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Achieving the Human Right to Food Security

Food is the most basic necessity of life. If we are to fulfill our potential as thinking, feeling beings, then we must feel secure about where our next meal and that of our family will come from. Yet sometimes when we hear the phrase "food security" used as policyspeak, we lose sight of the fact that food is a human right that is increasingly being violated in this world of free trade and in our America of budget cutbacks.

Today there are some 800 million people in the world who are hungry, who are unsure about their next meal. Thirty million of them live in the United States, 12 million of them children under six. Is that the kind of world, and is this the kind of society that we want to live in? At Food First - The Institute for Food and Development Policy, we believe that the time has come to return values to the center of our political debates, and to address the root causes of our problems, throwing off the blinders of pernicious myths that we often hold dearly and that serve to block real change.

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to food or food producing resources is a basic human right. Unfortunately, the United States has failed to ratify the Covenant, perhaps because of the cold reality that the human rights of 30 million hungry Americans are being routinely violated. Yet we need to take the lens of human rights, which we so often focus on Bosnia, Central America or Indonesia, and bring it to bear on America as well. We need to denounce widespread human rights violations at home; we must make hunger a simply unacceptable condition in our wealthy society.

We can change America, and we can change the world, but only if we place what is right first, and take on the myths of hunger head on. The most pernicious myth is that economic globalization with its attendant polarization between rich and poor is somehow inevitable, as are declining public budgets and, increasingly, individualism at the expense of concern for community. But none of this is truly inevitable.

The current swing of the pendulum toward free trade and capitalism red in tooth and claw is the product of many decisions, large and small, made by policymakers in national and international bodies. Yes, they have made those decisions because of pressure from the corporate sector. But that is always how policy is made. Decisionmakers weigh pressure from one side with pressure from the other, and ask, who am I more afraid of? Thus our task is to build national and international social movements that scare policymakers more than does corporate power.

That's how the war in Vietnam was ended, and that's how major social change always takes place. We also need to keep in mind that the pendulum has swung toward economic globalization in earlier periods of world history, only to swing back toward national economic sovereignty some time later. Each time continued movement in one direction may have seemed inevitable, but in the light of history it certainly wasn't. Nor is it this time.

A second myth that we need to address is that we always need "more" of something in order to alleviate poverty or feed the hungry. This takes the form of an "economic growth at any cost" or a "we need a new Green Revolution" mentality, thus justifying further unfettering of transnational corporations and agribusiness. But the facts do not bear this out.

The U.S. experienced substantial economic growth in the 1980s and early '90s, when average incomes rose by 11 percent. Yet during the same period the number of hungry Americans doubled. In fact 70 percent of the increase in income went to the wealthiest one percent, and 40 percent actually saw their incomes drop. Economic growth does not provide food security. In the world as a whole, we now have 15 percent more food available per person than we did in the mid-1970s, yet there are 100 to 200 million more hungry people. Simply producing more food does not end hunger - people go hungry in a world of plenty.

Clearly it is the distribution of food and wealth that is important for achieving food security and eliminating poverty. Exceptions that prove this rule are many. Kerala is one of the poorest states in India as measured by per capita income, yet because of its distributive policies it has the lowest infant mortality, longest life expectancy and highest literacy rate. Between 1994 and 1996, Cuba overcame the worst food crisis in its history, not by boosting fertilizer use, but by giving farmers better prices, by redistributing farm land, and through organic farming techniques. Closer to home, we see grassroots alternatives flowering across America. Struggling small farmers are finding new ways to reach urban consumers with healthy, locally grown produce, via farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) agreements. Inner-city residents are responding to supermarket closure in poor neighborhoods by turning vacant lots into viable urban farms, creating jobs for unemployed teenagers, the homeless, and others, and providing poor residents and seniors with organic food.

We can make a difference. The key elements in achieving food security - guaranteeing the right to food - are putting values first, strong local participation, and building from the bottom up into powerful social movements.  

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