William H Whitaker. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Throughout the world there is enough food to feed every human being. Yet hunger and malnutrition persist. “Food security”—that is, access to culturally acceptable nutriments, through normal channels, in quantities sufficient for daily life and work—should be among the most basic of universal human rights. Hunger, poverty, and marginalization are caused by political and economic forces and decisions, which result in entitlement failures that undermine food security at the household level.
Having enough to eat depends upon access to at least a minimum “floor” level of the means of subsistence. In one sense, human history may be viewed as a gradual expansion of a sense of responsibility for others, which helps to secure that minimum “floor” for ever-increasing numbers of people. The concept of an entitlement to subsistence for households within one’s own clan has been accepted for ages. Such “food security” became available to citizens of Greece and Rome thousands of years ago and was extended to most Europeans beginning about 200 years ago (Kates and Millman 1990: 398-9).
In spite of this record of progress, however, hundreds of millions of people throughout the world suffer unnecessarily from hunger and malnutrition, and, although the proportion of hungry people is diminishing, their total number continues to grow. Between 1990 and 2000, the absolute number of hungry people was projected to continue to increase and then gradually decline to a level of about 3 percent of the world’s population in 2050.”In the meantime, half of the world’s women who carry the seeds of our future may be anemic, a third of the world’s children may be wasted or stunted in body or mind, and perhaps a fifth of the world’s people can never be sure of their daily bread, chapati, rice, tortilla, or ugali” (Kates and Millman 1990: 405). Today, some 1 billion children, women, and men daily confront chronic hunger and, consequently, the specters of starvation, undernutrition, deficiencies of iron, iodine, and vitamin A, and nutrient-depleting diseases (Kates 1996: 4-6).
Among the shades of hunger, starvation is the most arresting to the observer and receives major, if often belated, coverage by news media when it occurs. In the latter twentieth century, the plight of refugees in central Africa has been a current and recurrent example. Famine-related food shortages threaten roughly 1 percent of the world’s population with starvation every year.
Undernutrition, the most widespread form of hunger, is especially dangerous for children. It affects their ability to grow, their cognitive development, and their susceptibility to illness. Even relatively mild “chronic undernutrition,” the typical form of hunger in the United States, can permanently retard physical growth and brain development and can reduce the ability of children to concentrate and perform complex tasks.
Nutritional anemia (a condition in which a lack of dietary iron causes a shortage of red blood cells) can cause an impaired capacity for work and intellectual performance as well as a decreased resistance to disease and an increased susceptibility to lead poisoning. Nearly one-fifth of pregnant women in the United States suffer from this condition.
A lack of vitamin A in the diet permanently blinds 250,000 children throughout the world each year and increases the chances that millions more will suffer from the three leading child killers—diarrheal disease, measles, and pneumonia. Iodine deficiency results in the birth of 120,000 brain-damaged children annually; millions more grow up stunted, listless, mentally retarded, or incapable of normal speech, hearing, or both. In addition, nutrient-depleting diseases such as diarrhea, measles, malaria, and parasitic infestations prevent millions of people from fully benefiting from the nutrients contained in the nutriments they do manage to take in.
Rights, Entitlements, and the Right to Food
Virtually every society develops a social compact—a set of values and behavior standards—that defines the rights and responsibilities of its members. From the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, survival was considered in European societies to be largely an individual or family-based responsibility, with food and other necessities procured through work. But assistance was available for some of those not able to achieve self-reliance through work, and the various European nations enacted strikingly similar laws that separated needy people into two distinct categories—those who were deemed worthy and those considered unworthy of public aid.
In England, for example, only children, the blind, the disabled, and those elderly persons who could not work were thought worthy of relief under the Poor Laws. Destitute but able-bodied unemployed persons risked savage treatment at the hands of local authorities. They could be consigned indefinitely to work-houses or prisons. Adults and children were severely punished, sometimes even executed, for stealing food (Dobbert 1978: 187).
Today, in the United States and other industrialized countries, able-bodied persons are expected to earn their livelihoods. Often, there is debate over the extent to which the state should meet the needs of those who cannot work—whether because of age, or physical or mental infirmity, or because jobs paying a livable wage are unavailable. For some who cannot attain self-reliance through work, the condition is temporary, and only transitional support is needed. For others, age or infirmity makes the attainment of self-reliance unrealistic; these persons require lasting support.
Human rights are “enforceable claims on the delivery of goods, services, or protection by others”—meaning that people in need can insist upon the delivery of assistance, with recourse, if necessary, to legal or moral enforcement of their demand (Eide, Oshaug, and Eide 1991: 426). Such rights are based on social obligations that are accepted by all persons without reference to distinctions of race, gender, nationality, language, religion, or socioeconomic class. Human rights may be promulgated globally but must be implemented locally within nationally determined limits (Barker 1991: 105, 203; Eide et al. 1991: 415).
Some analysts separate such rights into two categories: civil/political rights and social/economic/ cultural rights. Civil and political rights are basic “rights recognized in democratic constitutions, such as life, liberty, and personal security; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to fair and public hearings by impartial tribunals; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and freedom of peaceful association” (Barker 1991: 105). Social, economic, and cultural rights include “the right to work, education, and social security; to participate in the cultural life of the community; … to share in the benefits of scientific advancement and the arts” (Barker 1991: 105), and the right to eat.
The protection of vulnerable groups, such as the poor, those with handicaps, and endangered indigenous peoples, is a major aim of social, economic, and cultural rights. Taking these rights seriously requires grappling with issues of social integration, solidarity, equality, and distribution of wealth. Perhaps as a consequence, although civil and political rights have received considerable attention, social, economic, and cultural rights have been relatively neglected at both the international and national levels (Eide and Rosas 1995: 17).
Those who separate human rights into two distinct categories argue that civil and political rights emphasize “freedom from” state interference; they are absolute, are immediately realizable at little financial cost to governments, and are capable of being adjudicated in court. In contrast, social, economic, and cultural rights are seen as claims on the state for protection and assistance; these are relative to the circumstances of one’s society, are only gradually realizable at substantial financial cost to governments, and are dependent upon politics rather than the courts for such realization. Other analysts, however, view the two categories of rights as interrelated and as addressing “different aspects of the same three basic concerns: integrity, freedom, and equality of all human beings” (Eide 1995a: 21-2; Eide and Rosas 1995: 17).
Humans require basic necessities such as food, clothing, and housing (depending on the cultural conditions in which they live) to enable them to participate fully—without shame or unreasonable obstacles—in the everyday life of their communities. The right to a standard of living that supports such participation is, therefore, a basic social right (Eide 1995b: 90).
The three major components of such a standard of living are adequate food, care, and the prevention and control of disease. As a basic social right, this standard of living is a necessary foundation for an effective social compact, but it is not a solely sufficient one, as the compact must also provide for other social, economic, and cultural rights, as well as for civil and political rights. Thus, the right to adequate food is an essential—and perhaps the most important—building block in the foundation of a satisfactory social compact.
“Adequate food” means that every household can depend upon the availability of a stable supply of culturally acceptable, uncontaminated, good-quality food, which provides all necessary energy, nutrients, and micronutrients (such as vitamins and iodine). Food adequacy implies economic and social (as well as environmental) sustainability, which entails access to food through a combination of fair wealth distribution and effective markets, together with various forms (public and private, formal and informal) of supports and “safety nets” (Eide 1995b: 90-1).
According to the United Nations Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, Subcommittee on Nutrition, “care is the provision in the household and the community of time, attention and support to meet the physical, mental and social needs of the growing child and other family members” (Eide 1995b: 91). Such care implies, among other things, access to primary health care, protection from infection, medical assistance during illness, and assistance to meet the needs of disability and old age. Adequate care is necessary for everyone but is especially important for vulnerable groups such as young children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly (Eide 1995b: 91-3).
Adequate prevention and control of disease is essential to a satisfactory standard of living because of the close connection between disease and malnutrition. Therefore, immunization and breast-feeding campaigns, oral rehydration child survival programs, nutrition education, sanitation programs, and the like are important contributions to living standards (Eide 1995b: 93).
Entitlements and “Entitlement Failure”
An entitlement is a societal obligation to provide support as a right when people have insufficient resources to live in conditions of health and decency (Melnick 1994: 54-6). Entitlement to food is the ability to command food through the various forms of exchange relationships to which one has access (Sen 1981). Amartya Sen describes three basic forms of food entitlement:”(a) access to resources to collect or to produce food, (b) the exchange of resources (property, money, labor power) for food, and (c) the receipt of gifts or grants of food or the resources to procure food” (Sen 1981; Kates and Millman 1990: 397). An entitlement approach to food security “requires a shift in thinking from what exists? to who can command what? ” (Eide 1995b: 95).
Many other rights interact with and affect the entitlement to food. The right to property supports the right to food both because ownership of land makes it possible to grow food and because ownership of assets makes it possible to produce items that can be exchanged for food. As property is often unevenly distributed, the right to work at a living wage is directly related to the right to the income necessary to purchase food, and, of course, the right to work is in turn affected by the right to an education. If a person lacks property and is unable to work because of age, disability, illness, lack of skill or training, scarcity of appropriate jobs, or because available work does not pay a living wage, a right to social security becomes necessary to secure access to food (Eide 1995b: 95-6).
Sen’s three basic forms of entitlement have not changed over time. What has changed “is the mix: from a primary emphasis on household self-provision, to slave, servant, or serf status where labor is appropriated in return for minimal entitlement, to market exchange of labor and production, and most recently to the development of extensive safety-nets of food security” (Kates and Millman 1990: 398).
Sen’s conceptualization of “entitlement failure” (Sen 1981; Drèze and Sen 1990a, 1990b, 1990c, 1991) has provided a powerful analytical tool with which to understand and intervene in the political economy of hunger. Most important, the concept helps avoid the pitfall of assuming that per capita food supplies that on average seem adequate will result in universal food security. Just as it is possible to drown in a stream that averages only an inch deep, it is possible to starve in a world, nation-state, region, or even household in which there is a seemingly sufficient average food supply.
When some people thrive but others do not—whether in the presence of food or faced with food shortages—one must ask why some have access to sufficient food and thrive, whereas others, lacking access, sicken or die. For Sen, “entitlement failure” is the central cause of hunger, starvation, and famine. People suffer malnutrition and die of starvation because of an inability to claim access to sufficient food resources to meet their nutritional needs. Such entitlement failure is a consequence of choices made publicly and privately at the international, national, state, community, and household levels.
Household Food Security
For a right to food to have meaning, it must be implemented where food is actually consumed, by individuals at the household level. The presence of food supplies in a nation or region is no guarantee of food security if households lack access to them. Household food security depends upon a household’s “access to a basket of food which is nutritionally adequate, safe, and culturally acceptable, procured in a manner consistent with the satisfaction also of other basic human needs, and obtained from supplies, and in ways, which are sustainable over time” (Eide et al. 1991: 455).
Even if a household has access to a supply of food that, if equitably shared, could meet the needs of all of its members, that food may or may not be available according to individual needs. In many societies, for example, men and boys eat first, and women and girls wait to eat whatever the males leave.
Strategies for Food Security
Jean Drèze and Sen (1990a: 22-6) describe two contemporary strategies for replacing persistent want and hunger with food security: “growth-mediated security” and “support-led security.” Growth-mediated security is based upon rapid economic expansion, with benefits shared through new jobs and higher wages, and use of growth-generated resources “to expand public support of health, nutrition, education, and economic security for the more deprived and vulnerable” (Drèze and Sen 1990a: 22). The “trickle-down” economics promoted by some politicians in the United States and the structural adjustment policies promulgated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund both assume the creation of growth-mediated benefits, but whether such benefits are shared with poor and marginalized people is a matter of public policy choices.
By contrast, support-led security involves providing “public support measures without waiting for the country to become rich through economic growth” (Drèze and Sen 1990a: 24). China, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Jamaica, and the state of Kerala in India are all examples of governments that have followed the support-led strategy with considerable benefit to marginalized citizens.
Although there is a significant difference between the two approaches, public support plays an important role in each. “Indeed, in the absence of public involvement to guarantee that the fruits of growth are widely shared, rapid economic growth” can have a negative impact on the entitlements that secure sufficient food and other necessities of life. It is, according to Drèze and Sen (1990a: 26), essential to replace “unaimed opulence” with growth benefits targeted to the needs of the marginalized.
Moreover, Asbjørn Eide has argued that it is a mistake to assume that governments must have the primary responsibility to provide food to needy people through costly, potentially overgrown state bureaucracies. Instead, governments should work to maximize the capability of individuals to provide food for themselves and their households through their own resources and efforts (Eide 1995a: 36-8). This goal involves three levels of obligation. First, governments must respect individual freedoms and resources; for example, government actions to ensure the land rights of endangered indigenous peoples and to clarify small-holders’ titles to their land enable such people to maximize self-reliance and their ability to earn an adequate living. Second, governments must protect the rights of less-powerful people against more powerful interests that may exploit them and reduce their ability to be self-reliant. Third, when no other possibilities exist, governments must fulfill rights by direct action, such as providing for basic needs through programs of food aid or social security (Eide 1995a: 36-8).
The Evolution of an International Entitlement to Food
The development of a right to food is the culmination of several centuries of struggle to affirm human rights and then extend them to people without property, such as former slaves, and women. The human rights from which the right to food has emerged are grounded in the philosophy of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 1690-1 British Bill of Rights, in the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence, and in the 1779 French Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (Dobbert 1978).
Until World War II, international law provided no basis for a right to food. The right could be claimed only by groups such as members of the armed forces (entitled to food in exchange for their willingness to fight) or the inmates of penitentiaries, almshouses, and similar public institutions, who were prevented from self-provision. Attitudes toward human rights, however, were fundamentally altered by the events surrounding World War II. The acute food shortages experienced by war-torn countries in Europe and elsewhere led to the emergence of the concept of a right to food as a universal right (Dobbert 1978: 188-9).
In 1941, in his well-known “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the concept of “freedom from want” into modern political discourse. Later that year, the Atlantic Charter—framed by Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill—called for international economic collaboration to secure “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security” for all. Finally, in his 1944 State of the Union message, Roosevelt proposed an international “Economic Bill of Rights” recognizing that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.””People,” he said,”who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made” (Eide 1995a: 29).
International Conventions and Covenants
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on December 10, 1948, is the foundation upon which efforts to realize an international right to food are based. In order to foster global freedom and democracy, the UDHR envisions worldwide human rights—to be monitored internationally and implemented nationally—for all people. Article 25(1) anticipates the right to food: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (Dobbert 1978: 192).
The UN Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the declaration, could not obtain the agreement of the United States and other nations of the industrial West to include both civil/political and social/economic/cultural rights in a single, legally binding convention. But subsequently, in 1966, 18 years after the promulgation of the UDHR, separate international covenants on civil/political rights and social/economic/cultural rights were adopted by the UN General Assembly (Eide and Rosas 1995: 15). By 1995, 120 nations had ratified the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR).
The evolution of the international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has been more controversial. Article 11 contains the language most relevant to a right to food. By 1957, when most of the substantive language of the CESCR had been accepted, Article 11 stated simply that the nations party to the covenant “recognize the right of everyone to adequate food, clothing and housing” (Dobbert 1978: 191). In 1964, following a call by Dr. B. R. Sen, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for a strengthening of the covenant, compromise language was adopted providing for a right to an adequate standard of living based on universal subsistence rights to adequate food and nutrition, clothing, housing, and necessary conditions of care (Dobbert 1978: 191-4). By 1995, the CESCR had been ratified by 118 nations. But although the U.S. government signed the covenant in 1976, it had still not been ratified by the U.S. Senate some 20 years later.
The actual enjoyment of these theoretically universal social, economic, and cultural rights still eludes many people throughout the world. Nevertheless, paying at least “lip service” to them provides an opportunity for advocates in all countries to press for their extension and implementation.
The Role of Intergovernmental Organizations
Several intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have played important roles related to food security and contributed significantly to the conceptual evolution of a right to food but have been less successful in ensuring its realization. These include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Food Council (WFC), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) (Eide et al. 1991: 437-8).
The Food and Agriculture Organization was conceived during World War II and established in 1945, before the war ended. After the war, FAO made its headquarters in Rome, housed in the offices from which Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had hoped to rule an empire. The organization functions as a clear-inghouse for scientific information on food and agriculture, but when it addresses structural causes of hunger, such as regulation of the world grain trade or issues of land reform, FAO risks conflict with its sponsoring governments.
FAO’s role in promoting the right to food has varied from virtual inactivity to strong support, depending upon the bent of its directors. Although it was not until 1965 that the preamble to the FAO Constitution was amended to include “humanity’s freedom from hunger,” FAO played an important role in strengthening the CESCR. It was instrumental, too, in founding the World Food Programme and in initiating the 1974 International Undertaking on World Food Security, which recognized (paragraph I.1) “that the assurance of world food security is a common responsibility of the entire international community.” In addition, the FAO worked to create the 1975 Food Security Assistance program to help developing countries implement national food-stock and reserve programs and was important in negotiating the nonbinding World Food Security Compact in 1985 (Tomasevski 1987; Eide et al. 1991). In 1996, FAO sponsored the International Food Summit in Rome.
The World Food Programme was founded by FAO and the United Nations in 1961.The WFP administers the food aid pledged by members of the United Nations for emergencies and development projects. When administered with careful attention to its effects on exchange entitlements, food aid can be very successful; by contrast, poorly targeted food aid can wreak havoc on entitlement relationships. The WFP has stressed the right to food “as the most fundamental of human rights, and a precondition to development” (Eide et al. 1995: 442-3).
The World Food Conference in Rome (held from November 5 to 16, 1974) focused global attention on the idea that hunger and malnutrition are solvable problems. It adopted the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, which proclaimed: “Every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to fully develop and maintain their physical and mental facilities” (Tomasevski 1987: 343).The declaration set a goal of eliminating hunger worldwide within 10 years and was subsequently endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Further activities intended to implement the declaration and the 22 resolutions of the conference included the establishment of the World Food Council, the FAO Committee on World Food Security, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the United Nations Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, Sub-Committee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN) (Tomasevski 1987).
The World Food Council was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1974 to coordinate the work of UN agencies related to “food production, nutrition, food security, food trade and food aid” (Tomasevski 1987: 346-7). In 1977, the WFC adopted the Manila Communiqué, an action program to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, and in 1979, it adopted the Mexico Declaration, which proposed, among other things, that countries “consider practical ways and means to achieve a more equitable distribution of income and economic resources so as to ensure that food production increases result in a more equitable pattern of food consumption” (Tomasevski 1987: 39-40). The ability of the WFC to serve as the UN’s conscience on food security is, however, limited by its practice of operating on consensus, which precludes serious consideration of the more radical structural analyses offered by various country-groups. The WFC Secretariat has shown only moderate interest in promoting legal approaches to the right to food (Eide et al. 1991: 415).
The International Fund for Agricultural Development was established in 1976 with initial funding of $1 billion for programs to increase food production, reduce rural poverty, and improve nutrition in developing countries. IFAD gives priority to the poorest food-deficient countries and attempts to strengthen the entitlements of small and landless farmers. IFAD, then, is the IGO that works directly to reduce poverty among the most severely marginalized groups. Food security is now a major focus of its work.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund was established in 1946 to promote health, education, and social services for children in developing countries and is actively employing in its work the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1989. The CRC addresses rights to health (Article 24) and to social security (Article 25), whereas Article 27 recognizes “the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” The 1990 World Summit for Children sponsored by UNICEF to promote the CRC was attended by more than 70 heads of state, and by 1995, the convention had been ratified by 150 nations (Eide 1995a and 1985b). Until then, the United States was the sole major nonsignatory of the convention, and although the U.S. government at last signed the CRC (as a memorial to UNICEF executive director James Grant), it had not yet ratified the document by the end of the following year.
The World Health Organization, in response to worldwide activism against the irresponsible marketing of infant formulas, has worked to create awareness of infants’ right to adequate nutrition. Its Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981.
U.S.-Based Nongovernmental Organizations
During the 1970s and 1980s, a growing public awareness of the problem of hunger resulted in the establishment of a large number of antihunger nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). National and international NGOs based in the United States that have played substantial roles in the struggle to develop food security or the right to food include Oxfam America, Food for the Hungry, and the Campaign for Human Development (founded in 1970); Bread for the World (1974); Food First and World Hunger Year (1975); World Hunger Education Service (1976); the Hunger Project (1977); and Results (1980).
By 1985, the more economically developed countries supported an estimated 2,000 NGOs—mostly focused on development and self-help—throughout the world. Some were quite large; World Vision, for example, had 750,000 subscribers and raised an international budget of $300 million annually. Catholic Relief Services had a 1990 budget of $220 million, CARE $294 million, Lutheran World Relief $49 million, and Church World Service $43 million (Beckman and Hoehn 1992: 20-1).
Millions of U.S. residents have participated in episodic, short-term, hunger-relief activities in response to famines—such as aid concerts, “Hands across America,” and the like (Millman et al. 1990: 326). In 1991, for example, “334,580 people participated in Church World Service ‘CROP Walks’ to raise money for anti-hunger efforts” (Beckman and Hoehn 1992: 15-18).
Development aid from the governments of developed countries increased from $7 billion to $48.1 billion between 1970 and 1988.”But most of this ‘aid’ is tied to political and commercial interests of the Northern governments, and often hurts rather than helps poor people in Southern hemisphere countries” (Beckman and Hoehn 1992: 22). Although the majority of U.S.-based NGOs focus on relief or development activities, Bread for the World and Results have mobilized substantial grass-roots constituencies lobbying for changes in U.S. public policy that will support food security.
Bread for the World (BFW) is an interdenominational Christian organization in the United States with about 40,000 members. BFW members lobby the U.S. Congress on policies that affect domestic and global hunger. In 1974, BFW mobilized its members to pressure the U.S. Congress to enact a “Right-to-Food Resolution.” (H.R. 737 was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote of 340 to 61; S.R. 138 was passed in the U.S. Senate by voice vote.) The resolution by the House stated the sense of Congress as follows:
- the United States reaffirms the right of every person at home and abroad to food and a nutritionally adequate diet;
- the need to combat hunger shall be a fundamental point of reference in the formulation and implementation of United States policy in all areas that bear on hunger;
- the United States should seek to improve domestic food assistance programs for Americans in need, to ensure that all eligible recipients have the chance to obtain a nutritionally adequate diet;
- the United States should increase substantially its assistance for self-help development among the poorest people of the world with particular emphasis on increasing food production and encouraging improved food distribution and more equitable patterns of economic growth; this assistance should be coordinated with expanded efforts by international organizations, donor nations, and recipient countries to provide a nutritionally adequate diet for all. (U.S. House of Representatives 1976b)
Among its lobbying efforts, BFW has led successful attempts to increase U.S. allocations for intergovern-mental child survival programs that save millions of lives annually. Through its Transforming the Politics of Hunger project, BFW is encouraging those in the voluntary feeding movement to take a more active role in affecting governmental antihunger policy (Beckman and Hoehn 1992).
The Results organization is a hard-headed, policy-focused spin-off of the Hunger Project begun in 1977, which seeks “to empower people to take actions against hunger” (Millman et al. 1990: 327). By 1987, the Hunger Project claimed to have enrolled more than 5 million members in 152 countries (Millman et al. 1990: 327). Mobilization efforts by Results have included generating support in the United States and several other countries for the World Summit for Children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
International Nongovernmental Efforts
There are several international efforts to strengthen and implement the right to food that should be mentioned. An October 1981 meeting—organized in Gran, Norway, by the United Nations University—resulted in the 1984 publication of Food As a Human Right (Eide et al. 1984).The book emphasized (p. ix) that human food supplies are “filtered through socioeconomic processes which deny an adequate supply of food to many while delivering a large over-dose to a ‘lucky’ few” and that meaningful intervention “will probably require deep structural changes” that will generate conflict.
The World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) was established by the United Nations University in 1984. The following year, it began its program, “Hunger and Poverty: The Poorest Billion,” and in 1986, it sponsored (in Helsinki) a Food Strategies Conference to identify feasible opportunities for affecting world hunger. The conference pursued an entitlement approach emphasizing public intervention to improve literacy rates, life expectancy, and infant mortality in low-income nations. Follow-up activities to the WIDER conference included publication of the three-volume work The Political Economy of Hunger (Drèze and Sen 1990a, 1990b, 1990c).
In June 1984, the Right to Food Project of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM), with cosponsorship by the Norwegian Human Rights Project, brought together “42 lawyers, nutritionists, and development experts, from all parts of the world, and from both nongovernmental and intergovern-mental organizations” (Alston and Tomasevski 1984: 215). Participants in the conference, “The Right to Food: From Soft to Hard Law,” criticized discussions of world hunger as frequently oversimplified. Instead of being defined simply in terms of calorie/protein requirements, hunger, they contended, should be analyzed “in terms of economic, social, political, cultural, and other structural factors, which deprive some people of access to land, work and food” (Alston and Tomasevski 1984: 217). A wide range of discussions focused on causes (for example, land tenure and access to work and food), rather than on manifestations, of hunger. The conference proceedings were published as The Right to Food, which attempted, “for the first time, to make hunger a prominent issue on the human rights agenda and to put the right to food on the agenda of national and international human rights agencies” (Alston and Tomasevski 1984: 7).
The SIM conference called for a translation of the “soft law” norms of human rights into “hard law” capable of adjudication. Conferees proposed monitoring the implementation of the right to food through (1) an international system based on cooperation among the relevant UN agencies, (2) a redesign of the CESCR reporting system, and (3) an NGO network using an Amnesty International-style “mobilization of shame” approach (Alston and Tomasevski 1984: 220). The greatest need, according to the SIM conferees, was for:
a network of support by and among NGOs which would include the mobilization of other private sector groups such as professional organizations of lawyers and doctors and churches in the fight against hunger. This network could strengthen existing NGOs, building and using human rights law and developing a concrete, realistic program of action on the right to food. (Alston and Tomasevski 1984: 220)
Five years later, in 1989, “a group of 24 planners, practitioners, opinion leaders, and scientists,” brought to Bellagio, Italy, by the World Hunger Program of Brown University, adopted “The Bellagio Declaration: Overcoming Hunger in the 1990s.” Its signers represented national or international agencies, organizations, universities, and research institutes in 14 countries, both northern and southern.
Whereas some advocates approach ending hunger incrementally, and others envision more fundamental structural changes, the Bellagio Declaration sought a “common middle ground” in which half of the world’s hunger could be ended in a decade by appropriately applying the “better and the best” of current programs throughout the world. The Bellagio strategy included: (1) eliminating deaths from famine, (2) ending hunger in half of the poorest households, (3) cutting malnutrition in half for mothers and small children, and (4) eradicating iodine and vitamin A deficiencies (Kates and Millman 1990).
In December 1992, preceding the International Conference on Nutrition in Rome, a Task Force on Children’s Nutrition Rights was established under the aegis of the World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights. The task force encouraged national workshops “designed to launch locally-based long-term campaigns to strengthen children’s nutrition rights, giving attention to both their articulation in the law and the effective implementation of that law.” Workshops were held in Guatemala and Mexico in 1993 and are being planned in several additional countries (Kent 1993a).
The Task Force on Children’s Nutrition Rights is collaborating with the Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), an “international human rights organization for the right to feed oneself” (Kent 1993b: 10), which has chapters in several countries. At the June 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, FIAN took the lead in advocating an optional protocol for the CESCR that would empower individuals to bring human rights complaints to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Kent 1993b).
In the 1990s, poor weather conditions reduced world grain reserves to a perilously low level and caused the price of grain to rise. Although this was a boon to farmers in grain-exporting countries like the United States, it played havoc with the economies of grain-importing countries throughout the developing world. Concurrently, total annual commitments of external assistance to agriculture in developing countries fell from about $16 billion in 1988 to about $10.7 billion in 1993.
Prompted by widespread food insecurity, the FAO made plans for the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996 to deal with problems of hunger and malnutrition. The summit, the first global conversation in 22 years that was focused specifically on food and hunger adopted the Declaration on World Food Security and Plan of Action, which reaffirmed the right to be free from hunger through universal access to safe and nutritious food and pledged to reduce the number of hungry people to 400 million by the year 2015.
The retreat from the 1974 World Food Conference goal of ending hunger worldwide in 10 years to the 1996 World Food Summit goal of reducing hunger by half in 20 years reflected diminished support by the United States and other developed countries for a legal right to food. During the two years of negotiations on the 1996 summit documents, U.S. representatives repeatedly expressed concern that a right to food could expose producing countries to lawsuits and trade complaints from the developing world. In opposition to the 1996 declaration, the U.S. delegation to the summit contended that the right to food is only an “aspiration” that creates no international obligation for governments.
Entitlement Failure: And the Right to Food
In light of this chapter’s recitation of the resolutions, conventions, declarations, protocols, visions, and down-to-earth efforts of IGOs and NGOs to nurture recognition of the right to food and to implement food security, one might be tempted to ask why hunger and malnutrition persisted as the twentieth century came to a close. Is there any reason for hope that the right to food will become as commonly accepted as, say, entitlement to public education, and that the global right to food will become as commonly accepted as civil and political rights? Where must we go from here in order to attain the basic social justice reflected in a universal, implementable right to food security?
To speak only about the United States, the challenge seems especially daunting during a time in which public programs are under attack. Even with the present food-security safety net relatively intact, 4 million U.S. children under age 12 experience hunger, and every year another 9.6 million are at risk of hunger. In fact, 29 percent of U.S. children live in families that experience food shortage problems year after year (FRAC 1995: v-vi), and poor children in the United States have less access to food than poor children in 15 other industrial nations (Bradsher 1995).The U.S. welfare “reform” legislation of 1996, which replaced the entitlement to public assistance of families with dependent children with a time-limited, work-based program, might well push more than 1 million additional children below the U.S. poverty threshold.
The human costs of slow progress are great. The demise of hunger is not guaranteed. But hunger can be ended, if we choose. R. W. Kates and Sara Millman (1990: 404) describe the progress that has been made and the challenges we still face:
In global terms, there is enough food to go around. In the 1960s the earth passed the first threshold of theoretical food sufficiency (enough to provide a near-vegetarian diet for all if distributed according to need) and [is] approaching a second threshold of improved diet sufficiency (enough to provide 10 percent animal products). But we are still a long way from a third threshold of a full but healthy diet with the choices available in industrialized nations. Projecting world food demand, under alternative assumptions of both diet and population growth, indicates that nearly three times the present level of production might be required for an improved diet and almost five times for a full, but healthy, diet, some 60 years from now.
In other words, there is cause for hope. Reduced contributions for development aid will harm, yet not cripple, development efforts. The dramatic strengthening of civil society in some developing countries is one of the major causes for hope.
Moreover, there is a deep-seated tradition in a number of the industrialized nations of caring for one’s poorer neighbors. Widespread public opinion in the United States holds that no one should go hungry. Perhaps BFW and its antihunger-movement allies will succeed in transforming the politics of hunger and in energizing the feeding movement to affect the direction of national aid policies. A reenergized, populist, antihunger movement throughout the world, armed with appreciation of entitlement failure as the key to understanding the political economy of hunger, may yet succeed in transforming “soft” concern about hunger into the “hard law” of an enforceable, adjudicatory right to food.