• Classroom Series

Food, Right to Food, and Everything in Between, in conversation with Dr. Nira Ramachandran

Earlier in 2021, Dr. Deepa Kansra, Co-editor, the Classroom Series had a discussion with Dr. Nira Ramachandran, Author, Persisting Undernutrition in India and Underfed, Underpaid and Overlooked: Women, the Key to Food Security in South Asia.

Dr. Ramachandran is currently an independent researcher and consultant based at Gurgaon, India.

The discussion centered around the right to food in local and global contexts.

DK: In law, food and the right to food are widely discussed topics. Is there any particular definition of food which appeals to scholars across disciplines?

Nira Ramachandran: The most widely used definition of “food” or more specifically, “food security”, which is what we are discussing in this context, dates back to the World Food Summit 1996. “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (World Food Summit, 1996). Jean Zeiglar, former Special Rapporteur to the UN on the Right to Food expands this definition based on ESCR General Comment No. 12 as: “the right 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 the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear (Zeiglar 2008). Zeiglar also observes that the right to food is the right to feed oneself with dignity.

DK: How should one understand the statement food is a moral right of all human beings?

NR: Norman Borlaug’s famous precept of “food as a moral right of all human beings” stems from the fact that man cannot survive without food, and it is the moral duty of those in power to ensure that no one dies from want of food. The same concept has existed in India, and around the world through history. It is, perhaps, the reason behind Kings and employers being called “Annadaata” or provider of food.

As early as 321–301 BCE, Kautilya’s Arthashastra advised Kings to provide food and seeds to the population during famines, either from their own stores or by redistributing the wealth of rich citizens. The Sohgaure Plate-another early Maurya document records an order to the Mahamatya (Chief Minister) of Sravasti to the effect that certain store houses (Katha Galani) at Triveni, Mathura, Cancu, Modena and Bhadra are to be opened to cultivators in season of distress".[i] Village Heads were directed to maintain their own food stocks for times of food distress.

Feeding the hungry was not limited to India. Free or subsidized food grain was provided to the population of the Roman Empire, when required, as far back as 509-287 BCE. By 123 BCE, a grain law was proposed by Gaius Gracchus and approved by the assembly providing about 33 kilos of subsidized grain to every adult male (very much in sync with India’s Food Security Act 2013). By 62-58 BCE, the numbers eligible for food doles expanded to 320,000 and grain became free of cost.

In England, once elementary education became compulsory from the 1870s, the need for feeding hundreds of thousands of poor, underfed schoolchildren was recognized, and by 1906, legislation allowed rate-payer-funded feeding programmes to alleviate the worst distress. However, this was not compulsory.

DK: Would it be correct to state that nutrition and health are components of the right to food?

NR: Yes, very much so.

The earlier concept of “food security” which developed in response to food distress during famines (an oft quoted example is the Great Bengal Famine of 1770) or through the World War period, was limited to the provision of foodgrain, essentially rice and wheat in the case of India. The concept has now been broadened to that of “Food and Nutrition Security”. A closer look at the FAO definition of Food Security, which emphasizes “...access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” underlines the fact that the objective is not merely to ensure sufficient quantities of food to appease hunger, but the right amounts of nutrients required to lead an active and healthy life. In fact, food security as it is understood today, also includes access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation as it is now realised that even access to the right quantity and quality of food is insufficient to ensure good health. Waterborne diseases and insanitary conditions have been recognised as a major cause of malnutrition, especially in the case of children.

DK: Can linkages be drawn between the right to mental health and the right to food?

NR: It is only recently that attention is turning to the issue of food insecurity and mental health. A few research studies have reported positive links between food insecurity and mental issues. A meta-analysis of data from 19 studies covering 372,143 individuals across 10 countries found a positive relationship between food insecurity and stress, and food insecurity and the risk of depression, but not anxiety. Older participants >65 years exhibited a higher risk of depression, and males were more likely to be depressed than females. Region-wise analysis pinpointed food insecure households in North America as having the highest risk of stress and depression.[ii]

Another study using data from the Gallup World Poll (2014) across 176 finds that Independent of socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, individual level food insecurity is associated with poorer mental health status across regions and across cultural contexts. Worrying about food, acquiring food in socially unacceptable ways, disruptions of meal patterns, family rituals, and intra-familial transfer of knowledge and practices, as well as alterations in food quality and quantity, are common across different cultures. Furthermore, acquiring foods in socially unacceptable ways can induce feelings of alienation, powerlessness, shame, and guilt that are associated with depression.[iii]

DK: In your opinion, which one is a greater reality - food as a market commodity or food as a public good?

NR: First let us distinguish between a “market commodity” and a “public good”.

The three essential resources for the survival of all living beings are air, water and food. While air is a free resource, and water is still comparatively free (we do pay for delivery of clean water to our doorstep), food in any form is no longer a public good. The days of the “Commons” where people could access food through gathering or gleaning after the harvest, faded away with the privatisation of most land and even coastal seafood areas and marine food stocks. Even the access of tribal populations to forest produce is now severely contained and restricted.

Food as a commodity is the thinking underlying the modern industrial food system.[iv] The value of food lies in its price, and the lower the price and the larger the volume of production, the more successful the agricultural system is considered. This is regardless of the costs to the environment, and the burden of a completely devastated eco-system, which future generations will inherit. The fact that a significant proportion of the world’s population still goes hungry in a world producing more food than required indicates which system is currently in existence. While 151 countries have ratified “The Right to Food”, which seeks to ensure that a minimum amount of food is made available to everyone, every day, in reality, only limited segments of the population can be accommodated, because of the massive investment and commitment required.

DK: What are food monopolies? Do they affect distribution, access and consumption of food by the weaker sections of society?

NR: The most dangerous monopoly in the food sector is that of seeds.

Seeds are the starting point of agriculture, and of course, of food. Since the beginning of settled agriculture, the farmer saved part of his output for seeding the next crop or exchanging with his neighbouring farmer. Seeds of numerous varieties, all well suited to the environment in which they grew were available for use, barter or exchange. With the introduction of modern agriculture and largescale farming, new varieties of seeds were developed, which were high-yielding- some hybrid and others genetically modified. These varieties increased yields by as much as 15-30 per cent over traditional seeds, but required expensive inputs in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and investment in new seeds, which small and marginal farmers who make up the largest portion of our farming community were unable to afford. And the most important fact here is that the grain produced from hybrid seeds cannot be used to successfully grow another crop. Fresh seeds must be purchased each season. The three largest seed producers in the world Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, control 53 per cent of the global seed market. Where GM seeds are concerned Monsanto is said to have sold 90 per cent of GM seeds worldwide (2009). While small farmers in developing countries still use traditional seeds to a large extent, commercial seeds account for at least 35 percent of the seed market in India, itself (2019). Monsanto has been present in India since 1988. The sharp increase in seed prices together with the growing costs of fertilisers and pesticides are leading to financial distress and food insecurity in rural areas, apart from environmental degradation. In fact, the Government of India itself attributes 75% of rural debt to purchased inputs.[v]

While foodgrain seeds are directly related to food production, food security is not entirely dependent on food but also on livelihoods. The story of BT cotton seeds controlled by Monsanto is a case in point. Soaring seed prices, royalties on output, lower yields than those touted, backed by the increasing number of farmer suicides in the cotton growing belt underline the backlash of agricultural monopolies.

DK: Is “food wastage” duly addressed as a major concern in policy deliberations?

NR: Food wastage has always been a pressing concern in food policy discourse. Recent FAO estimates place wastage of the annual food production in India as high as 40 per cent, the costs of which would amount to approximately INR1,025 billion (US$14 billion)[vi]. Much of this wastage is because of the lack of proper storage facilities at farm, state and central level, obsolete threshing and harvesting practices, poor transport facilities and an almost non-existent cold chain. The godowns of the Food Corporation of India as well as the State Warehousing Corporations are full to overflowing as the Government routinely procures several times larger quantities than required for the public distribution system (under the Minimum Support Price (MSP) guarantee). Food being a sensitive political issue, it is difficult for any Government in power to streamline procurement and distribution on strictly economic lines. Opening the farm produce storage area to private players through the Sampada scheme is a step in this direction. That apart, of the 300 million tonnes of foodgrain produced each year, the FCI procures only about 8 million tonnes, less than one-fourth of the total output, the rest is often stored in the open, exacerbating the amount of wastage. An ICAR study (2016) estimated the economic loss from wastage of agricultural and livestock produce at a massive INR 92,651 crores.

The Ministry of Food Processing has instituted several cold chain projects in partnership with Private Firms, Farmers Cooperatives, NGOs, etc. with a view to providing integrated cold chain and preservation infrastructure facilities, without any break, from the farm gate to the consumer.

DK: Are discourses on food and right to food influenced by challenges like resource depletion and corruption?

NR: Resource depletion and sustainability of food resources is an urgent concern. With the growing demand for animal foods, feeding the world’s population based on current food choices, may soon become impossible. It has been estimated that it takes almost twenty times more land to feed a meat eater as compared to a person consuming a plant-based diet. In fact, “According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, it takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are producing plants for humans to eat.” More than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. In addition, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used for animal feed.[vii] Once again, it is educating the population on healthy food choices, price control systems, and other non-coercive methods rather than laws, which can effect a positive change, and ensure that the right to food can continue to be implemented.

Where corruption is concerned, it is a perennial problem regardless of which sector one reviews. For long, the Public Distribution System has been criticized for leakages, false ration cards, sale of subsidized food on the blackmarket, turning away beneficiaries with trumped up excuses and the like. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had famously said that for every rupee spent on the PDS, the customer receives only 16 paise. This was in 1985. More than two decades later, the same estimate was put forward by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission (2009). The India Corruption study (2005) covered 4,405 respondents over 20 states and found that: 60% households using the PDS confirmed unavailability of rations; In high poverty incidence states, “out-of-stock" scenarios were as high as 80%; 34% of those visiting ration offices had to make four or more visits before their voice could be heard and suitable action taken; and nearly 50% paid a bribe for obtaining a new, perfectly legitimate ration card; 24% reported overcharging[viii]. However, a more recent survey[ix] of 1200 BPL households in nine sample states finds considerable improvement with an average of 83 percent of the entitlement reaching the beneficiaries. Inter- state variations are, however, sharp ranging from 90% in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh to less than 45% in Bihar.

DK: Should legal rules be concerned with people’s choice of food?

NR: Peoples’ personal food habits should remain out of the ambit of the law, particularly as concerns the choice of foods which may vary according to custom and environment. The definition of the “Right to Food” itself incorporates the need to provide food according to the cultural traditions of people. However, there are two exceptions to this rule.

The first is to ensure that food is safe for human consumption. Some of the earliest laws in existence relate to food. Food laws existed in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Rome and India as evidenced by the literature of the times. The focus was on preventing the adulteration of food products. Early initiatives were taken by the Trade Guilds, but later devolved on the state or local authorities. Industrialisation and the accompanying spurt in population and public health issues resulted in the emergence of food control measures, and by the early Twentieth Century, a separate branch of food laws was created. By the 1920s, Europe had established National Standards Organisations, and by 1962, a Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme was set up along with a subsidiary Body-the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). In India, the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) ensures that all processed food products are labelled with information as to date of manufacture, best before date, ingredients, nutritional information, known allergens, etc. It also lays down standards for safely packaging different food items.

The second case lies within the purview of public health policy, which has to lay down guidelines to ensure that food choices move in the right direction, where there is obvious imbalance. The results of unhealthy food choices are clearly reflected in the burgeoning obesity levels and associated co-morbidities in most developed countries, and now increasingly in the developing world. While banning of certain processed, high fat, high sugar foods is not feasible, laws are in place to ensure accurate labelling of all processed foods detailing the fat, trans-fat and sugar content of each serving, so that consumers can make informed choices. Public health messages through various media ensure that people can make informed choices to ensure healthy eating. The menu for school meals and childcare centres is carefully evaluated to ensure that it meets the nutrient requirements of those being fed, in India as in other parts of the world.

DK: In light of the right to food, which areas would you recommend to students for research?

NR: Here are a few areas currently being researched, which could use additional efforts for in-depth or expanded coverage:

- Gender Equality and the Right to Food.

- Will the Right to Food solve the Malnutrition Problem?

- Trade-offs between Environmental Sustainability and Nutrition Goals.

- Enforcing the Right to Food. Is it possible?

- Legal Strategies for Realizing the Right to Food.

DK: What are you currently working on?

NR: At the moment, I am focusing on analysing changing livelihoods and food security patterns on small islands, which are not only facing the brunt of climate change, but also the threat of extinction.


DK: Thank you for taking time out to interact with us.


[i] http://www.fao.org/3/x0172e/x0172e03.htm [ii] Pourmotabbed A, Moradi S, Babaei A, Ghavami A, Mohammadi H, Jalili C, Symonds ME, Miraghajani M.Public Health Nutr. 2020 Jul; 23(10):1854. doi: 10.1017/S1368980020001512. Epub 2020 May 4. [iii] Jones, Andrew D. (2017) Food Insecurity and Mental Health Status: A Global Analysis of 149 Countries Am J Prev Med 2017; 53(2):264–273 & 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published by Elsevier Inc. [iv] Vivero Pol, J.L. (2014) Why Isn’t Food a Public Good?, Accessed at https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/archive/policy_innovations/commentary/00289 [v] https://en.reset.org/knowledge/privatisation-seeds [vi] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/india-grows-more-food-wastes-more-while-more-go-hungry-1752107-2020-12-22 [vii]https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/meat-environment/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20U.N.,plants%20for%20humans%20to%20eat. [viii] Trasparency International and Centre for Media Studies (2005) India Corruption Study. [ix] Dreze and Khera (2011) PDS Leakages: The Plot Thickens, The Hindu, August 12, 2011.

 Rights Compass/ All Rights Reserved/2020-2021

Note from editors- Classroom Series: Reading Human Rights is now Rights Compass (w.e.f. 20th March, 2021).