Skip main navigation

Hurry, only 10 days left to get one year of Unlimited learning for £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

What Are Food Security and the Right to Food?

In this article, we define food security and outline an individual's right to food.

Concepts and definitions of food security have evolved in the last 50 years in order to reflect changes in national and international official policy thinking.

Food Security

From the point of view of availability and stability of basic food supplies, it broadened to incorporate a dimension of accessibility, both at a household and individual level. Moreover, the concept of food security has progressively taken into account health and food characteristics, like their quality, safety and nutritional values. The definition of food security was developed in the 1970s, when the World Food Conference defined it in terms of food supply, assuring the price stability and availability of basic foodstuffs at the national and international level.

Debating how the international community could ensure food accessibility, especially in developing countries, new international bodies were created, such as the World Food Council, the FAO Committee on World Food Security, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. In 1983, FAO analysis focused on the accessibility of food, stating that they would undertake the matter by ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need. The modern acceptation of food security most commonly used was firstly adopted at the World Food Summit in 1996, which recites as follows:

Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional, and global levels is achieved when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
An interesting consideration about the nature of food insecurity was presented in 1981, Amartya Sen’s seminal Poverty and Famines. He debated, or proved, that individuals food insecurity instead of being a result of a lack of foodstuffs availability, was primarily dependent on their inability to access food. After Sen’s thesis, it later became clear the poverty and lack of access channels were mainly responsible for causing food insecurity. It also became clear the uneven and not consequential relationship between household food security and individual. The latter is in fact not guaranteed, since individual access to food within the same household is tightly linked to the control over the overall income and resources. This often results in aggravation of disadvantaged positions, particularly for woman, children, and young girls, refocusing attention on the right to food-related matters from a gendered point of view.

Right to Food

The definition and recognition of the right to food can be already found in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights. The right to food sits upon the core of human dignity, in addition to being recognised by international policy, scientific, and civil society communities. It aims to place the individual and his or her rights at the centre of policy, enabling the public to hold the government accountable, and to seek redress for violating this basic human right.
The right to food is defined by the CESCR General Comment Number 12, as,
The right of everyone to physical and economic access at all times to food in adequate quantity and quality, or to means of its procurement.

The right to food implies, at its very core, the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture, and, the accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights. A right-to-food approach has led to an important shift in the unit level of analysis from a single focus on quantity alone to quantity and quality together.

The perspective has also shifted from closely looking at foodstuffs to a broader context in which food is produced, consumed, and accessed. Most importantly, the global understanding and recognition of food-related issues linked to food security and the right to food drifted the main concern from availability of staple food supplies to gradually incorporate the importance of other factors, such as food safety and quality, as well as micronutrients values and dietary needs. In addition, also other known food factors have received attention due to their relevance in terms of food security. We’re referring to general health, adequate care, methods of cooking, ways of consuming, and hygiene practices.

The right to food, as all human rights, entails three forms of state obligations. The obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to adequate, sufficient, nutritious food.

  • Obligations to respect: Requires states to refrain from denying or limiting access to food, or interfering directly or indirectly with existing arrangements.
  • Obligations to protect: Requires the undertaking of measures, such as legislative and safety ones, to ensure that third parties and other entities, such as private actors, groups, and corporations, do not interfere in any way with the individual exercise of the right.
  • Obligations to fulfill: Requires states to fulfill their duties to facilitate and provide for individuals’ enjoyments of their right. These actions may comprise the development of national right-to-food strategies, the implementations of policies and new laws.

A rights-based approach, which recognises individuals dignity and right to food, education, participation in public affairs, fair judicial processes, among others, see citizens as not mere objects of policy. Instead, it places them at the heart of the policy making process. This change in perspective, including a dignity dimension, represents a fundamental shift from basic needs to rights, as well as a shift from a more passive role of pure beneficiary to an active rule of claimant. The acknowledgment dimension of a rights-based approach recognises the state’s international obligations which help identify the desirable outcomes and the permissible processes to reach the full realisation of all human rights. This implies transparency on principles, to clearly recognise and implement policies, programmes, and laws.

Moreover, it is possible to identify an accountability dimension that embraces the concept of making progress, or the lack of it, visible. In this perspective, all actors are responsible for their actions. Therefore, they’re put in the position to bear the consequences of their behaviours.

Finally, the empowerment dimension of a rights-based approach brings the focus on vulnerable groups, the marginalised, the discriminated, and the excluded. Since 1974 when FAO first published its reports on the extent of hunger in the world, a lot has changed. The world population has rapidly grown resulting in an important shift from rural to urban areas, with the evolution of technology and economy has increasingly connected us on a global level. All these transformations are responsible for how we globally approach food nowadays, as well as for the raising of new cases of malnutrition, obesity, and diet-related diseases.

This article is from the free online

Introduction to Food Science

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now