A Human-Rights Approach to the Global Food Crisis

An estimated 258 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2022, the highest number on record since the Global Report on Food Crises began reporting data in 2017
Photo: © Depositphotos/DredK

When former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019, one of his first acts in office was to abolish the National Food and Nutrition Security Council (CONSEA), a globally lauded body that had significantly reduced food insecurity. It was a huge step back for the country, which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had removed from its “hunger map” in 2014.

People immediately mobilized to protest Bolsonaro’s decision, including by organizing impressive public meals held on the streets of many cities – a national banquetaço. Gathered around tables laden with healthy food, communities’ resistance simultaneously celebrated and reclaimed the right to adequate food and nutrition.

Many also strengthened their political commitment, calling for a process of permanent mobilization over the four years of Bolsonaro’s rule through the People’s Conference on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security, which meets every four years to monitor policies and develop proposals based on a thorough analysis at local and national levels. Immediately after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president in January, he reinstated CONSEA, which one of us (Recine) heads and which will meet the people’s conference later this year to hear proposals.

This spirit of resistance – if replicated elsewhere – could transform food systems worldwide and ease the global hunger crisis that the pandemic, climate shocks, and conflict have exacerbated. As UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, another of us (Fakhri) attributed rising rates of hunger to “systemic violence and structural inequality in food systems,” which are “a central feature of a global economy that is supported by relationships of dependence among individuals, countries, international financial institutions, and corporations.”

An estimated 258 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2022, the highest number on record since the Global Report on Food Crises began reporting data in 2017. In his introduction to this year’s GRFC report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the current crisis required “fundamental, systemic change.”

An approach based on human-rights principles is essential to bringing about this change. In Brazil, the scandalous increase in food insecurity during Bolsonaro’s presidency resulted from policies that neglected marginalized people and violated their rights. As a result, the newly reinstated CONSEA is advocating for policies that fight hunger and address its root causes such as structural racism and gender inequalities. We cannot continue supporting unsustainable food systems that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few.

The UN’s Right to Food Guidelines, adopted by FAO in 2004, outline how to address the structural causes of discrimination and inequality in food systems. These guidelines pioneered the implementation of economic, social, and cultural human rights and have inspired countless national policies and legal reforms. They also sparked the development of a full body of human rights-based norms and policies adopted by the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the UN General Assembly, and other UN agencies, including for womenpeasantsindigenous peoplesfishers, and other constituencies.

In Brazil, national and international efforts have translated these principles into a suite of domestic policies and programs aimed at overcoming gender and racial discrimination, ensuring decent incomes and social protection, and securing the land and water rights of women, peasants, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, and fishers. These efforts have also resulted in agroecology and food-sovereignty initiatives that actively involve civil-society groups and ordinary citizens, as well as school-meal programs sourced from family farms.

But Brazil is far from being an outlier: other governments are enacting similar reforms. Local, regional, and national food-policy councils are being established globally, and parliamentary alliances are working to enact right-to-food legislation in many countries.

Scaling up these efforts will require significantly greater policy coordination among all levels of government. The UN Human Rights Council and the CFS have stressed the need for a coordinated response to the ongoing food crisis. But, at the same time, civil society, indigenous peoples, and academics have warned against the corporate capture of food governance and called for a UN-wide corporate accountability framework.

There is growing momentum for change ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will be commemorated in December. And the right to adequate food and nutrition, in particular, could be at the top of the agenda. In late June, the German government will host the “Policies against Hunger” conference; this year’s edition will focus on rights-based approaches to the transformation of food systems. With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights having proposed a human-rights economy, and with Brazil preparing to assume the G20’s rotating presidency in 2024, we may see ambitious proposals to advance the right to food internationally.

Food systems’ profound inequality, structural discrimination, and systemic violence have persisted for too long, and ordinary citizens around the world are demanding change. A transformation on this scale requires close collaboration between the diverse mix of people who are engaging in creative forms of resistance, as well as progressive governments that are ready to listen to them and represent their interests. Respect for human rights must form the basis of any effort to reduce acute hunger. It is the only way to create a sustainable and equitable system that provides adequate food for all.

Michael Fakhri is UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Elisabetta Recine is President of the Brazilian National Food and Nutrition Security Council (CONSEA)

Sofia Monsalve is Secretary-General of FIAN International

© Project Syndicate 1995-2023 

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