Food Sovereignty: A Novel Health Rights Issue?

By: Stacey Shenderov, November 7, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that industrial food systems, reliant on national and international supply chains, are fragile and can lead to further inequalities in local communities. Because millions suffered food scarcity during the COVID-19 pandemic, novel questions of food sovereignty rights have been raised worldwide. On November 2, 2021, voters in Maine approved a referendum, the first of its kind in the United States, to add a “right to food” amendment to the state’s constitution. The constitutional amendment provides that: “All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) has argued that this amendment could help promote local food and reduce instability in food supply by giving individuals greater power. Boldly, MOFGA has argued that “[t]he United States Constitution should have such an amendment” as well. 

The idea that individuals should have the right to access food, although still gaining popularity in the United States, is not novel. Article 25 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” However, policy steps need to be taken worldwide to help provide basic needs to individuals, and therefore to help increase physical and mental well-being. In 2020, activists in the UK argued that “legal recognition to the rights to health, housing, food, social security, education and just conditions of work” are necessary to protect human rights. UK law does not mandate a right to food, despite the fact that the UK has signed up to numerous agreements and treaties that include a right to food, including three different international conventions

Unfortunately, studies have shown that food insecurity is an extremely serious public health issue, “associated with poor cognitive and emotional development in children and with depression and poor health in adults.” Furthermore, food insecurity is prevalent in the United States. In 2009, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 11.1% of U.S. households suffered from food insecurity.  

In the future, the “right to food” will likely be seen as a question of justice, and access to healthy food will likely be a top priority globally. Additionally, food sovereignty will also likely be analyzed in terms of environmentalism, because scholars argue that there are “environmental benefits to moving away from large scale industrialized food systems and toward more localized ones.” Hopefully, Maine’s recent constitutional amendment will inspire similar “right to food” discussions and laws across the U.S., and increase access to basic human sustenance. 

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