The Right to Food

Interview with Wenche Barth Eide, Emerita at University of Oslo

Experts' corner - 15.11.2019

Today we talked with Wenche Barth Eide, Emerita at University of Oslo and pioneer in giving content to the right to adequate food as human right.


In the definition of human right to adequate food, what does adequacy imply?

Wenche Barth Eide:Whenever somebody has the right to something, there must be somebody who has the duty to help realize that right.

States, or rather Member States of the UN that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), are obliged to do things. People think that the right and the obligation of the state is to feed people. Of course not, that is the totally misunderstanding. We can think of three levels of engagements.

State must respect people´s rights, and if they are happy with what they are doing and how they are getting their food, either through production or procurement, there is no reason for the State to do anything.

Next level is that State must protect these ways of doing things to get food and protect against the third parties (some actors or agents that can interfere with these ways of accessing food).

The third level is to help fulfil the right. But even in that case it is split between the constructive facilitation, this means to help people do better than what they do. Or when people have no means, the State must provide assets. This framework is very important because of the misunderstandings about States´ responsibilities.

What is the meaning of duty bearers and rights holders?

WE: The right as laid down in international human rights law is not to food but to adequate food. We have come to shorten it by the right to food.
This is because you can not talk about any food: people have their culture, habits, it is a social and cultural issue. It has to have nutritional value.

It should be enough and it should be qualitatively good from a nutritional point of view which is responding to physical needs.

But more than that, it should be safe and it should be cultural acceptable, because this really links very much to people´s cultural identity.

Another part of that adequacy is the way you acquire It has to be there regularly and you can access it. But you also have to have economic means. So sustainable access is a very important part.

This has been said in the General Comment on the Right to Food, which has been established by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

Which obligations do States have in regards to the role of business in food systems?

WE: Business do not have obligations, because they are outside the state. They are not supposed to ratify the conventions.
But as a substitute of that lacking possibility to give them obligations, UN has developed the so called Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Business that want to contribute to human rights they must respect human rights, they must not do things that can interfere with people´s rights. That means that they have to look at what they are doing and if there are some negative impacts.

The Principles are also related to States, which have obligations to protect people from such a negative impact that might concern.

So it is set of principles in two layers, for business and for states. More and more there are now business that are looking at that seriously.

We are of course particularly interested in the food industry, but also in other industries that can do things that affect people´s food. 


About Wenche Barth Eide

Wenche Barth Eide is an Emerita at the University of Oslo in the Department of Nutrition. Her special interests are the global dimensions of nutrition. She has been among the pioneers in giving content to the right to adequate food as human right. She was Co-Director of the International Project of the Right to Food in Development (IPRFD) and Co-Chair of the Working Group in Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights of the UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN). Wenche served for several years as the first technical adviser in nutrition to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. She has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the IFPRI. She holds a Master's Degree of Zoology from the University of Oslo and a Postgraduate Academic Diploma in Nutrition from the University of London.

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