Change through Collaboration: Fostering Healthy Food Systems and Protecting the Right to Food



Food, and the hunger that is associated with a lack of it, are two subjects discussed extensively by those who are concerned about the future of food. Will we have enough? Which countries will suffer the most? Should we begin stockpiling cans of beans in our basements? But also, is having accessible, adequate and affordable food a basic human right that our governments should ensure?

The answer may seem obvious and yet the right to food (R2F) remains in the pantheon of human rights that are difficult for governments to ensure for financial or sociocultural reasons, proof of which is evident in the fact that there are not yet any legally binding instruments that require the explicit protection of this right.

The R2F is recognized most commonly as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, along with the right to shelter and water, stated in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 25) and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)(Art. 11). In 1999, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (CESCR) first gave individual recognition to the R2F within its General Comment No. 12. This document, although important for furthering international dialogue about the R2F, is not legally binding and therefore does not oblige States to acknowledge their explicit responsibility as duty-bearers by enshrining the R2F into national law.

Evaluation of current global health and hunger statistics according to the International Food Policy Research Institute reveals a situation that is paradoxical to the extreme. Over 2 billion people worldwide experience malnutrition, while 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. The statistics for children under age 5 are as equally staggering, with 161 million affected by stunting (too short for their age), and 51 million affected by wasting (underweight for their height); all the while 42 million children are reported as overweight.

How is it that we, as a global population, have created an environment in which people live in either gluttony or starvation, with both extremes experiencing malnutrition?

It is globally recognized that there is enough food produced on the planet to sufficiently feed the current population, albeit with some serious distributional inconsistencies. Skepticism is raised however, when the nutritional and health needs of the future population are projected through the lens of the current food system model. The worrying malnutrition and obesity statistics mentioned above prove that current national policies are not created with the best interest of the citizen and their well-being in mind.

Venezuelan Food Protest

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to health statistics and a growing population, other factors, like increasing environmental shocks and the impacts of urbanization, provide ample reason to contemplate our food system future. Is it time for a paradigmatic shift towards a food system that is more concerned with the health and nutritional needs of citizens, as well as those of the natural environment?

With the belief that our current food system is not sufficiently protective of the R2F, nor resilient enough to successfully weather the challenges ahead, this article aims to examine an alternative, hybrid food system; focussing specifically on the roles of State and civil society actors who together are capable of initiating food system change.

The Increasingly Citizen-oriented Food System

Although it is not yet commonplace, there are a small number of countries worldwide striving towards the implementation of an alternative food system paradigm; one that is more protective of the R2F and capable of preventing hunger and poverty. This article will focus on three of those countries—France, Brazil and Nepal—by demonstrating the roles and initiatives taken by State and civil society actors, as well as emphasizing the relationship of dependency, co-ownership and mutual ambition that must be built between both groups of actors.

The increasingly Citizen-oriented food system, a term developed by the author for the lack of pre-existing, accurate term, is centred around the concept that large-scale conventional agriculture and small-scale organic agriculture will together create a food system that respects the R2F. This collaborative outlook is supported by Jonathan Foley, author of A Five Step Plan to Feed the World, who argues that “it would be ideal to blend the best of both methods”.

The contributions of large-scale, conventional farms will ensure that food continues to flow around the world, especially to those places in which environmental capabilities for local production are insufficient. It will also encourage continued scientific exploration and development towards large scale, but sustainably efficient food systems. The contributions of small-scale, localized farms will ensure that consumers have an influential role in the food system, which will be important for the protection and fulfilment of the R2F. The efforts of small-scale farmers will contribute to the food supply, but also encourage self-sufficiency and raise the quality of living of many households.

In order for this hybrid system to operate successfully, both groups of actors must recognize that certain initiatives require their specific involvement. Since the current food system is predominantly oriented by the State, it is necessary that many of those first steps towards change are implemented by the State. Initiating change by ratifying the ICESCR and acknowledging General Comment No. 12 would not only hold the State accountable to the international and national communities, but would also encourage civil society to envision the State as a valuable ally for collective change. This is an excellent administrative and social foundation on which to build collaborative action for future food system development.


In order to illustrate the State’s important role as change-initiator, one should look to France. Like the rest of the States in the European Union, France has neither a national law nor a national food plan that protects the R2F. The French government has proven however, that by enacting some decidedly modern laws pertaining to how food is grown, processed, sold and disposed of, French food policy is gradually being reoriented towards a paradigm that is increasingly concerned with the health of citizens and the environment.

Several important actions from this past year include: the ban of neonicotinoid insecticides from September 1st 2018,  the ban of plastic cups, plates and cutlery by 2020 (all of which must be replaced by compostable products) and the introduction of a country of origin labeling (COOL) plan for meat and milk ingredients in processed foods that will encourage processors to source their ingredients nationally instead of internationally. The most notable of recent French legislative actions however, is the February 2016 bill against food waste, in which grocery stores with a retail space of 400m2 or more are banned from wasting edible food, and are required to pass on all edible, unsold food to food banks or biomethane facilities.

The value of this example is that is emphasizes the crucial leadership role of the State towards the instigation of change. The next step would be for civil society to recognize that they must become much more engaged in their food systems; for it is they who will have to advocate for their own best interests by pushing the State to recognize the R2F as well as to implement a national food plan that recognizes linkages between farming, diet, public health and the environment. With greater engagement from civil society, France could become the first EU State to accomplish such a challenge.

Deeper engagement in national policy-making by civil society includes lobbying for additional spending on areas such as nutrition and agricultural research and by demanding that the State address imbalances in the food chain so that powerful agricultural corporations do not control the market. This includes enforcing competition law so that newcomers can enter into the agricultural industry and protecting small farmers from the vertical integration process that necessitates that they produce under contract farming. Civil society in France and beyond must recognize the power of collective organization and that the fight for acknowledgement and protection of the R2F by the State is like that of any other fundamental right.


The incredible influence of an organized and impassioned civil society is visible in Brazil, where the most advanced example of an alternative food system has been in development since the 1980s. At this time, Brazil transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy and hundreds of organizations, churches, cultural associations and workers unions were eager to influence the new Brazilian constitution. Hunger and poverty were recognized as a social and political issue, as well as a priority of both the State and civil society.

sliced brazilian tomatoes

Photo: Half Baked Harvest

Since the 1980s, ‘Citizenship Action’, a movement of social activism based on human rights principles, encouraged the creation of more than 7000 committees that have implemented projects for capacity-building, food distribution, income generation, establishment of urban gardens and support for agrarian reform.  According to a FAO document that focuses on the implementation of the R2F at the National level, the movement fostered the capacity of citizens to produce and purchase according to their needs, and “was an essential trigger for the legal and policy commitments to the right to food that have followed since”.

One of those important commitments made by the State was the 2003 introduction of Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), an ambitious country-wide strategy to combat hunger, poverty and malnutrition. Within the strategy, more than 20 initiatives are oriented towards guaranteeing the R2F, the most famous being the ‘Bolsa Familia’ social welfare program, in which both direct and conditional cash transfers are provided to low-income families. In return, families commit to keeping their children in school and taking them for regular health checks, thus getting families to invest in their children and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. This is an excellent example of the mutual engagement of both actors.

As argued by the former UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, “local initiatives can only succeed if they are supported and complemented at the national level”. This reasoning has been proven correct in the example of Brazil. “Between 2004 and 2009, the share of Brazilians living in families with incomes equal to or greater than one minimum wage per capita rose from 29% to 42%”. From 2003 to 2010, the World Food Programme (WFP) argues that the Zero Hunger strategy contributed to a 47% decrease in infant mortality. The most impressive indicator of success however, is in reference to the first Millennium Development Goal that aimed to reduce extreme poverty by halving the 1990 rates by 2015. In 1990, 22.1% of the Brazilian population faced extreme poverty, but that number had more than halved to 10.8% by 2006; meaning that Brazil reached the target goal nearly a decade in advance.


Home to a rural-based economy and food system, Nepal possesses low levels of urbanization and productivity and relies heavily on staple foods. Unlike France and Brazil, it is influenced by far fewer international inputs that could alter food supply, food culture and attitudes about the R2F.

The food security and health situation in Nepal is troubling but positively forward-looking. According to FAO data for the year 2016, 7.8% of the population was undernourished, 11.3% of children under the age of five suffered from wasting, 37.4% of children under the age of five suffered from stunting, and the under-five mortality rate stood at 3.6%.

In an effort to alter the malnutrition situation, the Nepalese government has afforded “explicit protection of the right to adequate food”, through Article 36 of the National Constitution: “each citizen shall have the right to food”, as well as be “protected from a state of starvation”. The government has also pledged to pursue policies that increase investment in the agricultural sector by making previsions for sustainable productivity, agroecology and food sovereignty.

The commitment of the Nepalese government towards the protection of the R2F is extremely encouraging, but as previously mentioned, both State and civil society actors must be engaged in the food system reorientation process in order for it to truly support the needs of civil society. That is not to say that Nepalese civil society has been inactive however; as is evident in a 2010 public interest petition that members of civil society put towards the Supreme Court of Nepal, with respect to enforcing the State’s R2F obligations. “The Court held that Nepal was bound by international human rights law and that relevant treaties obliged the state to take positive steps to ensure the right to food of its population.”

It is evident that positive steps are being taken by both groups of actors, but since the socio-cultural framework for human rights does not exist in Nepal on a level similar to that of France or Brazil, it is important that a third party actor, mainly an intergovernmental organization engaged in the realization of the R2F, assist with the engagement of both groups towards the fulfilment of the R2F. The Nepalese government has already sought technical and financial support from the FAO to conduct consultations with civil society during the updating of the 2015 Constitution.


As shown in the examples above, an increasingly Citizen-oriented food system, or at least an alternative food system paradigm, is found in several countries of the world in various stages of development. It is an idea to be adopted and implemented appropriately given national context and need, with the equal involvement of both State and civil society actors.

It is clear that those first steps towards change must be initiated by the State, but in response, civil society must be ready to demand greater protection of their rights and become engaged in the development of a food system that is for their benefit. Demanding the State to reorient its policies is important but alone it is not enough. Civil society must also commit to a major sociocultural shift. We are excellent eaters but most of us know nothing about growing, processing and preparing food. Eating a local, seasonal diet that is less meat intensive is excellent, but so is  growing some food in our gardens, teaching children to cook, encouraging young people to pursue a career in farming and generally learning more about developing personal food security.

The development of a high-functioning food system that is capable of supporting the food and health needs of civil society will be an idea that becomes increasingly relevant as the global population continues to rise and the topic of food becomes more predominant. Malnutrition and obesity statistics must be addressed through a national food plan that consists of actions that ensure the accessibility, adequacy, affordability and long-term sustainability of food. States must publicly recognize their responsibility as duty bearers of the R2F, while civil society must acknowledge that they are their own best advocates for ensuring that their food systems meet their food and health needs. This is a partnership that evokes equal accountability and a willingness and determination for change; an approach that surely must be worth exploring further.

Meet the Author

Laura Schubert holds a MA in Human Rights and Multi-Level Governance from the University of Padua (Italy) and a BA in Environmental Studies and English Literature from Trent University (Canada). Her research interests are centred around food security, livelihood resiliency and rural development. She is an advocate for the involvement of civil society, especially of young people, in the fostering of local food systems.

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