譚偉恩:The Need for International Food Security Legal Norms

Wei-en Tan
Slow Food NYC board member


The international community undoubtedly has made progress over the past 40 years by reducing the population worldwide who suffer from starvation; however, as is known to us, the total number of people living with hunger continues to increase.

In 1996, the World Food Summit impressively concluded that the right to food is “firmly established in international law, but its operational content and means of application are generally little understood.”[1] More than 10 years later, global hunger has now seriously expanded to over 1 billion people, and the international community is far from achieving the goals of reducing famine.

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) had a meeting of world policy makers to develop and to adopt the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The MDG recognized that poverty and hunger go hand-in-hand and thus the first priority is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The MDG mirror the goals of the World Food Summit of 1996 in hopes of decreasing hunger by one-half by 2015. Unfortunately, in 2008 when the UN published some statistic findings, it recognized that although the percentage of hungry people in the world has decreased, the number of people lacking access to food has risen obviously. In short, we are living in an age with emergent food insecurity.

During most recent years, in the face of increasing and volatile global food prices, there are hundreds of millions of people throughout the world who chronically experience starvation. This phenomenon—food insecurity—exists even today and within almost all developing countries, despite sufficient food production for the entire world’s population. The intent of this report is to provide critical information about food security and appeal for international cooperation to design a solid regime which creates binding obligations through legal norms rather than merely declare certain aspirations like a pie in the sky.[2]


The Basic ideas behind International Food Security Regime

For international law, each state has at least three obligations to their people concerning their food security (the right to food).[3] They are: to respect, to protect, and to fulfill their citizens’ rights to food with availability, accessibility, and utilization.[4]

The first, respect, means that states have an obligation to respect the right to food of the people living in its territory and the duty not to interfere with access to adequate food. This also means states must refrain from taking measures likely to deprive anyone of such access to sufficient food.[5] Second, in the point of human security, states must protect the right to food by ensuring that neither individuals nor interests groups deprive people of this permanent right to adequate and sufficient food. Lastly, the third obligation is to fulfill the right to food by ensuring that there is sufficient, adequate food in case of an emergency; and also ensuring that every individual has access to food they need at all times.[6]


The Root Causes of Food Insecurity

Millions of people, now, worldwide suffer from hunger and undernutrition. A major factor contributing to this international problem is food insecurity. This problem exists when people lack physical or economic access to safe, nutritious, and acceptable food for their health.

There are three primary issues, but not limited, associated with food insecurity: poverty (or development inequality), the impact of transnational corporations (TNCs), and international economic/trade regime. The combination of these three conditions is allowing the hunger problem to persist and creating further obstacles in trying to reach global hunger.



People will not necessarily suffer from hungry because there is a lack of food; instead, people go hungry for they lack the resources and chances to purchase or grow their own food. It is the combination of low income and the rising costs of food that create a large portion of starvation in today’s world. According to the World Bank, high food prices are going to push people in the developing countries deeper into poverty. Factors which contribute to rising food include: decreased stocks of grains and cereals; increased commodity prices brought by drought,[7] floods, and climate change;[8] increased food and fuel consumption by the new and emerging Industries countries (NEI countries); as well as increased pressure on land use and production of corns for biofuels.[9] The increase in fuel prices over the last 3 years has also contributed to the rising cost of food due to increased cultivation, transportation, and exporting costs. These factors together have caused the food prices of even the most basic grains and cereals to soar.


Private TNCs have contributed to global food insecurity by driving countries, particularly the poor countries, to reallocate production from domestic crop to exporting crops and to coerce local peasants out their traditional business.[10] Not only does this have detrimental effects on hunger, it also is damaging to local ecosystems, resulting in lower amounts of crop production. It is now increasingly realized that the growing dominance of agricultural conglomerate by a handful of giant agribusinesses is posing a serious threat to food security worldwide. For example, TNCs dominate the process of the food production chain at every stage. The power, resource, and knowledge they have even determine the whole structure of the agriculture system. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is the case in point, as one of the world’s largest buyers of chicken and therefore can dictate what type of chickens farmers should raise, and the product standards must meet in order for KFC to purchase them. However, since these product standards call for a high level of technology and efficiency, only big chicken conglomerate can become a supplier for KFC rather than local chicken breeders.[11]

International Economic/Trade Regime

Over than 10 years ago, riots protested the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the streets of Seattle; what comes after a decade that we have seen is civil unrest around the world due to rising food prices. In fact, to some extent, with the creation of the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, food security is sought through capitalism including trade liberalization, privatization, and deregulation of domestic market. The guiding principle for international economic/trade regime is the idea that economic growth, via market mechanisms, provides the chance for curbing poverty and even achieving food security. However, the truth behind scenes is that a purely market-based approach remains entrenched in power and interests from the West that have failed to create a just global food security governance. For example, the World Bank created structural adjustment programs (SAP) that encouraged developing countries such as Mexico and India to focus their farming on the production of cash crops for export while reducing the production of crops for their own consumption and needs.[12]


The Solution for Creating A Better Food Security 

What We Have Done: Not Enough!

The 1974 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition declared that every human being has the fundamental right to be free from hunger and malnutrition. This document recognized that state has the responsibility to ensure that the right to food of its citizens. It also claimed that the welfare of many of the world’s people depends on the ability to produce and distribute food, establish a system where all people can have access to food.[13]

The 1992 World Declaration and Plan of Action for Nutrition once again argued that the right to food is a basic dignity of each individual. Totally 159 countries signing this Declaration pledged to work together to find a solution for food security. Their confirmed main objectives as follows:

(1) Ensuring sufficient supplies of food for everyone to have a nutritionally adequate diet;

(2) Working to achieve and maintain health and nutrition for all;

(3) Achieving a sustainable way to produce food and contribute to health and nutrition; and

(4) Eliminating the existence of famines and famine related insecurities.[14]84


The 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security committed its signers to reduce by half the number of hungry people by 2015. It also promised to eradicate poverty, to provide adequate and safe food, to promote fair agricultural trade and rural development, as well as to create cooperation within the international community.[15] Following this, the resolution made by the UN General Assembly in the next year recognized that the hunger problem is widespread and chronic, particularly among women, children, and people of developing countries.[16] This resolution therefore contended that the right to be free from hunger is a fundamental right under international human rights law, and urged the international community to cooperate to implement the World Food Summit Plan of Action.[17]

In addition to the documentation outlined above, international society are specifically focused on the interaction between human rights and food security; three major human rights documents that together constitute the International Bill of Human Rights address the issue of the right to food.[18] They are: (1) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); (2) The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); and (3) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Even though lots of international legal norms regarding food security have been there, it is a sad fact to admit that the levels of hungry and undernourished people in the world have continually risen since the first World Food Summit as mentioned earlier. International cooperation in food security without a solid regime has not been very encouraging in practicing the goal of reducing global hunger. Today, only no more 30 countries out of the UN member states have incorporated the right to food into their domestic constitutions and legal norms.[19]


What We Have not Done: Do It Immediately!

What listed below are three key strategies which set the direction for states to do without hesitation if they sincerely recognize the importance to take the necessary actions to better address the problem of hunger.

(1)  A set of norms with binding force provides a clear outline of guaranteed food rights that state governments must comply with. Doing so, there are already many references in international human rights documents to the models, including the ICESCR which states in Art. 11(1);

(2)  A procedure which requires parties to provide information on the level of hunger to the UN and its agencies such as FAO, which are needed for the enforcement of the right to food globally. We believe that accurate information makes international or regional compliance more possible;

(3)  A basic rule of the accountability of states. While giant agribusinesses or food TNCs are not obligated, the states where they are either incorporated or run business will be obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food. As a consequence, these states or their governments will need to consider how to manage TNCs within their borders without being free-riders.



Economic and trade globalization as a double-edged sword; on the one hand, a free market may benefit the developing countries if they are able to engage in the world food market in a fair and equitable manner. On the other hand, an over free-market may prove disastrous to the poor as they do not have adequate access to resources and capability of capitalist market economic competition.

In the past decades, the current international economic/trade regime, which is compose of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, has tried to solve the world’s hunger problem; however, the effect was unpleasant because food are classified in the same category as other international commodities. This practice makes the mistake of applying a profit-oriented economic viewpoint on food. Given past history about the current regime’s performance, it would seem improbable that the function of it would offer an adequate basis for defending the right to food.

Food is not a commodity. It’s the very basis of life; an indispensable fundamental human necessity. For this reason, it is reasonable to emphasize that trade in food should be distinguished from other trading sectors. This distinction is important for the concept of food security, and is also the foundation of a new food security regime. As such, we need strategies that can manage TNCs and improve the current international economic/trade regime by producing food in the most balanced and appropriate ways. Once a better set of legal norms of food security is secured, our world can deliver food in more efficient and fair approaches, which can make a vital difference in the long term.



[1] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The Right to Food: In Theory and In Practice, available at: http://www.fao.org/legal/rtf/booklet.pdf (last visited: 2012/8/11).

[2] Insofar “regime” embodies principles about fact, causation, as well as rights and obligations that are regarded as legitimate. Thus, the formation of international regime may be said to represent a concrete political authority in the field of food security. See: Karen Alter and Sophie Meunier, “The Politics of International Regime Complexity,”Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 2009): 14-16.

[3] Food security is located within complex political, economic, and cultural contexts; it is difficult, if not impossible, to detach the role of food security from themes such as trade, agricultural policy, rural and economic development, as well as international legal norms.

[4] More details can see: ftp://ftp.fao.org/es/esa/policybriefs/pb_02.pdf (last visited: 2012/8/11)

[5] Caitlin Firer, “Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Right to Food in International Law,” University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2004): 1058-1060.

[6] More details can see: http://www.fao.org/righttofood/publi09/guide_on_legislating.pdf(last visited: 2012/8/11).

[7] In 2012, people already know that the consequence of drought happening in the US will be severe. With more than one-half of America’s counties designated as disaster areas, the harvest of corn, soybeans, and many other food staples is guaranteed to fall far short of predictions. See: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ (last visited: 2012/8/12).

[8] 譚偉恩、蔡育岱,「氣候變遷對全球糧食安全之影響:以基改作物為抗暖因應策略之妥當性研究」,第三屆國際關係年會學術研討會(2010年6月)。

[9] Henk-Jan Brinkman and Cullen S. Hendrix, Food Insecurity and Conflict: Applying the WDR Framework, World Development Report 2011 (August 2, 2010). Available at:http://wdr2011.worldbank.org/food (last visited: 2012/8/12).

[10] Smita Narula, “The Right to Food: Holding Global Actors Accountable under International Law,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 44 (2006): 719-727.

[11] Gary Gereffi, “Trade, Transnational Corporations and Food Consumption: A Global Value

Chain Approach,” Duke University (February 23, 2009). Available at:http://cggc.duke.edu/pdfs/GlobalHealth/Gereffi_Christian_TradeTNC_FoodConsumption_23Feb2009.pdf(last visited: 2012/8/12)

[12] The term SAP has gained a very negative connotation that the World Bank launched a new initiative, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative (PRSI). However, while the name has changed, the World Bank still force developing countries to adopt the same types of policies as SAP.

[13] World Food Conference, Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition (November 16, 1974). Available at:http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/malnutrition.htm (last visited: 2012/8/12).

[14] International Conference on Nutrition, World Declaration and Plan of Action for Nutrition (December 1992). Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/HQ/1992/a34303.pdf(last visited: 2012/8/12).

[15] Please see: http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/w3613e/w3613e00.htm (last visited: 2012/8/12).

[16] Please see: G.A. Res. 51/71, U.N. Doc. A/52/150 (July 18, 1997). Available at:http://www.un.org/ga/52/agenda/provisi.htm (last visited: 2012/8/12).

[18] 譚偉恩,「人權理論建構的可能性初探:以糧食權為例」,政治大學外交學系第九屆研究生論文發表會(2011年5月14日)。

[19] It is worth noting that across many issue-areas including food security, the use of legal norms to structure cooperation among states seems to be increasing. This phenomenon of legalization raises some essential questions. For example, what factors explain the choice to create and use legal norms? And does the use of legal norms make a difference to how states or domestic actors behave? The core issue here is the impact of norms and legalization on state behavior, often understood in terms of compliance. More details can refer: Thomas Franck, “Legitimacy in the International System,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 82, No. 4 (1988): 705-759; Anne-Marie Slaughter and William Burke-White, “The Future of International Law is Domestic, in Andre Nolkaemper and Janne Nijman, eds. New Perspectives on The Divide between International and National Law(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 109-133; 施文真,「國際環境公約下之遵約機制」,台灣國際法季刊,第3卷4期(2006年12月),頁7-77。