The Right to Food

The right to food is a basic human right with a corresponding set of government obligations. The right is codified and protected in several international agreements, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Governments that have ratified the Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including to adequate food, as well as a fundamental right to be free from hunger.

The right to food is not the right to be fed. Rather, according to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is the right to “have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The right to food encompasses the concepts of availability, accessibility, and adequacy of food. In essence, people must be able to either grow their own food, or to earn a livelihood that allows them to purchase food.

Governments that have ratified international instruments protecting the right to food have three types of related obligations:  they must respect, protect, and fulfil the right to food. To respect it, governments must not impede people’s existing access to food and productive resources. To protect it, governments must stop third parties from doing so. And to fulfil it, governments must work to strengthen people’s ability to grow or purchase food. In addition, in certain situations, such as detention or armed conflict, governments must provide food directly. These three types of obligations provide a framework for analyzing governments’ laws, policies, and actions.

Want to know more about the right to food?

  • Read the sample chapter, “Accounting for Hunger: An Introduction to the Issues,” from Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in the Era of Globalisation (Hart, Fall 2011), available on this page.
  • Visit the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food’s website for background information, as well as official and unofficial reports on the right to food.
  • Read General Comment 12, by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which defines the normative content of the right to food and lays out related government obligations and suggestions for implementation.
  • Look at Circle of Rights’ training module on the right to food, which provides concise and simple explanations of the right and what it requires. (Circle of Rights: Economic, Social & Cultural Rights Activism: A Training Resource (International Human Rights Internship Program and Forum-Asia, 2000)).
  • Explore the website of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Right to Food Unit, which offers a range of publications on the right to food around the world.

Still curious about the right to food? Find relevant Righting Food articles here.