The right to dignity; the right to food

For our International Development blog, Ellen discusses the right to adequate and affordable food.

Masters student blog series: Ideas and practice in International Development

By Ellen Potter

Ellen is a student on our MA International Development. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

As the Coronavirus pandemic overpasses the two-year mark, the dramatic increase in foodbank usage has cast a spotlight on the issue of food insecurity. As the right to food is enshrined in international law, people’s reliance on the charitable sector to feed themselves falls under a violation of a fundamental human right as defined by the UN, as the state has failed to fulfil people’s right to adequate and affordable food. 

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Foodbank use during Covid-19. Available from BBC News 

Charitable responses to food poverty work to depoliticise food insecurity, presenting responses to hunger on a basis of need and benevolence (Dowler and O’Connor, 2012). A rights-based approach (RBA) brings food insecurity back into the political realm, framing food security as the responsibility of the state and the right of individuals. Using human rights as a benchmark for development empowers right-holders to establish their claims, and ensures duty-bearers are held accountable (Tura, 2019). Such an approach to food insecurity aims to create enabling environments in which people can feed themselves rather than relying on charitable goodwill. 

Although the world produces enough food to feed its population, a global food system built upon unequal power relations distorts access to that supply (Ramanujam, et al., 2015). Within this neoliberal economic system, food, despite being essential to human life, has become a commodity and thus subject to the dynamics and failures of the market. This means the world poorest are excluded from accessing consistent and adequate food due to a lack of sufficient income. Strategies addressing food insecurity and putting an end to hunger must seek to question the power asymmetry and inequality upon which the global food system exists. 

Taking a transgressive RBA in challenging this system is La Via Campesina, a grassroots peasant movement originating from South America. Via Campesina opposes large-scale agri-business and the neoliberal policies that fuel it. Spokesperson Saul Vicente Vasquez, from the Indigenous Peoples constituency, says "there is no dignity without adequate food and the right to adequate food is an essential human right". Realising this right and the right to dignity, Via Campesina has developed a ‘food sovereignty’ model to counteract the dominant capitalist framework (Rosset and Martinez, 2010). Presented as the solution to food insecurity, food sovereignty is defined as the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems and their right to produce and consume culturally appropriate and healthy food. This framework connects the right to food to the right to decide how that food is produced. 

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La Via Campesina 20th anniversary conference. Available from Flickr 

Traditional RBAs have been criticised for focusing on state responsibility and neglecting the wider structural causes of problems such as food insecurity (Claeys, 2015). Via Campesina challenges such a notion, addressing the global neoliberal food system by enabling government bodies to gain greater regulatory power in their food policy. The democratic discourse of food sovereignty also focuses on the empowerment of individuals and communities to increase their agency and gain control over their food consumption. Empowered by the food sovereignty movement, small-scale farmers in Bolivia have been successful in gaining their own voice within the country’s agricultural policy, which now prioritises local production (Larking, 2019).

Through empowerment and participation, a RBA helps to rethink food insecurity, reframing food not as a commodity, but as a fundamental human right. 


Claeys, P. (2015) Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control. London, New York: Routledge.

Dowler, E. and O’Connor, D. (2012) ‘Rights-based approaches to addressing food poverty and food insecruity in Ireland and UK’, Social Science & Medicine, 74(1), pp. 44–51.

Ramanujam, N., Caivano, N. and Abebe, S. (2015) ‘From justiciability to justice: Realizing the human right to food’, The Mcgill international journal of sustainable development law and policy, 11(1), pp. 1–38.

Rosset, P. and Martinez, M. (2010) ‘La Vía Campesina:Tthe birth and evolution of a transnational social movement’, Journal of peasant studies, 37(1), pp. 149–175.

Tura, H. A. (2019) ‘Achieving zero hunger: Implementing a human rights approach to food security in Ethiopia’, Third World Quarterly, 40(9), pp. 1613–1633.