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Reducing “Food-prints” on World Environmental Day

Image: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

Image: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

The U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) recently highlighted some appalling figures pertaining to issues of food waste in a somewhat unexpected and innovative manner. The UNEP’s 2013 theme for World Environment Day on June 5, “Think.East.Save,” reports the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) data concluding 1.3 billion tons of food, or the equivalent of all food produced annually, is “wasted or lost.” Strikingly, these U.N. organs do so without explicit reference to the human right to food. Failure to mainstream a human rights in an entirely fitting context notwithstanding, the UNEP does submit an interesting proposal to reduce global “food-prints.”

Pointing out that wasting food presents economic, ethical, and environmental challenges, all of which have implications for the realization of the human right to food, the UNEP is essentially describing the failure of an underpinning network of human rights protections that implicitly must be implemented to fully realize the right to food by virtue of the way the right to food is constructed.

The right to food was first memorialized in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and later through binding international law in Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights (ICESCR) and other international legal instruments. Often referred to as the “right to adequate food,” that one adjective speaks volumes to the manner in which the right is treated.

Rather than being construed as a core, high-priority human right, the right to adequate food places soft, flexible requirements on States under international law. General Comment No. 12 to the ICESCR plainly states, “[t]he right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Food echoes the idea of “access” being “economic access” and characterizes the right to food’s parameters as follows:

The right to food is a human right recognized under international law which protects the right of all human beings to feed themselves in dignity, either by producing their food or by purchasing it.

To produce his or her own food, a person needs land, seeds, water and other resources, and to buy it, one needs money and access to the market. The right to food therefore requires States to provide an enabling environment in which people can use their full potential to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families. To purchase food, a person needs adequate incomes: the right to food consequently requires States to ensure that wage policies or social safety nets enable citizens to realize their right to adequate food.”

The right to food thus places no duty on States under international human rights law to simply provide food to its citizens. The State, through other international and national legal obligations, must create a context where its citizens can acquire food through production or purchase. A State may then facilitate this through two principal means, or a combination thereof. Either provide food for all through social protections, or ensure that there are enough jobs providing adequate income for people to have access to adequate food. The right to food through direct purchase or purchase to produce relies on the realization of other fundamental human rights, including the rights to work, social security, equality, housing among others. Once the State has allowed for market that provides access to work, housing, and food, it is up to the individual to navigate these channels in acquiring adequate food.

The moral dimension of human rights would suggest that the basic need to eat should be implemented rigorously and thoroughly. No one should go hungry; all should have access to nourishing and nutritionally complete daily meals. This humanitarian drive remains robust, but it is tempered by acknowledgement of the ever-increasing human population stretching the capacity for food production to its limits. Still, quick-fix rationale pervades the approach to agriculture, animal husbandry, food transport, food storage, and food distribution practices and policies. The legal ownership of food and the means of producing and distributing it increasingly favor multinational firms in intellectual property law and through exercise of their vast capital. Much of the waste and loss recognized by the UNEP occurs as States and private actors carry out the “facilitation” envisioned in the right to food.

When someone goes hungry, it does not necessarily mean his or her right to food has been violated. This is not how the right operates. It is when a State’s misfeasance, or nonfeasance in relation to private actors, contributes to serious obstacles in fulfilling the right to food that the right is more directly implicated. If there simply is not enough food to go around and a State cannot reasonably correct the situation, that State likely has not run afoul of its obligations under the right to food. If a State participates in, contributes to, or otherwise allows an unduly wasteful system or practice to hinder people’s access to food and acquisition of adequate food, a violation of the right appears much more evident.

The UNEP’s advocacy of buying organic, local, and less processed foods combined with its promotion of the world’s traditional food preservation processes through its Think.Eat.Save theme is a welcome “D.I.Y.” proposal. It stands out from other informational campaigns and run of the mill calls for States to make greater effort to meet their human rights obligations. Empowering people to make informed decisions in exercising their right to food in ways that rely less on modern technology can realistically serve as a complementary, more immediate measure to assuage localized hunger while States makes greater effort to fulfill the right to food. Encouraging people, companies, and States to reconsider the value placed on food and rethink the way food is produced, used, and preserved promises to engender positive net effects on human rights and environmental concerns individually and in the aggregate.



Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.