Is there a right to food? Notes for November 7

Main points

We were treated to a discussion of the right to food by special guest star number two: Professor Williams. She addressed three broad questions.

  1. Why has discussion of the right to food waned in the twentieth century?
  2. How do different images of hungry or poor people affect us?
  3. What might an enforceable right to food look like?

History lesson

Professor Williams gave us a number of examples of pre-modern societies that were clearly deeply involved in ensuring food production and distribution for their members. In the modern period of European history, there are plenty of examples of rebellions caused by changes in the food supply and radical thinkers who were interested in access to agricultural land.

In the twentieth century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) includes a right to food.

Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

But while the UDHR was adopted in 1948, the right to food was not discussed much before the 1990s. Why is that?

Professor Williams suggested that it is because we think of famine primarily as a symptom of underdevelopment. So we treat development as the fundamental issue and assume that hunger will be taken care of if we get development right. I gather that she disagrees with this diagnosis. She referred to the work of people who believe famines have political causes or, at least, political solutions, apart from economic development. For example, Amartya Sen maintains that democracies do not suffer from famines even in very poor countries.** For example, Amartya Sen, “Quality of Life: India vs. China,” New York Review of Books, May 12, 2011, §5. See also this general review of his work and this application of it to Africa. This suggests that instituting a democratic state would be a good way to address a major cause of hunger.

The Cold War also played a role, at least at the level of high politics and diplomacy. The United States was very enthusiastic about the so-called civil and political rights in the Universal Declaration, at least in part because they could be used to make the case that the Soviet Union violates human rights (which was true). The Soviet Union championed the so-called social and economic rights, since that is what communism promised to address (which it only sort of did). The United States found these rights less congenial and so tended to downplay them (to its shame).

What would a right to food involve?

The session closed with some discussion of what a right to food would involve. Here, I think it would be helpful to distinguish moral and legal rights. I think we were pretty well agreed on the case for a moral right to food. There were some questions about whether it would be best characterized as a negative or a positive right and corresponding questions about who bears the duties corresponding to the right. We’ll take those up next time. I think those are largely questions about the details. That’s why I say I think we were agreed about the moral right: we just have to do some work to spell out precisely what we believe.

It’s less clear what system of legal rights and duties would be desirable for enforcing the moral right to food. Professor Williams noted examples of acts that are regarded as crimes under the law of war. She suggested that there might be a similar case for treating land acquisition as a criminal act under international law. If a company buys land and displaces nomads who use it as a source of food, why isn’t that the same as cutting off non-combatants’ food supply in a war? She also explored the possibility that government officials could be held personally liable under the civil law for errors that lead to disruptions of their society’s food supply.

Your correspondent has reservations about these particular suggestions. But he hastens to add that it should be possible to develop adequate legal rights to protect what strikes him as a clear moral right.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted November 7, 2012.
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