The Right to Food

It should go without saying that everyone in Canada has the right to food. However, despite Canada’s wealth and many resources, food insecurity and hunger are major problems. One in eight Canadian households struggle to put food on the table, nearly 375,000 people in Ontario used a food bank in a single month, and a staggering 62% of children living in the North are food insecure.

Food insecurity is a term given to the predicament of not having enough food to eat or having to eat lower nutritional quality food, typically as a result of economic hardship. It is closely connected to the right to food, which is a human right. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has produced General Comment 12 which declares that: “the right to food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

International Human Rights Instruments

The right to food is enshrined in various international human rights instruments beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Article 25 states 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.” This principle is echoed in Article 24 (2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Preamble of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which have all been signed and ratified by Canada.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) goes into the most detail regarding the right to food. It clearly recognizes the “fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” and calls on States (governments) to utilize the best methods of food production, conservation and distribution of food and nutritional knowledge for the benefit of all people.

There are also a number of non-binding international instruments that tackle the right to food, such as the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security, the United Nations Declaration on Social Progress and Development and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Governmental Obligations

A common misunderstanding about the right to food is that it is equivalent to a right to be fed; that is, that governments are obligated to give out food to everyone. This is inaccurate. The reality is that governments have the obligation to allow people to feed themselves as part of living a dignified life.

Those governments that have ratified the ICESCR (including Canada) have specific obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the progressive realization of the right to adequate food. This includes, at the minimum level, ensuring the right to be free from hunger but also the right to have access — both physically and economically — to adequately nutritious food.

The obligation to respect requires governments to not take action that would restrict existing access to adequate food. The obligation to protect requires governments to make sure that third party organizations or individuals do not interfere with existing access to adequate food. Finally, the obligation to fulfill means that governments have to take actions to facilitate access to adequate food, including through access to resources and improving livelihoods to allow economic access to food.

The idea of a progressive realization is crucial, for it highlights both the immediate and long-term responsibilities that governments have to fulfill the right to food. Article 2 of the ICESCR details this right and concludes that “the adoption of legislative measures” is a particularly desirable course of action. It also states that the progressive realization of the right to food must be to taken to the maximum of the State’s resources.

The Right to Food and Poverty

There is a direct link between living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity, since access to food is a major problem for many individuals and families living in poverty. Poverty and food insecurity and hunger are violations of fundamental human rights. As the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated:

“The Committee affirms that the right to food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. It is also inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels, oriented to the eradication of poverty and the fulfilment of all human rights for all.”

Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Canada was visited in May 2012 by then-Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. He visited due largely to growing concern over access to adequate and affordable food in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. While in Canada, De Schutter met with government officials, social justice and community organizations, and individuals struggling with food insecurity.

Photo from the Toronto Star
Photo from the Toronto Star

He reported that Canada was not meeting its international human rights obligations and presented his findings to the United Nations on March 4, 2013. The report commended Canada on the work it has done to improve human rights both domestically and internationally; however, there were also conclusions about the reality of food insecurity in Canada and recommendations about how to bring Canada up to the standards set out in the ICESCR and other instruments. First, the report concluded that there is a great need for a national food strategy/policy to unify the various federal, provincial and municipal initiatives that already exist. It outlined several ways in which the food strategy could help Canada moving forward, such as allowing for long-term food issue planning, more accurate monitoring systems, and improved coordination of resources between different levels of government.  Further, the report professed De Schutter’s concern over the social protection system as it relates to food accessibility, the unique food challenges experienced by Indigenous people in Canada, and agricultural policies across the country.

The Canadian government issued a response to De Schutter’s report which challenges many of his recommendations and conclusions. Several Canadian civil society and human rights organizations — including Canada Without Poverty, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Amnesty International Canada, the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, Action Canada on Population and Development, and Food Secure Canada — then released a separate response, supporting De Schutter’s mission to Canada and his recommendations to improve food security.