A rights-based global food system

Photo: Reuters

With the world’s human population expected to reach a staggering ten billion in the next century, the question of how to achieve food security looms large. The current food system is certainly not up to the task: already, it is failing to ensure that the global population is nourished and contributing to environmental degradation. Radical reform is long overdue.

About 735 million people worldwide faced hunger last year. Some 828 million were undernourished, and nearly 148 million children under five were affected by stunting. Lack of access to fresh, nutritious food has also contributed to rising obesity levels in many communities, as people have been forced to turn to unhealthy foods. Obesity raises the risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and hypertension.

Malnutrition in all its forms (underweight, overweight, and micronutrient-deficiency) heightens a person’s vulnerability to infections, fueling a harmful cycle of adverse health outcomes. Meanwhile, the constant struggle to secure adequate nutrition – even to avoid starvation – takes a toll on one’s mental health, leading to anxiety, stress, depression, and more. As a recent United Nations report underscores, the right to food and the right to health are inextricably linked.

The food system is also causing severe environmental harm. It accounts for approximately one-quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions, making it a major driver of climate change. Moreover, agriculture takes up nearly half of the world’s habitable land. Areas once occupied by lush forests and other wild terrain – including significant swaths of the Amazon rainforest, which is critical to planetary health – have been cleared to make room for farming, with devastating consequences for biodiversity.

The problem is compounded by the widespread use of pesticides, which are linked – even at relatively low exposure – to multiple adverse health and environmental consequences for agricultural workers and local communities and ecosystems. The contamination of the Pasión River in Guatemala with malathion, a pesticide used on palm-oil plantations, led to the death of thousands of fish, depriving some 12,000 people of their primary source of food and the basis of their livelihood.

The consequences of the food system’s failings are felt disproportionately by the poor and marginalized, especially in the Global South. Malnutrition is particularly prevalent in low-income settings or among individuals living in poverty. In high-income countries such as Australia, the risk of obesity among indigenous people is as much as 1.5 times higher than it is for non-indigenous people in comparable areas.

It does not help that 60% of the global proprietary seed market is controlled by four agrochemical companies based in high-income countries. The seeds provided by these firms – on which farmers in low-income countries depend – are often for crops that are not nutritionally diverse or do not meet the dietary needs of local communities.

The current system is clearly not fit for purpose. But efforts to improve it are fundamentally inadequate, as they do not account for the deep linkages among food, health, and the environment. Rather than tackling each issue separately, a better approach would be grounded in human rights. Recognizing that the rights to health, food, and a clean environment are indivisible and interdependent would advance all three in tandem. As the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights affirms, all people deserve access not only to health facilities, but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as nutritious food and a sustainable environment.

The first step is a comprehensive UN treaty on food systems that accounts for all relevant rights and actors, and mitigates health and environmental harms that arise along the entire food value chain. Such a treaty must reflect the needs and priorities of low-income countries and vulnerable groups, such as people experiencing poverty, displaced people, and women and children. It must incorporate local knowledge about the entire food system, from production, processing, and packaging to promotion, distribution, sale, and consumption. In engaging local communities, the NOURISHING policy framework, developed by the World Cancer Research Fund International, could offer valuable lessons.

With soaring food prices having propelled hunger to the top of the global agenda, the world has a golden opportunity to adopt a human-rights-based approach to food and lay the groundwork for a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable future.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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Oyinlola Oyebode is Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University of London. Yureshya Perera is a research assistant at the University of Warwick. Tlaleng Mofokeng is Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University. Sharifah Sekalala is Professor