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II. The Move towards a Human Dignity Approach to Food Security



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II. The Move towards a Human Dignity Approach to Food Security


Food security was traditionally viewed as a matter of ensuring aggregate per capita food availability. This remained the predominant approach until the 1970’s28 and until then international and national efforts focused on growing more food and reducing population rates to sustainable levels.29 From 1975 onwards, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) began to argue that “malnutrition is not simply a problem of food availability, but also a function of poverty and deprivation”30 while Amartya Sen similarly suggested that “[s]tarvation is a matter of some people not having enough food to eat” and not the characteristic of “there being not enough food to eat”.31 This resulted in a shift away from viewing food insecurity as a problem of shortages in aggregate food supply towards needing to address gaps in people’s access to available food. Discourses on hunger and famine are now sensitive to socio-economic particularities as well as political contexts.32

There is now a general consensus that food insecurity at the global level is a function of poverty rather than food scarcity. For example, studies have pointed out that the 2008 food crisis coincided with “bumper cereal harvests in major food producing nations and with hefty profits by the transnational corporations that dominate global food and agro-chemical markets.”33 In its 2009 report on the State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, the FAO identified rapid economic growth and the subsequent increase in demand for food, especially feed grain due to higher meat consumption, as one of the reasons behind the 2008 food price hikes.34 Consequently, it is suggested that the food crisis was provoked “primarily by escalating demand” rather than shrinking supply as the “world’s food supply has kept pace with population growth for several decades”, yet “many households are simply too poor to purchase the food that is available.”35

As the traditional view on food security as an issue of insufficient food availability weakens, the entitlements approach, which focuses on ensuring sufficient access to food, has now become widely accepted in international circles. The right to food has been recognised under international law since 1948 when the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights first acknowledged that everyone has “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food”.36 The right to food would later be confirmed by the International Covenant of Economic, Cultural and Social Rights37 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child which obliges State Parties to “take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition…through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water.”38 In the late 1990s the concept of the right to food further “gained heightened political and ideological significance”39 with the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In 2005, the FAO adopted a set of 19 Voluntary Guidelines which specified how member states should ensure their right to food obligations are met.40 In addition to these moves at the international level, the past decade has “also witnessed a surge in interest in the domestic enforceability of the human right to food” as domestic laws are increasingly beginning to incorporate the right to food.41

Yet, there is also an increasingly urgent need to go beyond an approach which focuses exclusively on the right to food, as the issue of food security faces new challenges as access to food progressively becomes a function of economic inequality and poverty rather than overall food scarcity. Poverty alleviation has taken place at a faster rate than the reduction of food insecurity as people who lack access to sufficient food and nutrients are often the poorest of the poor, with limited or no access to physical and financial assets and little or no education. A rights based approach hinges on the ability to utilize the remedies available under the human rights and legal system which itself requires “a significant degree of understanding of that system, and the resources and skills to advocate for the rights that are breached.”42 When it comes to access to food, ironically it is “those most in need of assistance” that are “often least able to access such a system.”43

In 1989, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze pushed the global community to think about the ultimate end goal of the human capability to “avoid undernourishment and escape deprivations associated with hunger.”44 This approach extends beyond mere access to food and gives consideration also to broader issues such as nutrition, sanitation, healthcare and basic education. However, unlike the entitlements approach, the capabilities approach to food security remains under-utilized in both research and policy making on food security. This has been attributed to the lack of clear guidelines on how such an approach can be used in practice.45

This paper seeks to reinforce a human dignity centred focus as the right to food is “a hollow concept unless it is linked to the question of whether people are able to exercise, agitate and act to ensure this right is met”.46 A human dignity centred approach shifts the focus on abstract legal obligations and rights to framing “the issue of food security within a broader conceptualisation of people’s lives” as “it is the conduct of those lives, not the particularities of the food system, which should be the focal point of inquiry.”47 Pritchard has suggested that a capabilities approach begins by “identifying the gap between people’s capabilities and their functioning’s” in order to assess the effectiveness of “rights based initiatives by looking outwards from the lived realities of people, so that analytical efforts are anchored to their substantiation, not their promise.’48 Ramanujam, Caivano and Abebe have put forward a justice-based framework which is premised on the idea that human freedoms and capabilities to access available rights to food can be reinforced by strengthening institutions, improving access to justice, empowering rights holders and supporting food sovereignty.49 It looks to what concrete processes exist in regards to empowerment, participation, accountability and transparency which recognises that the “process of gradual realization food security, at its core, is one of identifying duty bearers and empowering claim holders to hold them accountable.”50 Thus, a justice-based framework “calls on states to not only enforce human rights, but to facilitate access to remedies and resources, thereby striving towards a vision of systemic social justice.”51 In a similar vein, the FAO has emphasized the importance of inclusive growth and social protection mechanisms that promote income security, more equitable access to food and better nutrition, health care and education.52

Over the past four decades, the definition of food security has shifted to reflect the growing importance placed on access to food and human capabilities. In 1974, the World Food Conference used the definition of food security as the “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuff to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”. Two decades later, the new definition put forward at the 1996 World Food Summit stipulated that food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. This definition of food security from a production centred to social centred perspective has “progressed hand in glove” with the shift to the capability approach and a rights based perspective.53 Consequently, the current approach to food security now has three separate pillars – food availability, food access and food use. The first pillar centres on ensuring that sufficient quantities of food are available on a consistent basis. The second pillar on food access involves having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet. The third pillar on food use further advises that sufficient availability and access to food should be accompanied by appropriate knowledge on the use of food regarding basic nutrition and adequate sanitation.


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