Obesity, NCDs, and the Right to Food

By Angela Duger

Health and human rights professionals have long considered food and nutrition to be underlying determinants of health, but the focus has largely been on undernutrition. That focus is now changing. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese, and that now, for the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight adults in the world. Obesity is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and diabetes, and causes an estimated 2.8 million deaths per year. Obesity is no longer a problem solely impacting the rich or those in developed countries. We are facing a public health crisis because of our eating habits.

On March 6, 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council entitled “The Right to an Adequate Diet: The Agriculture-Food-Health Nexus.”  International human rights law already recognizes the right to food in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Article 11), and the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights elaborates on the content of this right in General Comment 12.  In his groundbreaking report, De Schutter claims that state obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to an adequate diet as a component of the right to food applies not only to undernutrition, but to overnutrition. De Schutter links the nutritional content of diets to food systems and outlines state obligations to address these issues in order to realize the right to food.

By expanding the right to food to include the right to respect and protect adequate diets, De Schutter broadens states’ obligations from merely providing a basic minimum of food to prevent malnutrition and hunger.  States must now address structural issues in food production, processing, and marketing to address overweight and obesity. For example, De Schutter notes that agricultural policies and the globalization of food chains have increased the availability of processed foods — particularly foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sodium, and sugar.  While these problems are commonly discussed in public health circles, previously there was no human rights law that created government responsibility for these problems.

De Schutter presents a human rights framework to address the rise of non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and diabetes, through adjustment of agricultural policies, food trade, and regulated marketing and taxation of food and beverages. Among other recommendations, De Schutter identifies five priority actions for addressing the nutritional component of the right to food:

taxing unhealthy products;
regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar;
cracking down on junk food advertising, especially to children;
overhauling misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others; and
supporting local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious foods.

The global prevalence of non-communicable diseases is at a crisis level. In September 2011, the UN General Assembly convened to launch a global campaign to curb non-communicable diseases and their effects. In considering the role of food in elevated levels of non-communicable diseases, it is critical that this campaign address not only food consumption, but the larger systematic problems plaguing food production and distribution. De Schutter’s report is pioneering in providing a human rights analysis of the failure of current food systems and creating legal obligations for states to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food.

Angela Duger is the Ford Foundation Fellow at the Program for Human Rights in the Global Economy at Northeastern University School of Law.

Photo by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria (IITA) , via Wikimedia Commons