Rethinking the Right to Food (Part One) — Michael Fakhri

Although it falls within the purview of the human rights enterprise, the right to food is better understood as part of the global politics of food and the socio-economy of procurement through agriculture, hunting, and herding. Relatively recently, the food sovereignty movement has activated the right to food in novel ways. Since about 1993, people have taken up and wielded the right to food as a tool intended to uproot the authority of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). People have also used it to engage with and infiltrate other institutions like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

A key element of the food sovereignty movement has been La Vía Campesina, one of the most dynamic and influential transnational peasant movements in its own right. [1] La Vía Campesina comprises peasants, small- and medium-size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants, and agricultural workers from around the world. It members include 182 organizations spanning 81 countries and by their own count represent over 200 million people.

This is different from the work in human rights literature and practice that focuses on turning abstract human rights into institutions of implementation and operational rules. Not to say that the network of human rights advocates and organizations centered around the right to food has not been active. But I find that the food sovereignty movement–despite its ambivalent relationship to rights discourse–and the FAO have been driving the right-to-food agenda in novel ways. Their emphasis is largely upon how the right to food can serve larger programs.

In order to understand the right to food, you have to have a sense of how it is embedded within existing international institutional practices. I find that a handy way to think about what makes something an institution is to look for instances of where some reliable fund or flow of capital is created, accumulated, and redistributed by some regular set of rules or practices. Whoever has access to these institutions along with the ability to influence how the rules are created and practiced determines how that capital is generated and shared.

I want to use this as an opportunity to think about a question raised by John Haskell and Akbar Rasulov: what do people mean by “political economy” when writing in the idiom of international law? [2] I think through this question in historical terms and I come up with the following method and result: I watch for how the right to food has been wielded by institutional actors in order to assert authority over certain issues; this authority justifies the institution’s existence, and, if successful, lends credence to arguments to donors in favor of increasing (or maintaining) the institution’s budget. Meanwhile, academics and NGO professionals use the right to food to extract value and wealth from the “economy of implementation of knowledge practices”. [3] So when they deploy the right to food, I take it that these experts are staking out “a position so that at some point in the future they might get money to develop statistical capacity, build research budgets and so on”. [4]

To give you an example of what is at stake for experts, we can look at FIAN, a leading right-to-food NGO. FIAN, like some other NGOs, provides support to the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty [5], but this is not the food sovereignty organization’s principal driving force. FIAN advocated for and partnered in the creation of the FAO Voluntary Food Guidelines. [6] After the FAO published these Voluntary Guidelines, many in the world of human rights hailed them as an advancement in the articulation and understanding of the right to food. FIAN, in turn, was commissioned by the FAO to co-publish a brief introduction to these guidelines that was sponsored by the FAO, the government of Germany, and GIZ (a German development consultant firm). [7] FIAN, of course, also gets to assert some authority over the understanding of these Voluntary Guidelines, publishing its own Manual for Social Movements, Community-Based Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations. [8]

Experts will not only seek commissioned projects. They will also want the power to dictate what counts as a legitimate right-to-food law and policy, and thus influence where and how institutional resources will be directed. [9] In sum, the right to food allows certain actors to raise and organize capital, and allows others access to that capital resulting in a particular pattern of circulation.

I take this power to access and direct institutional resources to be the most attractive aspect of the right to food for participants within institutions and for social movements. I sometimes find it helpful to imagine the person in the social movement as a “cunning citizen” who is looking to determine what transnational alliances and networks they need to make with other agrarians and food producers, experts, NGOs, international institutions, and state actors if they want to articulate their particular interest as a global claim. [10] Their call to restructure existing mechanisms of wealth and power on more equitable terms is a matter of survival and not simply principle.

In light of such an approach, we can track and learn from the tactical maneuverings of this “cunning citizen” who wants to start by understanding what mechanisms of power and wealth are already at play because that will determine what they understand their interest to be, condition what goals they want to achieve, and determine what tactics are actually available. What makes such a citizen “cunning” is that they must deftly negotiate with the same institution or individual as both an ally and an adversary, while also developing ever-shifting coalitions.

In institutional terms, part of the political economy of the right to food centers on Rome (FAO, IFAD, WFP) and not Geneva (and its UN human rights offices). It involves the FAO Secretary General navigating demands from donors while seeking authority and legitimacy from the FAO Council (made up of national government delegates), right-to-food NGOs, and transnational food movements. Right-to-food academics and NGOs look to the FAO for access to resources but also work in alliance with social movements to influence FAO budget decisions. The food sovereignty movement comprises people who have a great deal to lose if they do not effectively ensure that national governments and institutional institutions implement the right to food in a way that best serves members of the movement. The current food system is not a threat just to the economic livelihood of people in the food sovereignty movement, but also to their sense of who they are and where they are from.

[1] For details see La Vía Campesina, available at

[2] John Haskell and Akbar Rasulov, “International Law and the Turn to Political Economy” 31 (2018) Leiden Journal of International Law 243.

[3] Deval Desai and Mareike Schomerus, “‘There Was A Third Man … ‘: Tales from a Global Policy Consultation on Indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals” 49 (2018) Development and Change 89, at 92.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For details see International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, available at

[6] Approximately 95% of FIAN’s revenue derives from project income. For details see

[7] FAO, “Brief Introduction to the Voluntary Guidelines”, available at

[8] FIAN, “How to Use the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food: A Manual for Social Movements, Community-Based Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations”, available at

[9] Desai and Schomerus, “‘There Was A Third Man … ‘”.

[10] I take, and slightly modify, the term “cunning citizen” from Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). I also build on Hannah Wittman’s notion of the “agrarian citizen”; see Hannah Wittman, “Reworking the Metabolic Rift: La Vía Campesina, Agrarian Citizenship, and Food Sovereignty” 36 (2009) Journal of Peasant Studies 805, at 807–8.

Michael Fakhri is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Oregon.