By Dr Elizabeth Kimani-Murage
Just a decade to 2030, in September 2019, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General called for a decade of action to ensure transformations needed to meet the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030.
One of the central pillars for global development captured by the SDGs agenda is the right to food, as the second SDG aims at ending hunger, food insecurity, and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.
The right to food, which is a human right recognised under global, regional and national legal frameworks, protects the right of all human beings to feed themselves in dignity through food production or purchase.
The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), General Comment No. 12, stipulates the State’s obligations regarding the right to adequate food: to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. It notes that the duty to fulfil incorporates both a responsibility to facilitate and provide.
Further, it specifies the need to give attention to socially vulnerable groups such as landless people and other impoverished groups through special programs. It also prescribes that States should consider adopting a framework law to facilitate their national strategies regarding the right to food.
However, despite these policy efforts and longstanding recognition of the right to food since 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world is still hungry. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report (SOFI Report 2021), a third of the global population is food insecure, meaning they cannot access adequate, safe, and nutritious food that promotes healthy and sustainable health livelihoods.
In Africa, over half of the population is food insecure. And in Kenya, where the right to food has been constitutionalised for over a decade now, more than two-thirds (36 million people) are food insecure.
This State of affairs is attributable to the dominant global food systems that value food as a commodity – produced, processed, transported, and marketed to add value before it reaches consumers. However, it hardly gets to the majority of the population due to the cost.
Defective Food Systems
As indicated by Hilal Elver, the former UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in 2014,
“the modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource-intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilisers, and based on massive production.”
These systems are dominantly industry-focused and increase food production through high-yield based on non-sustainable and environmentally unfriendly food production practices. However, the irony is that the high yield does not necessarily mean that the system can feed all, as many vulnerable people cannot afford the food.
This notion of food being a commodity mainly provided through the market mechanism results in a lot of food wastage, inequity in accessing food, environmental degradation and diet-related chronic diseases. Often, smallholder farmers who feed the world are themselves food insecure, unable to afford the very commodity they have produced.
It is evident that the dominant food systems are non-resilient, weak and unsustainable. The current COVID-19 global pandemic has further confirmed this assertion, as exemplified by a recent shocking media report of a woman in Kenya cooking stones for her children at the height of the pandemic.
Going by this business-as-usual trend, we will not achieve the 2030 goals or ever actualise the right to food. It is time for a paradigm shift to value food differently by embracing resilient, sustainable, human-centred and environment-friendly food production and distribution mechanisms.
These may include agro-ecological food production systems and indigenous food systems; universal food distribution systems, e.g. universal school feeding programs and social protection mechanisms to cushion the vulnerable.
New policy shift
Currently, there are on going efforts to change the status quo. Among the new approaches at the global level is the Universal Food Access (UFA), proposed under Action Track 5, Area 2 of the UN Food System Summit 2021. With the right to food as its backbone, this new narrative aims to reframe the food systems to be more resilient, inclusive, just, and sustainable. It emphasises three significant areas.
Firstly, that food should be considered a public good and under the custody of the State. The State should regulate it on behalf of the citizens and provide to the needy through State organised social protection mechanisms such as food banks not to leave anyone behind.
Secondly, food should be respected as a human right that everyone is entitled to according to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It should no longer be a reserve of only those who can afford it. The State should uphold the obligation to protect, respect and fulfil the right to food. States should institute framework laws to guide the actualisation of the right to food as envisaged in the Declaration.
Thirdly, food should be appreciated as a common good provided through community collective actions and traditions. For example, in Africa, communities should be encouraged and supported to uphold the spirit of Ubuntu – I am because we are – through food sharing. Food rescue systems that enable food sharing to promote equity and reduce food waste should be supported.
The Universal Food Access Policy will ensure equity in food distribution, leaving no one behind in line with the 2030 sustainable development agenda.
Dr. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage is a Senior Research Scientist & Head, Maternal & Child Wellbeing Unit at the African Population and Health Research Center