What is the link between the right to food and the right to health?
Several health conditions ranging from cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders to infertility are increasingly linked to diets that do not provide enough nourishment to individuals. All individuals, regardless of their gender, health or socio-economic status have the right to feed themselves in dignity. For the right to food to be realized, sufficient quantities of food should be available and accessible to all, containing a balance of nutrients (i.e., proteins, vitamins and fats) that meets dietary requirements and contributes towards a healthy lifestyle.
On the other hand, factors such as uneven distribution of food, uncoordinated state and non-state efforts and limited nutritional awareness compromises dietary status and in turn, the right to health. Malnutrition, either primarily as a deficit of energy yielding calories or combined with a lack of specific micronutrients, results in increased risk and spread of disease, productivity loss, and starvation-led death. Unbalanced diets and commercially promoted unhealthy food contributes to health damaging overweight and obesity.
What are the relevant global sources?
The right to food is recognized in the following international instruments:
- Article 25: Universal Declaration on Human Rights
- Article 11: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
- Articles 12 & 14: Convention on the Elimination on all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
- Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP – ICESCR)
Enabling individuals to realize the right to food has a direct impact on Sustainable Development Goal No. 2 (SDG2): the eradication of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) plays an important role at the global, regional and national level by advocating for the right to food and defining best practices for various stakeholders such as national governments and food producers.
Seeking to implement international law at the national level, FAO and other UN agencies have provided support to states in implementing the rights to adequate food, food safety, and nutrition security.
Among others, FAO worked with an Intergovernmental Working Group to develop the Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security (2005). This document offers practical guidance to states in their implementation of the progressive realization of the right to adequate food and increased national food security.
What are the relevant issues related to the right to food?
- Governance and investments – Although many national constitutions have committed to protect and promote the right to food, there is still a need for coordinated effort, evidence-based policy and programme implementation for more rapid progress on food security, which is undermined through limited budget and corruption.
- Climate change – There are alterations in food growth and consumption patterns due to global changes in the weather, which affects crop yields.
- Technological changes – Rapid advancements in farming technology and genetically modified crops (GMO) could promise higher yields of natural produce but may have unresearched health risks. Use of biological material as a fuel source also has an impact on food distribution patterns.
- Financial restrictions – International trade promoting policies that drive export-led distribution of food products can increase local food prices and alter consumption patterns, potentially depriving local populations of nutrients that are suited to their diet and lifestyle due to financial barriers.
- Limited awareness on dietary requirements – Individuals may not be aware of their dietary needs and often lack the guidance, informational sources to tailor their intake to their health and lifestyle.
- Vulnerable populations – Certain population groups such as women and children are restricted from access to food. For example, certain socio-cultural conditions may restrict household expenses to be allocated towards women and in turn children. Malnourished women are likely to deliver children who are at high risk of developmental disorders due to inadequate nutrition.
How can this situation be improved?
- Practical implementation of guidelines on the right to food in domestic law and policy promises improvement, especially when the focus is on capacity building on nutritional awareness and healthy eating habits. Expanding land access to marginalized groups, especially women, and focusing on their livelihoods, offers a long-term approach to reduce the risk of malnutrition for mother and child.
- Governmental subsidization of techniques that lead to higher yields of nutrient dense foodstuffs and offering protection to farmers can help reduce food shortages and promote consumption of local foods.
- Increased research funding in areas that investigate the link between diet and disease to advocate in favour of balanced diets for the realization of a healthy standard of living.
- Expanding educational curricula to emphasize the importance of a balanced, varied and nutrient diet.
- In cases of known nutrient deficiencies, applying corrective measures like use of quality assured dietary supplements under medical supervision.
- Multisectoral coalitions and capacity building (including in the health sector) on safe and healthy food, aiming at adequate nutrition for all and eliminating damaging information and advertising.
What is the role of health workers?
- Professionals working in the fields of health, productivity and fitness are actively called upon to spread awareness on nutrition.
- Medical professionals can actively seek to understand dietary habits and patterns when evaluating patients, to find opportunities for nutritional advice that can help with managing symptoms and conditions. This could include reducing or eliminating deficiencies through dietary supplements if necessary.
- Health professionals can use their expertise and position of trust to discourage their patients and families to continue unhealthy food habits.
- Other approaches within the health-care field include educating mothers on pre- and post-natal nutrition for mother and child at community health centres or at regular health check-ups elsewhere.
- Organizations of health professionals should join multisectoral coalitions that promote healthy food.
Some resources on the right to food
- FAO Video series on right to food
- Educational resource on right to food
- Right to Food from a Human Rights Law perspective
- WTO and Right to Food
- SDG and right to food
- FAO general website section on right to food
This page was written by Gauri Deoras in October 2018.