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Institutionalizing a Fully Realized Right to Food: Progress, Limitations, and Lessons Learned from Emerging Alternative Policy Models

Institutionalizing a Fully Realized Right to Food: Progress, Limitations, and Lessons Learned from Emerging Alternative Policy Models

Nadia Lambek and Priscilla Claeys 

Twenty years ago, in 1996, world leaders, activists, and food producers met in Rome for the World Food Summit. One of the many outcomes of this meeting was a clear direction to the United Nations human rights bodies that States and stakeholders were interested in how the right to food could be operationalized at the national level. Over the past two decades, the right to food has gone through a period of intense normative elaboration, from a little theorized right to a largely fully elaborated human rights framework with corresponding State obligations and interpretations applying the right to food to a variety of contexts. Today there is a greater understanding of the concrete implications of the right to food as a legal doctrine for a range of state, international, and private actors, as well as a greater understanding of the importance of adopting a holistic approach to food insecurity.

The right to food has now entered a new era, with advocates focused on its promotion, adoption, and implementation, particularly at the national level. As a result of these efforts, the visibility of the right to food has increased remarkably over the last decade, particularly through the work of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations, and the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the right to food. States are increasingly adopting the right to food framework—or more accurately some elements of the framework—as a policy guide or as a legal norm through a variety of laws, constitutional amendments, policies, and programs. The right to food as a guiding framework is also increasingly discussed in international fora, notably at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

This Article focuses on the right to food in the context of national implementation—and not as an analytical tool for assessing the ails of the food system or as a uniting principle between different constituents. It argues that, despite the advancements noted above, little progress has been made overall at legal, policy, and institutional levels in effectively creating an environment in which the right to food can be fully realized in national contexts. Indeed, the adopted legal and policy frameworks have largely focused on the obligations of states to fulfill the right to food, leaving unaddressed the obligations to respect and protect the right to food. This has resulted in a failure to fully endorse the right to food in such a way that it would lead to the structural change needed to improve the realization of the right and to decrease food insecurity for individuals and communities.

Many factors can be credited with limiting the success of the right to food as a legal tool. These include a lack of political will among States and a reluctance to recognize economic and social rights; increased corporate capture of food governance fora and of the food supply chain more broadly; a lack of political constituency for the right to food, with implementation efforts largely stemming from a handful of NGOs and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) right to food team; and weak implementation mechanisms, which often fail to reflect the core State obligations imposed by the right to food.

While these obstacles and limitations are well documented in the literature, we argue in this Article that some of the most relevant and interesting developments allowing us to reflect on the challenges facing the right to food have taken place not within the right to food field, but outside and in parallel. Indeed, the last decade has seen a rise in new and alternative models for transforming the food system, such as alternative food networks, local food policy councils, and food sovereignty. These are often implemented in response to the challenges and the limited progress achieved with the right to food. These alternatives—often defended by local and transnational peasant organizations and food movements more generally—have succeeded not only in creating new narratives about the structural changes needed in our food system, but also in establishing new rights, institutions, and governing practices. Our objective in this Article is to document these developments and the lessons we believe they bear for right to food advocates and practitioners. These alternatives provide an important lens through which to view the perceived limits of the right to food as a legal tool. Further, taking them seriously invites us to expand our understanding of the right to food in at least two ways: (1) towards a more inclusive participation of citizens in the governance of food and agriculture; and (2) towards a transition to more localized food systems.

In Part I of this paper, we provide a brief overview of the right to food’s legal framework. In Part II, we review some of the key developments in implementing the right to food over the last two decades—both with respect to national implementation of legislation, as well as through policies. We show that progress has been made when it comes to fulfilling the right to food, but that much needs to be done to respect and protect the right. We also highlight a number of accountability challenges that need to be addressed. In Part III, we assess alternative models, grounded in the alternative paradigm of food sovereignty, that have emerged from the bottom up at the local, national, and regional levels over the past two decades. We discuss food sovereignty laws and policies, as well as alternative food networks and food policy councils. We then move to the international level, where we explore efforts at institutionalizing space for civil society in food system governance at the global level—specifically at the CFS. We also discuss the current elaboration of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas at the United Nations Human Rights Council as an articulation of new human rights norms to reflect the experience and claims of peasants and other people working in rural areas. Drawing from the alternative models, we conclude with a discussion of how the right to food could better address the twin crises of accountability and participation.

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