Commentary – It is Time for the United States to Learn About the Right to Food.

by Hilal ElverMichael T. RobertsDiana R.H. Winters, and Melissa Shapiro

Cross-posted on

On US Election Day 2021, the state of Maine voted in favor of a constitutional “right to food”—a historic development for a country that has long refused to recognize the human right to food.

Will the US finally acknowledge that this right actually exists?

Maine is officially the first US state to recognize a right to food. On Election Day this year, more than 60% of voters agreed that Maine should amend the state constitution “to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” Put simply, those in Maine will have agency over how they procure their food within the bounds of food safety laws and quality controls. The “right to food” amendment, which was proposed by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) and received bipartisan support, was welcomed by a diverse constituency comprising small farmers, libertarians, liberals and those who believe that local producers should not have to compete with corporate food interests.

 Observing how Maine practically applies the “right to food” amendment in furtherance of the stated objective is critical. It will be necessary for Maine legislators to work closely with other state agencies to ensure that emerging programs and policies do not violate federal and state laws. It is also important for future decision-making to involve open consultation and participation from civil society and private sector. Being a trailblazer means that the path forward is not always clear; but those who have already dismissed the historic amendment as an empty promise or inoperable language are missing the point: Maine’s constitutional amendment is a transformative step towards the United States’ formal recognition of the human right to food.

The human right to food is not a familiar concept to most of the US, but it is quite simple. Under international human rights law, food is not a commodity nor a privilege; it is an indivisible and inalienable right to which all people—regardless of race, age, or gender—are entitled. Governments, first and foremost, are obligated to taking positive actions to facilitate its enjoyment and avoid taking negative actions that would diminish its realization. More than 170 countries have consented to this legal responsibility; the United States, which has a general aversion to international human rights agreements, has not. Despite signing the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which codifies the human right to food, in 1977, the United States, under both Democrat and Republican administrations, never finished the ratification process.

Ignoring obligations to realize the right to food simply because the US has not ratified the ICESCR is no longer serving the government or those who are most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity. On paper, this refusal means that the US does not owe its people the right to be free from hunger. Yet, by all accounts, the US government, and certainly the Biden Administration, do not dispute the fundamental principles that the right to food represents. Refusing to formally recognize the right to food has not interfered with the government’s adoption of programs and policies to increase access to affordable, healthy food; nor has this refusal changed the fact that, despite these measures, 42 million people are expected to experience food insecurity this year. This troubling reality may not constitute a human rights violation under the US law, but it is a monumental failure. 

The decision of the Maine government signals that the time is ripe for the US government to expressly acknowledge the right to food as an essential tool that can help alleviate hunger and promote more sustainable food systems. Ratifying the ICESCR is one place to start. Of the countries that have ratified the ICESCR, almost thirty explicitly protect the right to food in their national constitutions. Such provisions help to create clear and cohesive direction for governments at a time when climate change, biodiversity loss, and a global pandemic pose multiple threats to public health and the environment. Recognizing this right also creates a legal basis for national laws and policies that protect land ownership, access to seeds, water, and markets, promote heathier school meals for children, and establish social protections for food system workers.

The US public should therefore explore what the human right to food is, and what it is not. It is a nuanced concept that recognizes food as a legal entitlement, and which must inform concrete commitments towards food system transformation. It is not a basis to expand charitable food donation operations or a free-pass to produce food at any cost. A multitude of resources offer guidance towards this understanding for a diverse and global audience:

  • The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, appoints an independent expert (Special Rapporteur) to observe progress towards the realization of the right to food and propose solutions to the most widespread challenges. This expert regularly publishes reports of findings, which are annually presented to the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly—both of which the US is a member. (The reports by the former Special Rapporteur on the right to food and co-author of this present piece are also available here (along with other useful resources)). 
  • The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the only international and intergovernmental platform committed to the realization of global food and nutrition security, regularly publishes guidance and policy recommendations on a multitude of food system issues.
  • Rome-based agencies, including the World Food Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, contribute to the advancement of the right to food through their respective institutional mandates. The FAO even houses a “Right to Food” Team, which publishes reports, information notes, videos, and other resources to help guide policymakers implement the right.
  • Non-governmental organizations like WhyHungerLa Via Campesina, and FIAN International to name a few, advocate for labor protections and human rights of food system workers.

Exploring these resources will not only be eye-opening, but will help to fulfil the responsibilities that we all owe as global citizens—to learn about our rights and to vote “yes” on measures that will help others to enjoy them. 

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