The Right to Food

Many of the rights codified in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms are predicated on having enough food. How can one have life, liberty and security of the person without having enough to eat? How can one pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province if one is starving?  How can one live out any of their rights and freedoms when they are preoccupied with where their next meal will come from?

What’s being called the “Canadian Right to Food Trial” is taking place in Calgary this week. It was brought forward by Paul Hughes, a food activist and head of the Calgary Food Policy Council. It began initially as a challenge to a by-law infraction, concerning raising urban chickens, and has since evolved into a case with far greater scope. It is asking questions like what role a municipality should play in deciding what its citizens can eat, and whether there is such a thing as a right to food, as guaranteed by both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and United Nations agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESC).

The concept of the right to food is not a new one. The ICESC treaty was a multilateral treaty adopted by the UN in 1966, and signed and ratified by Canada a decade later. The treaty represented a commitment on the part of participating countries to ensure that certain economic, social, and cultural rights were available to all citizens. The right to food was included as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, as well as the right to health.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations established a Right to Food Unit in 2004, and it later became one of the FAO’s nine priorities. They developed a set of voluntary guidelines, and articulated the vision of “…realizing the human right to adequate food, through it being respected, protected and fulfilled everywhere.” The FAO established the Unit after a UN Special Rapporteur in 2002 said the following about the right to food:

“Right to adequate food is a human right, inherent in all people, to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”

It could be argued that based on the FAO’s definition of the right to food, and the rights embedded in our Canadian Charter (either explicit or implicit), Canadians do have a right to food. But in reality, we certainly do not. Nine percent of Canadians are defined as food insecure, and 900,000 use food banks, 38% of which are children. And while food banks provide food, they do not necessarily do so in a culturally appropriate way, nor with sufficient quality or quantity. Also, many Canadians live in food deserts, where access to fresh food is limited; in Toronto, a majority of those living in food deserts are found in the city’s inner suburbs and priority neighbourhoods.

This right to food has never been affirmed in a legally binding way in Canada. Perhaps the trial taking place in Calgary will change that; but regardless of the outcome, the action is a bold and necessary one. What began as a by-law infraction has triggered some questions about our fundamental food rights that need answers.

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