The global food system through a human rights lens

The way in which humans have commodified food, profiting from a natural resource that is fundamentally integral to human existence, reflects the gaping inequalities which exist in the world, the complexity of global power relations and the lack of genuine political will to address structural factors which lead to malnutrition and hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates reveal that since the 1996 World Food Summit commitment to halve the number of undernourished people on the planet by 2015, the number has increased from 824 to 870 million. At the same time obesity levels have almost doubled since 1980.

Surely this should lead to political questions over whether the right means are being used to tackle such systemic issues? We have the technological and geological capacity to produce more than enough food to provide every human on this planet with the nutrition they require to live a dignified life, and yet due to conflicting agendas and unsustainable methods of production and distribution, over 870 million people in the world remain undernourished and around 40% of all food is wasted. This is a humiliating reminder of the skewed ‘progress’ the world has made, where systems which should be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders, ultimately benefit the affluent minority at the expense of the majority.

For too long the system, fuelled by short-term profit making and corporate agendas, has perpetuated inequality unquestioned. The food system is wrought with complex divisions of power across State and non-State actors, with contributions from multiple stakeholders including civil society, transnational social movements and activists, and yet functions in a wholly unequal and undemocratic way. Food is essential for life; rich or poor we are united in our quest for survival, and thus food policy retains huge significance.

Critiquing the global food system through a human rights lens encourages victims of hunger not to be viewed as agency-less casualties of decisions made by distant actors, but as humans who have been denied their fundamental entitlements and human rights.

The way food is produced raises questions of land ownership and usage. The industrialised agricultural system, although producing high yields, has negative impacts on the quality of soils which raises concerns over the sustainability of the system. The social, health and environmental costs of food processing must also be highlighted. Corporate concentration at this early stage of the food system proves challenging to smaller farm holders and less developed countries, who become locked into a cycle of dependence on patented seeds and fertilisers. These factors, when examined through a human rights lens, must be viewed as detrimental to the realisation of the right to food for the current, and future population of the world.

Once produced, the way food is distributed also raises serious questions of sustainability. The negative impacts of trade must be highlighted, with emphasis on the unsustainable nature of export economies, fostered through practices such as comparative advantage and initiated through structural adjustment programmes. Examining food waste as a violation of people’s right to food is useful, as it unearths the complexity, and lack of democratic legitimacy of corporate ownership and control of the food system and the necessity to address it. Corporate structures, such as supermarkets, dominate the landscape of food distribution, with power over the physical and financial accessibility of food.

The changing nature of global diets means the consumption patterns of food have changed. The notion of access to land, or capital to ensure individual food security, is complex, as demonstrated by the prevalence of food deserts and food banks in developed countries. The meat-centric diets in the global North are unsustainable with a growing population, and again the volume of food wasted by consumers is a worrying obstacle to the full realisation of the right to food across the world. The monetary valuation of food has obscured its social and cultural value, as food is conceived as a commodity rather than an entitlement.

A rights approach inverts this representation, to ensure human dignity remains at the centre of food policy, food is given the value it deserves and democratic legitimacy is brought back into the way we produce, distribute and consume food.


Hannah Matthews

This is a summary of a Master’s thesis, for more information contact Hannah Matthews (



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