Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

From: Wenche Barth Eide, University of Oslo/Department of Nutrition; former member of HLPE Project Team for HLPE 4 on Social Protection for Food Security (2012).

I am pleased to submit a few comments to the scoping proposal, even if late.  My comments are restricted to issues relating to human rights, which as usual receive somewhat limited feedback, although there are indeed some interesting commentaries regarding this among the responses to this proposal.  

Mine relate to the elements of a human rights-based approach to analysing and mitigating inequalities in the agriculture and food systems and how this should be introduced in the report, in view of its assumed importance to mitigate inequalities. This remains open in the document, which limits itself to three concerns re. human rights:

  1. A general statement in the body of the document: “To reduce inequalities, it is fundamental to ensure comprehensive legal frameworks and governance systems able to uphold human rights, including the right to food.”
  2. A demand for feedback in ‘1.c. Paths towards equality: i. Human Rights Based approach - “equality” as a human right principle, relevance to the right to food’; and 
  3. (also for feedback) ‘4.h. Which legal framework can guarantee equal rights to land, basic services, but also the right to food, and do they contribute to reducing inequalities?’ 

At the end I have some suggestions in connection with the food security concept and the normative content on the right to adequate food. 

On 1, it is satisfying to see such an explicit prior recognition of the necessity for the report to deal with legal frameworks as part of governance if one wants to assist in people’s realization of their rights towards reducing inequality, here first of all relevant economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) including the right to adequate food. Having said this, I have a concern with the wording used to reflect the purpose of it all – to uphold human rights. Very many vulnerable individuals and population groups will certainly have been far from ever enjoying their basic rights - all the way from birth, so there is very often little to ‘uphold’ (the way I understand this term) but rather much to realize in the first place - “leaving no on behind”.   It follows that the full spectre of what is meant with a human rights based approach must be briefly reflected and documented in the report; if necessary, expanded in an annex as a bit of “adult education” (to combat the widespread human rights illiteracy often observed in international debates, see HLPE 4, Annex (in e-version). 

There is a direct line to point 2 here, where “equality” as pertaining to a human rights-based approach is singled out (deriving from the title of report) and the question asked about its relevance to the right to food. In the body of terms and interpretations that has been built up around the right to adequate food (but equally relevant to other economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR)), equality is one of several principles or “values” identified as essential in orienting policies and actions towards human rights.  Equality is however normally linked to another of these principles – that of non-discrimination and the two are usually being mentioned together [1]. These and the six other process values that have been proposed for analytical, advocacy and policy work on the right to adequate food, combine to form the acronym PANTHER - coined by FAO in the first decade of the millennium and familiar to many: Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination (and equality), Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment and Respect or the Rule of Law [2].  

Two other sets of concepts and their interpretations add to the full definition of a rights-based approach: on the one hand the normative basis of the right to adequate food and related rights, and on the other, the framework for interpreting and formulating state obligations, to be practiced  on a select basis depending on the given right and issues in question. Both sets are expressed in the interpretation hitherto recognized as the most authoritative of the right to adequate food: General Comment no. 12 on the Right to adequate food from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1999. On obligations, the now popular ‘mantra’ of respect, protect and fulfil actions towards human rights will be known to many, with fulfil alternatively accommodating to facilitate and/or directly to provide food - or assets for food, depending on the situation. 

Regarding point 3 - which legal framework to guarantee equal rights to land, basic services, and to food, and how do they contribute to reducing inequalities (if at all)? 

First an observation on the relatively sloppy linguistics contained in “to guarantee” – surprisingly found in many legal texts, even if in the context of ESCR many rights can never be guaranteed. Legal approaches can, for example, guarantee certain means of social protection, but not necessarily guarantee that this will reduce inequality in general - although applying legal instruments can make it more likely that a certain right can be achieved. The report should be careful with this language and not repeat the over-optimism implied in the term guarantee. 

In practice, concrete field experiences are needed to provide examples of legal frameworks tried out in various contexts and situations; it is hoped that the report can bring many examples of successes or the contrary, from real life situations to learn from. At the theoretical and guidance level, FAO’s Development Law Service issues a series of “Legal papers” several of which focusing on many of the issue areas important for inequalities in the agriculture/food sector, see

Associated with the latter, reference must also be made to the large volume of educational and practical publications developed be FAOs Right to Food Unit (from shortly after the publication of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Adequate Food and onwards for several years). This has often surprisingly been overlooked/not referred to by HLPE reports, including the 2020 one. The Right to Food Methodological Toolbox in particular contains a wealth of material regarding all aspects of respecting/protecting/fulfilling and promoting the right to adequate food, further operationalized in handbooks and other material [3]. The report should find a way to expose this material as a must for anyone interested in operationalising human rights, besides surely another wealth of material increasingly available from civil society and field experiences. 

Food security and the right to food

The important 2020 HLPE report with its narrative towards 2030, has done much to revitalize the discussion on food security, also committing explicitly to human rights. The addition of agency and sustainability to the four food security components is logical and timely and has been welcomed by many (including this author) but met with scepticism by others who are happy to leave the definition as it was. The one weakness both of the four-pillar model and the now ,expanded six-pillar model as proposed, is that neither include ‘adequacy’ which is basic to the right to food as expressed in international law. The new report may perhaps bring this up, since the parameters of adequacy of the (nutritionally, safety-wise and) are pertinent to inequalities in dietary patterns and consumption. 

As regards the official normative basis of the right to food, adequacy is central, as is sustainability related to availability – both elaborated in GC12, besides accessibility: economic, physical and (added later) social. Since the human rights values or principles of conduct of duties and obligations were factored into the right to food concept some years later than GC12, participation represented part of the agency concept, but then in terms of peoples’ participation only. Thus, the right to food could well be further elaborated to encompass agency in terms of states’ and their institutions’ capacities and resources etc., for embarking on integral human rights-based approaches. 


[1] As also underscored by the response from EU to this consultation “as being rooted in the EU’s commitments to promote and protect human rights as the principles of non-discrimination and equality are complementing principles of international human rights law”.

[2] Originally selected from “The Human Rights Based Approach to Development Cooperation. Towards a Common Understanding Among UN Agencies, September 2003, UNSDG Working Group on Human Rights.

[3] See: