The right to food and why hunger is not inevitable

By Pascale Palmer
June 11, 2012

This week in Los Cabos in Mexico heads of state from the G20 nations are meeting. Every year this meeting is crucial – it is a focal moment for discussion and action on economic and financial reform and improving the structures that feed into both, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF); and it is a moment when multilateral decisions and progress can be made on issues vital to the wellbeing and flourishing of the poorest, such as food security and development.

But while the world sits in the doldrums of economic crisis, grappling with individual country crises and politics, the messages sent out by the G20 are all the more significant because they urge this powerful group to look outwards to the needs of all rather than those of a few rich and emerging countries.

The EU has already laid its cards on the table in the run-up to the Summit, strongly affirming its commitment to sustainable agriculture productivity and investment and the need to dampen food price volatility. This is a good start because hunger is a complicated issue.

Too often, when malnutrition or lack of food is shown to us in the media, we watch a thin, ailing human being alone in pain. It is easy to think the lack of access to food for this woman, child or man is a simple knock-on of being poor in a drought-ridden country. But if we zoomed out from this one person, their family, their community, their town, we would see a massive machine of social, economic, political and cultural structures that can alternatively churn out hunger for some while great fecundity for others.

As Pope Benedict states in Caritas in Veritate: "Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things, as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional."

It is the right of all human beings to live in dignity, free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. There are nearly a billion people suffering from hunger in the world today. In every society food is not made up of only ‘nutritional’ elements, but also those social, economic, political, and cultural elements connected to food use, production and trade.

Food issues are crucial in improving people's lives because they are linked to a much wider set of livelihood issues. Endangering food security has obvious impacts on the most vulnerable social groups, the poorest. Improving food security cannot be seen in a purely ‘quantitative’ way (i.e. more food=more food security), but within the wider idea of the ‘right to food’. So when we see the mother, father, son or daughter on the television or in the newspaper suffering from lack of food, this is a justice issue that can and must be dealt with head-on; it is not an inevitable consequence of geography plus poverty.

Pope Benedict, in his address to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation at the World Summit on Food Security in 2009, declared that “[hunger is] the most cruel and concrete sign of poverty”, assuming such proportions as to make opulence and waste unacceptable. He highlighted that food insecurity stems not from the lack of sufficient food, but rather from the increasing inequality in levels of development between and within countries. This contrast between poverty and wealth can make us think that food insecurity is just a reality of poorer countries and poorer people.

But hunger is not inevitable.

The Caritas-CIDSE G20 Network is a group of Catholic agencies working in collaboration to press the G20 for action that permanently improves the lives of those who are most vulnerable. At this year’s Summit in Mexico this Network is calling on leaders to address food security by looking in detail at those issues that conspire to bring about hunger, namely: unfair resource access, unfair market conditions, unheard voices, unresponsive institutions, a lack of technical solutions formed from local knowledge, and the complexities of local conditions not being acknowledged in global policy decisions.

We are living in a minutely interconnected world where the flutter of a rich country’s wings can wreak havoc in a far-off country. Action at the G20 must be based on cooperation, the involvement of local communities in decision-making, solidarity and responsibility. Ending hunger cannot only be about promoting sustainable economic growth and political stability; within this there must also be new ethical, legal and economic ideas in order to build equality between nations, regardless of where they stand in the spectrum of development.

The Mexican G20 has a real opportunity to show valuable and lasting leadership on the issue of food security. CAFOD, with the Caritas-CIDSE Network, will be taking our demands to the Summit this week where we will urge decision-makers to give voice to the world’s most vulnerable people and put their needs at the top of the agenda.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for the official Catholic aid agency CAFOD -

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