Last week we posed and began to answer the following question: what in our view would be a comprehensive and reasonably defensible agricultural policy? We identified four elements: environmental sustainability, human physical sustainability, economic sustainability, and political sustainability. In last week’s column we focused on the issue of environmental sustainability. This week we take a look at human physical sustainability through the lens of “the right to food.” The next two columns, in order, will deal with economic sustainability and political sustainability.

For much of U.S. post-colonial agricultural history, export markets were seen as a way for farmers to rid themselves of price-depressing surplus production, whether it be tobacco, cotton, wheat, or corn. But beginning with the export boom of the 1970s and the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition issued by the World Food Conference in 1974, that view of the role of exports began to change. Farmers began to wear belt buckles that declared “The American Farmer Feeds the World.” And the idea of feeding the world became intertwined with U.S. agricultural policy; however the need to get rid of surplus production was always there.

Though the right to food and the right to be free from hunger had been a part of international declarations beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the goal of the 1974 World Food Conference to eradicate hunger and malnutrition within 10 years was not achieved. By the mid-1980s the number of hungry and malnourished remained very close to the level it was 10 years earlier. In the meantime, a follow-up to the UDHR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm), was adopted in 1966 though it was not ratified by the required number of nations until 1976. The ICESCR recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food…” (Later documents make it clear that the masculine pronouns, notwithstanding, the right to food includes female-headed households as well).