What if…food was guaranteed?

It’s time for food to be treated as a basic human right, writes Hazel Healy.

Credit: Andy Carter

We live in a profoundly unequal world. Yet there are certain things that nearly everyone agrees should be available to all people. Take health. There’s global agreement that healthcare is – in principle at least – a human right and a public good, and should not just be the privilege of those who can afford to pay.

So why not apply the same rationale to food? Like good health, there’s no question that nutritious food is also pivotal to human development, yet under our current system who gets to eat is determined by purchasing power and affordability – in other words, the price of food relative to your ability to buy it.

A quick look at the figures reveals that this market mechanism is failing badly. When you leave food to the marketplace, the only way to drive down hunger is either by making food cheaper – which has brought umpteen unsustainable social and environmental problems – or making people richer, in relation to food prices, which has proved elusive as poverty levels rise.

And so it is that despite our planet producing enough food for all, the problem of hunger is pernicious and widespread. Over and above those that suffer grinding daily hunger, around 155 million people faced acute, emergency levels of hunger in 2020.

The World Health Organization reports that 44 million under-fives are stunted, the result of a long-term lack of food. The impact of this chronic lack of nutrients and calories will be life-long, holding sufferers back both physically and cognitively, and leaving them permanently vulnerable to disease. Another 38 million under-fives suffer from overweight or obesity due to poor quality food, high in sugar and fat.

It’s clear that something as fundamental as food cannot be left to the market. One proposal for how to feed ourselves differently – which is currently circulating ahead of the upcoming UN food systems summit – calls for Universal Food Coverage (UFC). Under such a scenario, everybody would be entitled to a minimum amount of nutritious, appropriate food, regardless of their income levels.

In the style of the UN-sponsored vision for ‘Universal Health Coverage’ and the UNESCO-World Bank sponsored Education for All, this new framing of an old problem could mobilize funds, hone focus and bring new yardsticks against which to measure states’ progress.

Once accepted, the UFC principle would bolster existing commitments around the right to food and Zero Hunger development goals. It wouldn’t be rocket science to put into practice and could be delivered over the course of a decade through an eight-step programme which activates public provision and civic collective action.

The first pillar could be the introduction of universal safety nets. Rather than just stepping in when people hit crisis-level hunger, this social protection would be extended to all food-insecure people. It might take the form of cash, allowing people to buy from local markets, vouchers or food. (When Brazil pioneered this approach with conditional cash transfers, malnourishment dropped by 82 per cent between 2002 and 2013).

Second in line would be establishing employment schemes (cash-for-work or food-for-work) for people without access to stable employment.

In parallel, states could bring healthy and nutrient-rich diets within reach for all by stimulating a (regulated) private farming sector along with co-operatives, customary indigenous systems and direct-supply networks (such as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture).

These smallholder farmers could be the preferred suppliers for universal school meals and also produce high-quality local, seasonal and organic food for large institutions like universities, emergency services and the army too.

A public network of food reserves could be built up to address shortages or shocks, with targeted insurance schemes for pastoralists on marginal lands who are some of the worst hit by climate disruption.

The final piece of the puzzle – and genuine last resort – would be food banks operating as state-run institutions, alongside those run by charitable not-for-profits and religious groups.

The upshot of all this? To make food into a common resource – not a private commodity aimed at fetching the highest price. While still a traded marketable product, this would no longer supersede the recognition of access to food as a basic human need, guaranteed to every citizen.

This article is part of the Food Justice files, a project funded by the European Journalism Centre through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.