• The Non-Relevance of a Right to Food

    Grahame Booker
    Email: g.booker@sympatico.ca


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    The Non-Relevance of a Right to Food

    You might ask why I, a mere philosopher, ended up trying to say something about food. Perhaps by the time I am finished some of you will wish I hadn’t bothered. It certainly isn’t because, like the chap Pierre and Hiroko mention in the introduction to The Locavore’s Dilemma (Desrochers and Shimizo 2012), I had thought of doing some serious research on the subject, but opted instead for a career as a chef. As it turns out, I have done neither, though I suppose I can recall the odd occasion when I was glad good cuisine hadn’t entirely died out, even if like most 99 percenters I have confined myself for the most part to run-of- the- mill cuisine. Indeed, if I didn’t consider food too trivial a matter to write about, like Jacques Pepin’s prospective supervisor in the aforementioned volume, I certainly have taken it largely for granted as those who live in advanced economies are generally able to do.

                More precisely then what I would like to say something about is a bit more abstract, as is the habit of philosophers, by way of response to what some have discussed under the heading of “the right to food.” That famous source of wisdom, the man in the Clapham omnibus, might well wonder what a right to food has to do with anything, and I expect to reach much the same conclusion. However, in case you think I am simply putting up a straw man, there are indeed people who talk about the right to food. What’s more, the man in the Clapham omnibus notwithstanding, they think they are actually saying something, and that failure to take their exhortations seriously, will result in people going hungry, even in a developed country like Canada.

                Some of you may recall the press last year devoting some attention to the visit of a UN official whose mandate from that august body was  “ to examine the way in which the human right to adequate food is being realized in Canada” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 3). At the risk of turning you off your next meal, since you may come to doubt that that is something you have a right to, I will briefly refer to bits of the report just to give you an idea of some of the claims made by the Special Rapporteur, as he styles himself. After also mentioning in his introduction the many people he talked to, which included just about everyone except those in the actual business of supplying food to most of us, in the next section he addresses what he calls the question of food insecurity, claiming that 7.7% of households reported experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 4).

                In order to arrive at this estimate he uses Health Canada figures for 2007-2008, noting also that since at least half of those who supposedly had trouble putting bread on the table were dependent on social assistance,  this implied that government handouts were insufficient, leading further to a proliferation of food banks. No doubt there are all the usual caveats about such data, but overall the figure seems to be in line with the unemployment rate, and if you are out of work, it would not be surprising that you might have trouble making ends meet. The other thing that can be said is that in contrast with earlier periods in history, as well as many so called 3rd world countries, well over 90% of the populace is now able to feed itself adequately as well as provide in one way or another for those unable to do so. Unlike the UN official who would rather that all this happen at the behest of government, I welcome the fact that the multitude receives their loaves and fishes largely as the result of the efforts of private industry, and that those unable to fully participate in that market  can rely to a considerable extent on private charity.

                In the next part of the report the man from the UN laments the fact that Canada does not legally protect the right to food, at least as he understands it. While we do have federal human rights legislation, in his view it does not go nearly far enough to protect economic and social rights. What he particularly is concerned about is that “poverty and socio-economic status are not recognized as a prohibited ground for discrimination” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 5). Such a claim of course assumes a number of things, for example the fact that you are down on your luck is the result of somebody’s discriminating against or otherwise contributing to your misfortune. Further as Jan Narveson has pointed out, it is by no means clear that there is a right to non-discrimination in the first place (Narveson 2002: chap. 12).

                At the policy level the rapporteur thinks there may be more encouraging signs at least at the provincial level in Canada, where some have implemented “poverty reduction strategies”. He welcomes that fact that such measures include promoting healthy diets by the production and consumption of local foods. No doubt he would be happy to hear that the Ontario government has recently introduced an Act to enact the Local Food Act, 2013, which seeks “to promote local food and to develop a shared understanding of what needs to be done to support local food in Ontario” (40th Ontario Legislature 2013).

    Though, chatting recently to a friend who is a food buyer for Loblaws, a large Ontario food retailer,  it wasn’t immediately clear how the Ontario government’s new found enthusiasm for local food might be of any great interest to him. One could imagine that proclaiming the week before Thanksgiving as local food week might boost sales of, for example, Canadian apples,  though if they come from British Columbia, do they really qualify as local? In any case it hardly seems as though having the mills of the gods grind out yet more legislation is really necessary to ensure that Loblaws finds the best food at the best price, whether it comes from Ontario or New Zealand.

    Not that the rapporteur seems to have spent a lot of time talking to the people at Loblaws. He did however go out of his way to talk to the Toronto Food Policy Council which he claims “advocates for innovative food security programmes” and thinks that various levels of government would do well to integrate “such participatory models of food system management” into a “national framework” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 6).  Apparently all we need to overcome food insecurity are countless enthusiasts participating and advocating provincially and nationally. The fact that the agrifood business already seems to be managing to feed well over 90% of us, as well as sending much of its surplus to foodbanks, seems to count for nothing.

    The main problem with food becoming big business appears to be just that-in the eyes of the UN bureaucrat it is too big. Well maybe mom and pop farms and grocery stores aren’t up to the job any more. As my Pierre and Hiroko ask in their great book, “If local food production in earlier eras was so great, why did consumers increasingly favor items from ever more remote locations” (Desrochers and Shimizu 2012: 12).  I still remember the days of the corner grocery stores, just like I remember when we got our first car and TV, and I would much rather have the variety on offer these days. If the Canadian growing season can’t deliver apples, I am quite happy to buy from the Antipodes if it still tastes something like an apple by the time it gets here, not that the local apples in the corner green grocer’s years ago were anything to write home about.

    Along with small farms going the way of the dinosaur, the rapporteur claims that “Trade liberalization has been detrimental to many of Canada’s agricultural producers, whose net incomes have decreased and whose debt has increased dramatically over the past decades” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 10).  No doubt that’s what wheat farmers in England said after WW 1 when I gather from a recent TV program on the Edwardian farm, that England found it could buy wheat more cheaply overseas than it could grow itself. Another recent program lamented the gradual demise of the sea shepherds who for generations have transported sheep back and forth in small boats to the island off the coast of Scotland where they graze. In the name of all that is small and local I’m sure the rapporteur would have us subsidize such industries, as he would the man who used to sit in a tower at a local level crossing and lower the gates when the train was coming.

    It is interesting that someone who is concerned that the poor and downtrodden don’t have enough to eat is suddenly concerned about food producers. Farmers are apparently getting older, just like the sea shepherds, and carrying much greater amounts of debt since the Canada/ US free trade agreement.[1]  Again if food prices have declined along with the prices of other consumer goods as industries have become better at producing what they are in the business of, one would think this would be welcome news for those with less to spend than some of us. He is also worried that in the spirit of trade liberalization, something that the genuine liberals among us welcome of course, the government has moved to “gradually dismantle existing orderly marketing systems”, such as the Wheat Board.

    Indeed it has, and many of us regret that it is so gradual. More than a decade ago Stanbury wrote that the victims of dairy policy, i.e. the consumers, “are subject to the “logic of collective inaction”, in that they do not have enough of an incentive to take on the dairy farmers. The latter “benefit from the axiom “the importance of being unimportant”. Being only 0.26% of the population means that each farm can receive a large amount ($120, 000) annually, but for the millions who pay the freight, the sum is negligible ($80 per capita). This fact is also central to the “logic of collective inaction” (Stanbury 2002).

    In the wake of recent announcements about a similar trade pact with Europe some are looking forward to greatly expanded cheese offerings in the dairy section of the supermarket. However unless the local supply management system changes, as it did with the Wheat Board, and contrary to the recommendations of the UN official, those with cheese to sell in Europe, may not be able to sufficiently increase their milk quotas to meet any increase in demand from expanded international markets (Cumming 2013: 13).

    Of course the UN busybody persists in his view that small is the best way to guarantee a right to food, whereas the more we see of his recommendations, the less we are convinced that they have anything to do with putting reasonable food on the table for most people, which is what the food industry manages to do at present. As he puts it: “A thriving small scale farming sector is essential to local food systems, which food policy councils and localities throughout Canada now seek to strengthen. … Local food systems benefit local farmers, with strong multiplier effects on the local economy” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 9). Even if there were any reason to think that was true, farmers who benefit from supply management schemes, as Stanbury argued, “have a huge economic stake in preserving the status quo”, as do politicians who believe that happy dairy farmers will increase their chances of re-election. Thus as Stanbury puts it:  “The juggernaut rolls on getting larger, more complex, and shifting more wealth from millions of consumers and taxpayers to the owners of 20, 600 dairy farms, whose average net worth is nine times the net worth of all families in Canada” (Stanbury 2002: 17).

    As for the locavorism bandwagon which the rapporteur sees as one of the main planks in establishing a right to food, it is made abundantly clear in The Locavore’s Dilemma:  “locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety, and much more significant environmental damage ” (Desrochers and Shimizu 2012: 14).  With respect to food safety, for example, he himself observes that in the meat packing industry, which often garners more than its share of bad press, the cost of compliance with government safety regulations drives up the cost of doing business, leaving the game to big players and making it hard for small operators to compete, even if that were a desirable goal (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 9).

    Another of the rapporteur’s concerns is that while smaller family run operations by definition  had less need for  outside help, and if they did, got it from within the local community, as Mennonites do with a barn raising, large agribusiness is typically short of labor and often imports it on a temporary basis. Presumably these workers have to be sourced from outside the country because there are insufficient permanent residents able or willing to do the work. No doubt they themselves only bother coming to Canada from other parts of the Americas because they believe they can do better for themselves than by staying at home.

    It may be unfortunate if as he suggests the road to permanent immigration is not as smooth for them as for some other immigrant groups. They do however get other benefits in addition to accommodation and wages, such as health care, though the rapporteur expresses concern that these benefits do not follow them back to their home country. However, that is not too surprising, any more than the fact that they probably don’t continue to receive other employment benefits once they have returned home. Rather than taxpayers being on the hook for their continued health care needs, perhaps resulting from a job injury, workers could consider taking out private insurance against such risks (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 9).

    Not that private industry might be the solution to a problem ever seems to occur to the UN representative. The solution is always in terms of government and policy, and how we can add yet another regulation in order to bring about the rule of so called human rights. Not only does farm labour stand in need of greater regulation, but if we really want to overcome poverty in general, he claims we need to ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage. This despite the fact that all a minimum wage does is exclude those for whom any wage is better than no wage.  If your wage does not enable you to live in the manner to which you have become accustomed, you can presumably find better paying work or adjust your lifestyle. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect other taxpayers to maintain you in your sinecure in perpetuity and top up your wage if in your view it doesn’t allow you a reasonable standard of living, whatever that is.  Indeed, as reported recently by the Fraser Institute, raising the minimum wage does nothing to reduce poverty while also reducing job opportunities. An important reason for this conclusion is that “the bulk of minimum wage workers do not actually belong to low- income households” (Lammam and MacIntyre 2013: 13).

    As if to pave the way for his colleague who was also recently here to report on the country’s indigenous populations, the rapporteur on the right to food also raises questions about the same groups, remarking that: “A long history of political and economic marginalization has left many indigenous peoples living in poverty with considerably lower levels of access to adequate food relative to the general population” (United Nations General Assembly 2012: 16).   In line with his enthusiasm for locavorism, which appears to be largely misplaced, the rapporteur notes that one of the interesting features of aboriginal people is their traditional reliance on local or country foods acquired though hunting, fishing and gathering. If such food is often higher in nutrients, as he claims it is, at least in the case of the Inuit, it isn’t clear why anyone in remote communities suffers from inadequate diet. He speculates that one of the factors militating against their traditional food habits is a “lack of requisite skills and time” , in which case aboriginals aren’t very different from most of us, who have long since abandoned back yard farming for the supermarket.

    In August the rapporteur delivered an Interim Report on the Right to Food summarizing the results of his visits to various countries. In the Summary he notes that “The Report takes stock of important progress made since the 1996 World Food Summit, highlighting emerging best practices and the role of key actors: Governments, Parliaments, courts, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and social movements” (UN general Assembly 2013).  Of course, entirely edited out of the script is the food industry which manages to feed most of us at present, no doubt because of the view as characterized by Desrochers and Shimizu that: “ Corporate agriculture must be put to death by thousands of sustainable, organic, local and ethical (SOLE) food initiatives whereby increasingly self reliant communities escape from the grips of the “Monsatans” of this world through their support of small-scale rural operations and the conversion of suburban crabgrass wasteland and urban rooftops into edible bounty. While this “Delicious Revolution” may add a few digits to our collective grocery bill, more sustainable practices, increased quality and safety of food, healthier bodies and improved spiritual well-being make it worthwhile” (Desrochers and Shimizu 2012: 3-4).

    Even if the UN and its minions do not succeed in dismantling our food industry, it will still be the case, as Delingpole said with respect to another of their preoccupations, climate change, upon which much of their food policy rests: “Never has so much paranoia been generated, so much money been squandered, so much nonsense been spouted, so many lives been constrained, so much economic damage been inflicted, so many bright futures been stunted on the basis of so little evidence” (Delingpole 2012: 265).[2]

    Let us turn from the pontifications of your average UN rent seeker to say something further about some of the assumptions underlying his report, specifically those having to do with rights, and in particular human rights. About the latter I take it that the main question, to paraphrase another famous remark, is whether there is any such thing. Amartya Sen, who thinks that the notion of human rights will stand up to “open public scrutiny” admits that it is a much contested notion with “many who see the idea as no more than ‘bawling upon paper’ (to use another of Bentham’s derisive descriptions)” (Sen 2009: 356). What can we say about rights in general which might shed some light on the question as to whether characterizing some of them as human rights does any useful work?

    Those of the liberal persuasion such as myself, and to be sure this is a different sort of liberalism from that of the UN rapporteur, assuming he would be interested in such a label, find it helpful to distinguish negative from positive rights. A negative right is the right held against all others that they refrain from interfering in my life plans, provided that I refrain from interfering in theirs. Sometimes following Mill this liberty principle is said to enjoin causing harm to others, and is relatively easy to live up to if I can restrain my inclination to e.g., steal from or defraud them, murder them or vandalize their property. Such social cohesion as we have is no doubt largely a function of the extent that we have been able to refrain from aggression against innocent people.

    Some will say that it is all very well that we avoid harming others, but there is more to life than that.  Indeed, others may have positive rights against us that we fulfill certain obligations towards them, obligations which we freely assumed as part of a specific contract. It would seem that the right to food mentioned above belongs in this latter category since the rapporteur didn’t simply mean that you have a right to produce whatever food you can, provided this doesn’t worsen the situation of someone else, and after you have fed your family, perhaps give or sell any surplus to others whose farming skills leave much to be desired. What he seems to mean is that you are duty bound to feed the less fortunate, though if that were the case it would be at considerable cost to your own life plans.

    These are definite obligations, much as would arise if I signed a contract of some sort, but they are not with respect to one party for consideration, but are in some sense to everybody-thus the epithet “human”- like the negative rights already mentioned. We can see how we might benefit from a mutual non aggression pact with the rest of humanity, but it is harder to see how my supposed general obligation to feed the hungry in some remote corner of the earth could ever be reciprocated.

    We have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or so some fancy document purports to tell us. Understood in the first sense, as a negative right, it will amount to our not interfering with others’ pursuit of those goals provided they do not impose burdens on us in the process and allow us to pursue similar goals.  As a positive right, it would be incumbent upon us to see that they achieve those goals regardless of the cost to us.

    None of this is to imply that we cannot choose to support some cause or other, such as help the neighbouring farmer raise a new barn, perhaps knowing that he would also help me if I needed it. This is what we call charity but it has nothing to do with the coerced redistribution of the UN or any other government.

    As Jan Narveson has recently written, contrary to what you might guess from listening to the rapporteur: “ Food doesn’t for the most part “just grow on trees- ” even when it does the trees are planted by somebody, and harvested by somebody; the results are canned or frozen, or whatever, and transported to markets. Some people work at this; others do not. Most among those others produce something else, and the food-producers trade with them. Everybody benefits. What makes that system possible, though, is the clear recognition that the producers have rights to what they produce. If we know that others will just take it, whatever we think, our motivation to produce it in the first place is undermined” (Narveson 2013: 11)

    I thus agree with O’Neill when she observes that: “Unfortunately much writing and rhetoric on rights heedlessly proclaims universal rights to goods or services, and in particular ‘welfare rights’, as well as to other social, economic and cultural rights that are prominent in international Charters and Declarations, without showing what connects each presumed right-holder to some specified obligation-bearer(s), which leaves the content of these supposed rights wholly obscure” (O’Neill 1986: 100, see also O’Neill 2000).

    I conclude that the addition of “human” only serves to blur the difference between negative rights, which are of long standing, forming the basis of much of the common law, and positive rights, or duties owed to specific individuals. The claim that there is an enforceable duty semper ab omnibus et ubique to feed the hungry, wherever they happen to be, is, as the man, whose wax effigy is to be found in University College London, might have put it, nonsense.  [3]



    40th Ontario Legislature, 2nd Session. 62 Elizabeth II (2013). Bill 36: An Act to enact the Local Food Act.

    Cumming, Ian. 2013. Cheeses and quotas. Financial Post, Oct. 13.

    Delingpole, James. 2012. Watermelons. Biteback Publishing.

    Desrochers, Pierre and Hiroko Shimizu. 2012). The Locavore’s Dilemma. Public Affairs, NY.

    Laframboise, Donna. 2011. The Delinquent Teenager.  Ivy Avenue, Toronto.

    Lammam, Charles, and MacIntyre, Hugh. 2013. A higher minimum wage results in unemployment for young workers. Fraser Forum, Sept/Oct. Fraser Institute.

    Narveson, Jan. 2002. Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice. Rowman and Littlefield.

    Narveson, Jan. 2013. A human right to subsistence. Unpublished manuscript.

    O’Neill, Onora. 1986. Faces of Hunger. Allen and Unwin. London.

    O’Neill, Onora. 2000. Bounds of Justice. Cambridge University Press.

    Sen, Amartya. 2009. The Idea of Justice.  Belknap Press.

    Stanbury, W.T. 2002. The Politics of Milk in Canada. Fraser Institute.

    United Nations General Assembly. 2012. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter.

    United Nations General Assembly. 2013. Interim  Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food,  2/22.

    [1] Government debt, on the other hand, does not seem to be problem for the UN representative.

    [2] See also Laframboise (2011): “One day the IPCC may come to be seen as a textbook case of how badly things can go wrong when political amateurs are recruited and manipulated by UN-grade political operatives.”

    [3] I refer, of course, to Bentham