child in poverty searching for food

The right to life

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set an agenda for the common achievement of all peoples, a worthy aspiration that should be at the front of everyone’s mind. Here we ask what it means for food.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

This is Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.

A reasonable ask. Everyone has the right to a good life.

Article 25 takes the right-to-life idea further.

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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Again a perfectly reasonable ask and most people across cultures recognise how important it is for everyone to have easy access to these rights. 

Living in a way that provides health and well-being, even when a person is old or disadvantaged, requires a few fundamentals.

Human health needs adequate food with sufficient calories and nutrition and access to clean water and clean air. Whilst the human body is miraculous at resisting the pollutants and pathogens in the world and can persist for a long time on meagre rations, there are limits. Most morbid diseases are a consequence or are triggered by a failure of the fundamentals.

This brings us to a problem.

How much of the delivery of clear air, clean water and adequate nutrition is a public good—a commodity or service made available to all members of society—and should sit alongside education, law enforcement and public infrastructure?

This is presumably the intent of Articles 3 and 25, that right to the fundamentals is delivered to everyone all the time. 

Easier to do if those are public goods made accessible to all, not goods and services manipulated by the government or vagaries of the market.

And if they are a public good, are they free? How are they delivered? And if there is a tangible cost of delivery, who pays for that?

Most people see clean air as a free good. Water usually costs something, even if it is just the labour to carry it from a well or a standpipe. Food always costs time or money or both.

But f it is a right, should it be free?

What sustainably FED suggests

The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, gender bias notwithstanding, should be given to everyone on the planet as a free public good.

There should be clean air, clean water and food available to all. 

Equally, everyone should be responsible for the delivery of these public goods, and that includes awareness and avoidance of actions that put delivery at risk. Although not energetically possible, no negative externalities from human activities is a desirable goal. At the very least, avoiding the worst should be a priority.

Note that we included food in with the clean air and water.

Access to adequate nutritional food should be a human right. It is not explicit in Article 25, but it is impossible to have health and well-being without sufficient food.

Now, this bucks the global financial model that has made the food supply chain a process for profit. And so it should. It is hard to see how a profit incentive can produce food for 8 billion people at affordable prices without dumping some of the cost onto the environment.

But if food were free, like air is free, then perhaps…

Hero image modified from photo by billy cedeno from Pixabay


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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