In 1981, Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines, challenging the common perception about the root causes of hunger. Through careful analysis of hunger in India, Bangladesh and Saharan countries from the 1940s onward, Sen documented that famines had occurred amid ample food supply, even in some countries exporting food. His conclusion—radical at the time—was that famine is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power. Ten years earlier, in her 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, put forward a similarly heretical notion: on a planet that produces more than enough calories to make us all chubby, hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.
Forty years later, the debate about the roots of hunger, and therefore the most effective solutions, persists. Yet, an idea once heretical—that to address hunger we must talk about democracy, power and human rights—is now gaining traction. Perhaps the most important figure helping to integrate the notion of the right to food into global policy-making is the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. In his role, De Schutter helps governments identify how to best address these complex roots of food insecurity. Through country missions—like recent ones to Mexico, China, Syria and Madagascar—De Schutter documents best practices and shares these ideas in reports and recommendations to governments and the United Nations General Assembly.
Though his ideas may seem less heretical today, De Schutter’s vision of a sustainable food future and empowered small-scale farmers is still highly controversial, challenging the privilege and policy preferences of some of the most powerful industries and governments in the world.
How has the idea of the right to food evolved, and how does it help us zero in on the roots of hunger?
The idea is simple: we have failed to end hunger using the traditional recipe that saw hunger as a technical problem, requiring only that we produce more. We’ve failed because we’ve underestimated the need to empower people and hold governments accountable.
This realization has developed over decades, including through work by Amartya Sen in the 1980s. In 1996 we had a pivotal moment at the United Nations World Food Summit in Rome: for the first time the idea of the right to food was identified as central to achieving successes against hunger and malnutrition.
Out of that meeting, many governments requested that human rights bodies develop the normative concept of the right to food. Until then the concept was mostly just a slogan, seen as abstract and vague—sympathetic but not useful. Now the idea has become operational. It is increasingly seen as essential to fighting hunger: unless you increase political pressure on governments, unless you ensure that those in need participate in identifying the solutions to the obstacles they face and play an active role in monitoring progress, nothing will change. This is a core idea of the right to food. It is based on the recognition that you cannot work for people without people.
Why hasn’t the concept of the right to food gained more traction here in the United States?
It’s extremely difficult to get the concept of the right to food across in the United States because of your constitutional tradition that sees human rights as “negative” rights—rights against government—not “positive” rights that can be used to oblige government to take action to secure people’s livelihoods.