The Right to Food

The right to food, cornerstone towards sustainable systems

Experts' corner - 26.05.2021

This opinion article by Juan Carlos García y Cebolla, FAO Right to Food Team Leader, was published in El Pais on 20th May 2021. The following text is a translation of the original text in Spanish.


In 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General launched the process that will culminate in 2021 in a global summit to mobilize public opinion, to reach commitments and to take action for a sustainable transformation of food systems. The aim is that food systems fulfil their mission to facilitate access to adequate diets for the entire population, helping to restore the health of the planet and social equity, and to guarantee the right to adequate food for all people.

World food production - at least as far as the energy intake of the diets is concerned - has comfortably kept pace with vast population growth. In fact, this growth has sustained the vertiginous expansion of the population -which has showed a fourfold increase over the last 100 years-, through a technological process that has profoundly changed agriculture, livestock raising, fishing and aquaculture, as well as the processing, transportation, conservation, logistics, business and value chain management systems. This has laid bare the finiteness of our planet’s resources, to the extent that the viability of humankind is at risk.

In the last millennium, land area has undergone a land use change of 75%, and even in the last 60 years it has been to the order of 17%. The food system as a whole, from farm to fork, is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as being linked with 80% of biodiversity loss and 80% of deforestation.

In the last century, food systems globalization has. This has mitigated the effects of poor harvests on the stability of supplies and the diversification of the variety of foods in many countries. But at the same time, the increasing disconnection of this chain has made it difficult to incorporate the social and environmental costs, with the consequent impact in terms of efficiency, justice and sustainability.

In 2019, 750 million people experienced severe food insecurity and nearly 2 billion did not have regular access to a sufficient quantity of safe and nutritious products. It is estimated that at least 3 billion people do not have enough income to be able to eat a diet that includes the diversity and composition necessary for a healthy life. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the number of hungry people by 130 million. Nevertheless, in the face of this alarming data, a third of the food produced continues to be lost or wasted.

In this context, the annual growth rate of obesity in the adult population is 2.6%, a trend common to all parts of the world and which also affects children. At the same time, non-communicable diet-related diseases are rising rapidly. For example, the figures for type 2 diabetes have increased from 4% to 6% of the world's population in 25 years, and could affect 7% in 2030.

Between 2015 and 2019, almost 400 human rights defenders were killed and another thirty disappeared on average each year. Two thirds of these cases are connected with the defense of land rights, the rights of indigenous peoples or the environment, and in turn largely relate to natural resources.

The structures continue to be sustained with gender inequality. Women represent 43% of the agricultural workforce, but only 15% of the title holders or land owners. Women and girls perform 75% of the unpaid care work, take care of 85% of domestic food preparation, and spend two and a half times more than men on unpaid work in the home.

The dynamics of past decades have contributed to, and in some cases increased, negative impacts on human rights. Without a profound transformation of food systems, we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In other words, we will not be able to establish the foundations to ensure the health of the planet, and a shared future in peace and equity.

A challenge of this scale requires a strong political will, rooted in a social contract that is valid for all. Only with this approach will it be possible to make three essential changes to achieve this transformation.

First, redirect economic flows so that they incorporate social and environmental costs. Second, incorporate territorial approaches so that the economic, the environmental and the way of life can find solutions to their contradictions, without leaving anyone behind. Third, redefine the governance of food systems and its related aspects (such as intellectual property, the use of the genome or access to information) to balance out the asymmetries introduced by technological changes or economic concentration.

Concrete agreements are also required that allow all stakeholders to look at the future and to feel a sense of justice. A challenge that is not easy, but it is possible. Human rights provide the framework for this social contract to become a reality. The right to feed oneself in dignity makes it possible to anchor concrete proposals in standards that ensure the inclusion of all.

The Food Systems Summit will be only the starting point for this transformation. Its success will depend on strong and comprehensive agreements, supported by a monitoring system with easily understandable indicators that target structural causes. A success that implies a sustained and collaborative process over several decades to make changes in economic flows, the balance between the local and the global, and governance. Only in this way, can present and future generations enjoy their right to an adequate diet.

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