The Development Law Service

The role of legislation in reconciling the right to food and the right to a healthy environment 


Thirty percent of the world’s population suffers from food insecurity.[1] At the same time, agrifood systems account for more than thirty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to environmental and ecosystem degradation.[2] The pursuit of environmental protection and the transformation to sustainable agrifood systems to feed the world now and in the future are both legitimate and urgent national and international goals  

Both these goals have, over the years, developed into specific human rights, recognized at the international and national legal levels, namely the right to adequate food, and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Reconciling these rights is not always straightforward, as seen through international and national environmental and other courts that adopt a human rights-based approach, which face this challenge on a regular basis. However, while seemingly irreconcilable, these goals and related human rights are more deeply connected than meets the eye. 

At international level, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has recently recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right.[3] Underlying the recognition of this right is the multi-layer crisis of environmental degradation, climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, and unsustainable development, which has been identified as a serious threat to the ability of present and future generations to effectively enjoy all human rights.[4] In terms of food insecurity, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) long recognizes the right to adequate food, a right which is reflected in many countries’ national constitution and civil rights laws.[5]  

Considering the recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UNGA, its implementation at national constitutional level, where not yet present, is surmisable. In this regard, implementation at national and local level as well as accompanying strategies and frameworks to uphold this right, are important steps in anchoring developments in international law. 

Legislation is important not only for anchoring the right to a healthy environment and the right to adequate food at national level, but also for the operationalization of these rights in practice. Legislation is a tool that can implement national policies and strategies, as well as international legal commitments. It can be designed in such a manner so as to reconcile the right to food and a healthy environment. The interdependencies can be acknowledged through drafting and enacting legislation that sees both not as individual, but as inseparable topics. 

Legislation that has been developed in a participatory and evidence-based manner, is an instrument in which the intersections between the goals of food security, environmental protection and sustainable agrifood systems, can be brought together, and have the best chance of succeeding. This effort need not necessarily be made only in a single piece of legislation, but can be pursued through a more ‘systemic’ legal reform process that looks at legislation in various inter-connected sectors of agriculture and the environment in a holistic manner. Through consultations with all stakeholders, it is possible to find mechanisms in which to address opposing interests based on the will to negotiate and compromise, while addressing national specificities.  

Considering the interconnection of both sets of rights in legislation may even strengthen both rights respectively. A suggested entry point is promoting and mainstreaming the sustainable management of resources through legislation. This could include, for instance, legislative action on agroecology, regenerative climate and biodiversity-smart agriculture, plant protection as well as agroforestry and ecosystem approaches to fisheries and aquaculture practices. For instance, laws on crop diversification, regenerative forest activities, or laws on food loss and waste, could be considered as a means to reconcile both.  

Using these approaches in law could strengthen the fulfilment of the broader human rights framework, combining both the right to a clean and healthy environment, while at the same time working on a shift towards adequate and healthy foods. For instance, agroecology could be a means to work towards a clean and healthy environment by promoting more sustainable farming practices, while at the same time promoting sustainable agrifood systems to guarantee access to healthy and adequate food in the long run. 

Adequate, fair and cross-sectoral governance for natural resource management, Indigenous Peoples rights, gender and climate change, are important in terms of holistic governance, especially since women, children and other vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by environmental disasters and food insecurity. Addressing capacity gaps is critical in order to ensure that fit-for-purpose laws are drafted in accordance with the environmental rule of law. In this regard, evidence-based lawmaking, taking into account all recent climate and socio-economic data to underpin legal reform, is equally important.  

The UNGA Resolution on the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment calls upon States, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders to adopt relevant policies, to enhance international cooperation, strengthen capacity-building and continue to share good practices in order to scale up efforts.[6] It is therefore highly important to consider nature-based solutions at all levels in order to address the dual challenge faced as well as to take every country and situational context into account. 

Considering the interdependence of sustainable agrifood systems and the sustainable management of natural resources, an integrated and evidence-based approach is necessary. Legislation is a tool that can bring stakeholders together in its development, be based on the latest evidence (science and data) and can provide for integrated mechanisms of action and, most importantly in this case, acknowledge the interdependence of themes through drafting that sees both not as individual, but as inseparable topics. As such it is an important potential tool for the reconciliation of the right to food and the right to a healthy environment.  

Protecting the right to foodto achieve zero hunger, especially for vulnerable and rural populations, is a cornerstone of FAO's mandate. This goal cannot be sustainably achieved unless it is pursued hand in hand with environmental and ecosystem protection, and the sustainable management of natural resources. The nexus between the right to food and the right to a healthy environment is therefore inherent in most if not all aspects of FAO's work, and therefore of the Development Law Service.  

FAO is mainstreaming climate change and biodiversity through all its areas of work in order to address the double agrifood systems and climate change nexus. Through the new Strategy on Climate Change, three pillars for enhanced action are addressed, including strengthening global and regional climate change policy and governance. In line with this, the Strategy and Action Plain on Mainstreaming Biodiversity across Agricultural Sectors aims to mainstream biodiversity across all areas, for instance, through Outcome 1, support to FAO Members, at their request, to enhance their capacity to mainstream biodiversity.[7] The FAO Development Law Service of the Legal Office provides assistance to its Members, through targeted legal assistance, mainstreaming biodiversity and climate change, in order to address the sustainable governance of agrifood systems. In this regard, new programmes and initiatives are underway, including a program to address and combine the nexus in looking at the sustainable governance of natural resources and agrifood systems, taking an integrated, science-based and human rights-based approach. 

Helena Lindemann (FAO) and Valerie Johnston (FAO)

[1] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. In Brief to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO, p. 16. 

[2] Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D. et al. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nat Food 2, 198–209 (2021).

[3] Article 1, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly A/RES/76/ (UNGA Resolution).

[4] Preamble, UNGA Resolution.

[5] As seen for instance in Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba, all of which countries have incorporated the right to food into their national constitutions.

[6] Article 4, UNGA Resolution A/RES/76. 

[7] FAO. 2020. FAO Strategy on Mainstreaming Biodiversity across Agricultural Sectors. Rome, p.6.