Let’s be pragmatic. Real people need access to food under conditions that enable them to retain their human dignity. One’s access to food affects one’s entire fabric of life. Access to food in human dignity is a question of human rights. Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) uses the term, “right to feed oneself,” which does not mean an individual’s right to sustenance but rather, the individual’s right to freedom and dignity in cooperating with others and with nature to obtain food.
But what use are rights when food is unavailable, as during a famine? This is very instructive, because we must understand that most famines occur when rights are being violated. Most often, food in and of itself is not the problem nor are physical circumstances, such as a countrywide drought. People are deprived of food because they are deprived of access to it, such as the reports in this issue on Sudan indicate very strongly. There are other examples as well. Brazilian street children may have to break the law to obtain food and may lose their lives in the process. Bonded Indian laborers may have to work for food as virtual slaves. Pakistani prisoners’ access to food may depend entirely on their wardens. Peasants throughout the world may have to defend the land on which they raise crops against land grabbing or against agricultural policies that drive them to hunger and despair. Research has shown that some famines have coincided with increases in food supply to the affected region, although not to the poor and hungry.
It is thus not scarcity that leads to insufficient access to food, but the denial of access to food-producing resources and work. Who produces the food and for whom? Food is increasingly being produced in order to maximize the return on investments in food production. Food is produced for the rich in a global supermarket to which the poor, because they are so poor, have no access. Access to food in dignity means the freedom to be employed, perhaps self-employed, in agriculture or industry; it means the availability of work under conditions which are as just and fair as reasonably possible.
Adapted from FIAN 1996, Twelve Misconceptions about the Right to Food as a Human Right. Heidelberg: FIAN International Secretariat.