge of hunger last week in a very public declaration at the Second International Conference on Nutrition meeting in his adopted hometown. Representatives of some 170 nations were gathered in Rome under the aegis of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, just one of numerous agencies struggling with the issue of the right to food on a global level.
One of the strongest political statements of the right to food appears in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Since that declaration the right to access to food has been the primary or sole focus of countless global and national studies, conferences, agreements, strategic plans, collaborative efforts and think tanks. The extensive Wikipedia entry on Right to Food offers a useful summary of the history of efforts to define and deal with the complexities of the challenge. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_food
Still, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 800 million people are hungry and 2 billion are affected by “micronutrient deficiencies” (e.g. not enough vitamins or minerals). Add in obesity, and some form of malnutrition affects half of the world population.
In this challenging environment the Pope faced the issue head-on: “Efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition are facing obstruction due to the priority of the markets, or preeminence of profits that have reduced food to a commodity subject to speculation, including financial speculation.”
Giving voice to what is common opinion among those for whom the right to access to food has been a priority for decades, Pope Francis spoke of sustainable food systems, improving food distribution and aggressive trade policies on food. The right to food, he averred, can be guaranteed only if we collaborate to focus priorities and policy on “helping the hungry.” “Interest in the production and availability of foodstuffs, climate change, and agricultural trade must certainly inspire rules and technical means, but the primary inspiration must the self-same person, those who do not have adequate access to food.”
Francis made explicit the distinction between availability and accessibility (a distinction long familiar to librarians and information providers….) Just because it’s out there somewhere doesn’t mean it’s accessible! Given that 1) food production is adequate, and 2) people have a right to food, the questions remain: Why is hunger a global, national, local crisis? Why is food available but not accessible?
On the topic of the misinformation, the Pope opined that, in the case of food access, “there are very few themes that are as susceptible to being manipulated by data, by statistics, by the requirements of national security, by corruption, or by the plaintive complaints of economic crisis.”
Clearly the Pope thinks and speaks in a global context. Still his words have local application. Most important, he sets a high standard for systemic thinking about a politically charged, complicated issue. Out of charity we tend to deal with the short-range reality that our neighbors are hungry, that children, the elderly, homebound, jobless and under-employed people need immediate assistance. Still, the challenge remains to tackle hunger with the vigor demanded by a complex issue rife with political, economic, technological and social perspectives that lend themselves to obfuscation, individual and institutional avarice.
In his much-heralded words to conference attendees Pope Francis echoes those of his host, Jacques Diof, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization: “Hunger is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of justice.”