On 17th December 2018, the UN General Assembly passed a Declaration that aims to protect the rights of all rural populations including peasants, agricultural workers and indigenous peoples. One right it has specifically recognised is the right to adequate food alongside rights to land and water. This is because there is mounting evidence, according to the FAO, that shows there is disproportionate suffering from hunger and poverty in rural areas. They also say that this declaration is expected to have a positive impact on the livelihoods of family farmers who produce over 70% of the world’s food.

The process was started by a small group of countries led by Bolivia and inspired by La Via Campesina, under the recognition that contributions of people working in rural areas to development, conservation and improvement of biodiversity constitute the basis of food and agricultural production throughout the world. It was also recognised that ensuring the right to adequate food and food security is fundamental to attaining internationally agreed development goals and that the concept of food sovereignty has been used in many regions to designate the right to define food and agriculture systems as well as the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecological and sustainable methods.

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UN General Assembly Hall, New York 

Previously:

The main universal source for the right to food is the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights where it is found within Article 11 but not solely focused on. It is given as one part of a right to an adequate standard of living which is the same way it is worded in the Declaration of Human Rights. At least in ICESCR it is expanded upon within the same article as everyone having the right to be free from hunger which means countries should take measures to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making use of technical and scientific knowledge, by spreading knowledge of nutritional principles, and by developing or reforming agrarian systems so as to achieve the most efficient development and utilisation of natural resources. There is nothing about land-use rights but the mention of agrarian systems could have been utilised for peasants and food security, but it is not explicitly for this purpose. The Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights also clarified issues with Article 11 such as the right to adequate food being realised through physical and economic access to adequate food or means for its procurement, which is the definition of food security.

Elsewhere, had peasant movements wished to frame their struggles on a basis of the right to food, they could not have used the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, even if they were indigenous, because the right to food does not exist within it. It gives indigenous peoples rights over the use of their traditional lands and is convinced that this will enable them to maintain and strengthen institutions, cultures and traditions. This could be interpreted as including agricultural methods but at most this is a weak link, and obviously not one that peasants were utilising nor one that helps their food security.

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The New Declaration:

The Right to Food is found in Article 15 and grants those working in rural areas the right to adequate food and the right to be free from hunger. Differently to the right to food in previous documents, this Declaration includes the right to produce food as well as the right to adequate nutrition, both of which are vital for food security in rural areas as is the right to determine their own food and agriculture systems. Also positive for food security are the obligations placed on governments;

  1. to ensure peasants have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient and adequate food that is produced and consumed sustainably and equitably, respecting their cultures, preserving access to food for future generations and that ensures a mentally and physically fulfilling and dignified life in response to their needs

  2. to take measures to combat malnutrition in rural children through primary healthcare, technology, education, provision of adequate nutritious food to the children and to women during pregnancy and lactation.

Another article in the new Declaration provides peasants with the right to seeds meaning that they have;

  • the right to the protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture;
  • the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits that arise from the use of plant genetic resources;
  • the right to participate in decision making processes of conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; and
  • the right to save, use, exchange or sell their farm-saved seed or propagating material.

The final point there is the most important and marks an amazing shift in food security as family-farmed produce will be more sustainable and accessible due to a new ability to keep their seeds. The recognition of these rights at the international level was necessary to overcome the imbalance of rights pertaining to seeds and to reaching a decent level of food security and sovereignty as well as sustainable agriculture goals.

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The Future:

This Declaration hopefully marks the beginning of positive change for peasants and other rural workers because there is now a mechanism of rights specifically for their use. It is important that the Declaration includes the right to food because it has been noted in the past that peasant movements were making use of human rights in their struggles but not the right to food, even though it existed in other international instruments. The inclusion of the right to food, and the right to seeds, in the Declaration should mean that peasant movements will utilise it now as it has been drafted in a way that is useful for them. This should improve food security in rural areas for those who produce 70% of the world’s food and, in turn, food security for those receiving their produce.