Nutrition is a human right

10 Feb 2021

Being healthy should not be a privilege: health is a fundamental human right. Given that our health depends on being able to eat meals that contain the vital nutrients our bodies need to survive and thrive - nutrition is also a human right, and shouldn’t be reserved to those who are privileged.

Malnutrition shows inequalities

Being malnourished takes many different forms. Undernutrition conditions include being wasted (dangerously thin for your height), stunted (too short for your age) and underweight (having low weight for your age). Malnutrition also includes overnutrition conditions, such as obesity or overweight, which can lead to diet-related diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers).

Malnutrition and food insecurity can be found everywhere in the world, but they impact populations differently, depending on their ability to access and afford nutritious food and nutrition related health care. In the UK, Save the Children found that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the ability of UK families to afford the food they need. 38% of surveyed parents who live on low-income said they had to turn to food banks and charities to try to feed their families. Worryingly, food parcels delivered to children eligible for free school lunches (while schools are remained closed) were widely criticised online, for failing to provide satisfying and nutritious meals.

COVID-19 is also disrupting the way people live on a global level, and the rate of malnutrition is rising dramatically. Malnutrition could prove more deadly than the disease itself, with an additional 9.3 million wasted and 2.6 million stunted children, and 168,000 additional child-deaths due to malnutrition by 2022. Reduced incomes, limited financial resources, changes in the availability and affordability of nutritious food, as well as interruptions to social protection and health services are all to blame. Seems unfair? Well yes, it is, and it means there is an urgent need to champion people's right to nutrition around the world.

A human rights approach to improving nutrition

At RESULTS UK, we believe that it is a moral imperative to support the most vulnerable and marginalised populations, wherever they are, and to reduce poverty by ensuring that their most basic health needs are met. Whether people are actually able to realise their right to health depends on governments to act, to ensure malnutrition is prevented, and that people can get treatment if and when they need it.

The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP and the Treasury have stated that Human Rights will be at the forefront of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’s work this year. Protecting rights is indeed what we need in times of pandemic - in times of global emergencies, human rights are often threatened, side-lined or neglected altogether. 2021 is also the Year of Action for nutrition, that includes milestone events such as the G7 Summit and the UN Food System Summit, leading up to the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo in December. The FCDO have a chance this year to champion human rights and make good nutrition a reality.

The right to adequate food – what does it actually mean?

Infographic naming the five conditions that need to be met to achieve the right to adequate nutririon.
The five conditions that governments need to ensure, if people's right to adequate nutrition is to be realised.

In our recently launched policy briefing Nutrition as a Human Right, RESULTS explains that access to nutritious food is a fundamental human right that governments have the responsibility to protect, promote and fulfil. International human rights law calls this the right to adequate food; a person’s right to a sufficient quantity of food that satisfies their dietary needs.

The right to adequate food is a strong framework for governments to follow, as it details the kinds of barriers that individuals face when trying to access adequate food and nutrition services, and explains what governments and their institutions need to prioritise removing those barriers.

In order for a population to be well fed and nourished, a number of economic, and social conditions are met:

  • Availability of food: refers to the production and distribution of food via a market system.

  • Stability: refers to the solidity of food supply, over time and in all places

  • Accessibility (physical and economical): refers to the ability to afford a sufficient amount of nutritious food, and to the ability to physically access places where food is sold and distributed.

  • Sustainability: refers to the preservation of the environment to safeguard natural resources in such a way that they ensure the availability of nutritious food in sufficient quantity for both present and future generations. 

  • Adequacy: refers to the nutritional value of food, to meet the nutritional needs of individuals.

For the right to adequate food to become a reality therefore depends on governments’ interventions in these five areas.

Human rights are all universal and interdependent, so guaranteeing good nutrition also helps the realisation of other fundamental rights, such as right to health, the right to life, the right to water, and even the right to education (as malnutrition affects education outcomes). Much like the Sustainable Development Goals, realising all human rights is essential for the establishment of a more equal society and to help end poverty.

What needs to happen in 2021?

2021 kicks-off the Year of Action for Nutrition, ending with the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit in December. To save millions of lives from preventable deaths, countries around the world will need to step up and use these opportunities for change. We need the UK Government’s commitment to continue to deliver life savings programmes directly preventing and treating malnutrition (nutrition specific), and tackling the underlying causes of malnutrition (nutrition sensitive), with the aim of fulfilling people’s rights.

If the FCDO wants to champion human rights globally and to ensure a long-sustained recovery from COVID-19, the UK should therefore honour its reputation as a leading donor of the N4G and to commit to reach over 50 million children, women, and adolescent girls with nutrition programmes by 2025.

Committing to tackle malnutrition at the Summit is a concrete start towards the promotion of human rights, but it is also an essential contribution to progressively eradicate extreme poverty and inequalities in our societies.

To find out more, read the full RESULTS UK publication; Nutrition as a Human Right.

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Mathilde Chiesa

Policy Advocacy Officer (Nutrition)

Mathilde leads RESULTS UK's policy advocacy work on nutrition. After completing a Master degree in Public International Law and an LLM in Human Rights Law, Mathilde worked in the Children Rights’ and Global Health’s sectors. Passionate about human rights, she strongly believes in the values of a...

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