Issue 232: August/September 2005


 The Right to Food

How can we usefully describe the movement of people around the world to ensure that people have the means to feed themselves in a satisfactory and sustainable manner? The term ‘food security' is problematic. Since security is generally understood as protection against external threats and powers, food security can mean being assured of an adequate food supply for your own survival, whether ‘your own' is you individually or as a family or community. By itself, however, the term food security does not necessarily mean enough food for everyone. On the contrary, it implies that there is not enough for everyone, and therefore I, or we, have to secure enough for ourselves over against the needs of others.

La Via Campesina, along with other peasant and aboriginal groups, uses the term food sovereignty (see the last issue of The Ram's Horn). The clearly political implications of the word sovereignty have, however, made it problematic for NGOs (non-government organizations) working in international fora such as the United Nations/FAO. Building on a long history in the area of human rights, they propose that the issue be addressed through the right to food.But this language carries its own pitfalls.

In the secular tradition of the Enlightenment, a right , whether human or property, is a license, allowance, exception or privilege granted by a secular power. The doctrine itself arose out of the religious doctrine of the ‘divine right of kings,' but when the religious authority claimed by or attributed to the king and the church were secularized by the Enlightenment, the privilege of granting rights fell to the state. The secular state then became the source and guarantor of both human and property rights, even though, theoretically, the state is simply recognizing natural rights.

In using the language of human rights to address the state, however, there is an implicit recognition of the authority, if not legitimacy, of the state, which is the only power in a position to give substance to rights. Furthermore, while natural rights may be formally recognized by the society and even the state on the basis of a higher moral authority of some sort, functionally they remain to be implemented by the state. (Meanwhile, of course, people in communities around the world continue to feed the hungry with no reference to state or other authority.)

“The human right to adequate food is a legal right which addresses head-on the moral, political and social issues relating to food poverty and food insecurity in Canada at the present time. . . Food insecurity for many Canadians raises issues of human rights and distributive justice culminating in state action and policies or programs implemented through legislation .” – (Right to Food Case Study: Canada, Graham Riches, 2004, emphasis added)

"Please, sir, I want some more" - Oliver Twist

Behind the state, under the current neoliberal regime of capital-and-market, stands the corporation. Assuming the prerogatives of royalty, the corporation utilizes the state as its proxy, rewarding well the agents of the state that execute the corporate will. Rights, both human and property, are assumed by the corporate persona and given, by the corporation, priority over the rights of natural persons.The rights of natural persons, such as you and me, become highly contingent privileges recognized by the corporation and granted by the state. (This has become explicit and legal in the context of NAFTA and other trade agreements executed under the WTO and bilaterally by the USA.)

What we seem to have inherited from the historic pragmatic choice (or default) to utilize the discourse and claims of rights is the domination of a rights discourse over more explicit political and social discourse and program.

Rights has moved from being a matter of means in a particular context to a matter of universal ends.

Rights, however, do not, by themselves, constitute a society, a civil order, or even a political program. The USA has had a Bill of Rights from its infancy, but that has not ensured the practice of social, economic, political or legal justice. Canada got along without a Charter of Rights until quite recently, with arguably more social justice than is to be found in the USA, and the United Kingdom has neither a written constitution nor a ‘declaration' of rights. Today the beneficiaries of the language of rights and their advocacy are more likely to be the corporations than any mere people, individually or collectively, as communities or the public.

The basic failing of the concept of rights is that it assumes an apposition. Being relational, a right without a context is meaningless. To exist, rights have to be recognized and granted; to be functional, they have to have legal authority. What power, class, institution or structure is expected to fulfill the expectations or demands of rights, and for whom? Corporations seem to have the power to simply seize and exploit rights; in contrast, the claims of rights by the less powerful have to be argued in the courts of the dominant power, which means from a position of weakness. Beyond that, even if rights are granted and/or recognized, they still have to be given substantive meaning: there is no inherent nutrition in the ‘right to food.' Such a right must be given meaning by providing real food to real people.

The language of rights, then, is essentially about power. Rights may be granted as a privilege by the powerful, in the form of a state, class or corporation, as an exception to its rule, while the more powerful assume privileges for themselves. Thus it is now corporations which would assume for themselves ‘Plant Breeders Rights' – with approval by the state – while they in turn would grant farmers the privilege of saving their own seeds for a season. Rights have been transformed into a surrogate for “the real thing.” That is, the right to food as a political demand has come to replace the ability to feed oneself as a matter of social justice, just as the farmer's right to save seeds replaces the practice of actually doing so.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that's all.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Food as a human right”: The UN Special Rapporteur has attempted to address the concerns for food sovereignty by stretching the term ‘right to food' to cover them. “The obligation to respect means that Governments must not violate the right to food (e.g. evict people from their land, destroy crops),” he says. “The obligation to protect means that governments must protect their citizens against violations by other actors (e.g. by instituting regulations on food safety). The third obligation to fulfill the right to food means the Government must first facilitate the right to food by providing an enabling environment for people to feed themselves (e.g. engage in land reform, stimulate employment).”– United Nations Economic and Social Council, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: The Right to Food, 1/03

“Food security”: Here in BC, the BC Food Systems Networkadopted the term ‘food systems' in an attempt to avoid the confusion inherent in ‘food security', which it also redefined to include a economically viable and ecologically sustainable system in which access to appropriate food is assured and food is celebrated as central to culture and community. Food Secure Canada /Alliance Canadianne pour le s é curit é alimentaire – the fledgling national organization to unite people and organizations working for food security nationally and globally – continues to use the term with a small twist in its English name. In the USA, the Community Food Security Coalition depends on its community development focus to add nuance to its name.


#232: August/September 2005 TOC
The Right to Food
The Cargill Column:
 ongoing coverage of one of the world's leading corporations: 
* $71.1 billion and growing 
* How it grows 
* If it can be turned into a commodity, Cargill will market it 
 Starving in the Midst of Plenty - an article from the Guardian Weekly 
Does inequality really matter?
 - from a review by Polly Toynbee of a book by Richard Wilkinson, pointing out that it is social equity which makes populations healthy 
Court Case to Proceed -
 the Saskatchewan farmers may pursue their class action suit against biotech giants contaminating their crops 
A different view of the world:
 Bold New Markets - how to do well by doing good; Drugs are the Answer - anti-obesity drugs hailed as the answer to childhood obesity 
"Modern, Improved Maize" and Diabetes -
 research shows changes in the ancient corn varieties have reduced anti-oxidants 
New corn is a breed apart -
 fighting back against genetic contamination by breeding corn which blocks external pollination 
Monsanto Watch: Patenting pigs -
 in a move which left even critics breathless, Monsanto has moved to patent the processes of breeding pigs; Charity - Monsanto Malawi donates $1 million to the World Food Programme; Ethics Oversight - shareholders call for an independent ethics committee for the corporation