A talk originally given at the Oxford Graduate Christian Forum on 3rd June 2019
In my world - the world of public health - human rights are increasingly invoked as a reason for doing something to improve health. Here is just one example: a recent report, written by my friend Amandine Garde from Liverpool University and published by UNICEF, entitled, a ‘Child’s rights based approach to food marketing: a guide for policy makers’[i] This report does what it says in its title: i.e. links recommendations (e.g. from the World Health Organisation) in relation to food marketing with a human rights framework.
Now I am interested in food marketing. I have spent quite a bit of my life researching into food marketing and its effects on health: chiefly its effects on children’s health. I would contend that the marketing of unhealthy foods – e.g. through advertising on television, on bill-boards and on the Internet – often contributes to children’s unhealthy diets and in turn their increased risk of overweight and obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
I do think it is right that children should not be exposed to unhealthy food marketing but I am not certain that children have a right not to be so exposed.
Here is another example of a rights-based approach to public health from a recent report on obesity from the World Obesity Federation and published by the Lancet entitled ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change’[ii]. This report report makes ex cathedra statements such as this:
“International human rights are a set of universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements created by international treaties and customary international law and enforced through national and international legal systems. The Commission [led by the World Obesity Federation] proposes that five interrelated human rights collectively constitute the right to wellbeing, an integrated framework that reflects the rights recognised by international law, including the right to health, the right to food, cultural rights, the rights of the child, and the implied right to a healthy environment (figure 4) [shown below]”
I say ‘ex cathedra’ because the existence of human rights is not universally agreed. Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx are examples of philosophers who criticised the notion of human rights. Alasdair MacIntyre is a leading contemporary critic. From a historical point of the view the ideological ascendancy of human rights in recent times seems to be the result of the collapse of prior universalistic schemes including Marxism and Christianity[iii].
Now I am uneasy about invoking human rights as a reason for doing things to improve peoples’ health. And in this talk I will try and explain why I am uneasy. I will focus on the right to food. My unease stems from my reading of the Bible and in particular the stories of creation that you can find therein.
I also find that human rights including the right to food can hardly be regarded as ‘a set of universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements’ as the World Obesity Federation seems to think. They are rather a construct of late 20th century western secularist ideologies such as Neoliberalism.
I will propose - from a Christian point of view - that if we see food and indeed other resources, such as clothes and shelter, as a gift we may find better ways of dealing with problems in the food system than if we a adopt a rights – based approach. I believe that these problems are very serious and that urgent solutions are needed.
I should say that at this that you could you skip the next few paragraphs justifying my gift-based approach. To me a gift implies a giver but I also think that it is possible to be grateful for food – and thereby view it as a gift – without necessarily having to believe in a giver. You may also agree with my criticisms of a rights-based approach, without necessarily agreeing that a gift-based approach is preferable
So In Biblical texts food is implicitly, if not explicitly, recognised as a gift from God. The stories of the creation to be found in the Bible – mainly in Genesis – should, I think, be fundamental to our thinking about food as gift for survival but also for pleasure. But these stories also indicate that because of human nature, the production and consumption of food, becomes hugely problematic. And from the beginning the gift is bound around by rules and laws.
In the first creation story in Genesis we hear that God said to the first humans: ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’ [1: 29]. Note that there is, here, no mention of animals as being food for humans.
In the second creation story we learn that the first home of human beings was a garden where: ‘Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food’ [2: 9]. And the Lord God put the human in the garden ‘to till it and keep it‘ [2: 15] presumably so that it would continue to provide food in the form of fruit with seeds to eat. So here from the start human beings are created to co-operate with God in feeding themselves but the food comes from plants that, at least in the first place, are given to them, and even planted, for them.
After the first humans’ disobedience against God’s instructions not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad – commonly known as ‘the Fall’ - their relationship with food is completely altered. As is of course their relationship with God, with one another and the rest of creation. It is perhaps not accidental that our deep – seated rebellion against God – as described in Genesis - is symbolised by our flouting of a rule about food.
After the Fall God says ‘Cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’. Now the first humans are forced into becoming farmers, at the mercy of things like weeds, not just keepers of a garden. They now must work hard to make the land bring forth enough to eat.
We might, in passing, note the story of Cain and Abel which seems to be a memory of the early skirmishes between farmers (represented by Cain) and herders (represented by Abel) where farming – requiring a settled existence with food production dependent on human ingenuity – wins out against – herding, which requires much greater trust in God.
We then come to the story of Noah. And for the purpose of sketching out the history of humans relationship with food it is worth noting that is only with the Noahic Covenant, made between God and Noah and his family after the Great Flood, that humans are first given permission by God to eat animals and then only under duress and with certain conditions.
The first thing Noah does when the ark reaches dry land after the flood is to kill of some of the animals that God had told him to rescue and to sacrifice them to God as a burnt offering. There is no suggestion at all that God wanted Noah to do this. But God now tells Noah ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. [9: 1]. That is ‘You are now allowed to eat animals but only if you do so with respect for their life: a life that, unlike plants, is similar to yours.'
And so here is the origin of food laws. Food laws are with us today. Food laws are part and parcel of most religions. Some Christian denominations still prescribe the avoidance of meat, and the consumption of fish, on Fridays. Some proscribe the eating of lamb – because of Jesus being the called the Lamb of God by John the Baptist. But nowadays food laws are there, less for, religious reasons than for reasons of ensuring a safe and healthy and increasingly a sustainable food supply So the Biblical view of food is, at its most basic, that it is a gift with rules attached, particularly around meat consumption.
Let’s turn now to food as right. In researching for this talk I have delved a little into the history of human rights, and whether food features as a right in the various declarations of rights. So the US Declaration of Independence (1776) states:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
There is no mention of food here, just a right to life, but the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control" (Article 25).
So here there is a mention of food. And also in the mention of ‘everyone’ having this right a signalling that the intention behind the declaration is to promote equity or at least a minimum standard of living for all.
After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to adequate food was recognized in several instruments in international law but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), particularly Article 11, dealt more comprehensively than any other instrument with this right.
And In General Comment 12 on Article 11 of this International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations stated (in 1999): ‘The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement’[iv]
The Committee also considered that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:
“The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture
The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.”
This elaboration raises a large number of questions in my view. The concept of dietary needs is, for a start, hugely complex. What is optimal for a diet is quite different from what is necessary to meet physiological needs, say for calories. Do we only have a right to a diet which supplies us with enough calories for our needs but not to a diet where calories are not in excess of our needs and thereby damaging to our health?
The idea that a culturally acceptable diet is a right, also seems to me, problematic. Does this mean that meat eaters have a right to eat meat since meat is culturally acceptable in many cultures?
As the basic concept of the right to foods gets elaborated, the elaborators come across problems with the concept. The most obvious problem is: what is meant by food. Is caviar a food? Yes. Do we have a right to caviar? Surely not. By ‘food’ proponents of the right to food clearly do not mean all foods. Regardless of cultural acceptability the right to calories from meat is surely more dubious than the right to calories from starchy staples.
Elaboration of the concept of the right to food also throws up the issue of competing rights, as acknowledged by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Economic and Social Council. This is clearly more nuanced than the World Obesity Federation’s view of rights as ‘indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated freedoms and entitlements’.
How does this right to food as set out and then elaborated in UN documents match with the Biblical notion of food as a gift? Well, badly in my view. They seem quite different ways of regarding food, its production and consumption.
Of course, the notion that humans have rights comes out of a commendable acceptance that there are universal ethical principles that should govern society. The idea of human rights is predicated on the notion that they apply to everyone (well up-to a point as, for example, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seen as sell-evident in the US Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves). The idea seems to stem from the view that such rights can be awarded without the need to refer to a higher authority. Accordingly, being a believer in a higher authority than humans or human derived institutions such as the UN, I think there are various problems with a rights-based approach.
First, a rights-based approach tends to focus on entitlements rather than responsibilities. Secondly a rights-based approach tends to put too much trust in the ability of humans to solve their own problems. Thirdly, a rights based approach, while theoretically able to embrace the concept of rights of groups, communities and societies in practice seems to fall back on the rights of individuals. Fourthly, a rights based approach seems to ignore our responsibility to the planet on which we live and the other life forms with which we share it.
I think these problems with a food as a right – based approach are obviated if we, instead, take a food as a gift based approach. Let us look at each of these problems in turn.
So firstly, the observation that a rights-based approach tends to put too much emphasis on entitlement rather than responsibility. It is true that an acceptance that humans have rights implies that others have obligations to uphold those rights. In UN documents these are mostly assumed to be the UN member states that sign up to declarations about rights but this seems to ignore the fact that it is not just governments that have obligations to solve problems including problems related to the food system. All actors in the food system – including commercial actors - have such obligations and individuals themselves surely have a responsibility for what the food they produce and put in their mouths.
A gift based approach accepts that humans are not entitled to food but do have responsibilities to treasure the food – all food but particularly animal based products - in gratitude for the gift. A gift-based approach to food suggests that human should participate in its production. So that growing crops sustainably and caring for food animals becomes an obligation. A gift based-approach should orientate our thinking to seeing that what is needed is a fundamental change in human thinking from entitlement to gratitude, and to thinking what we might all do in response to that gratitude.
Secondly a rights based approach tends give too much weight to the ability of humans to solve their own problems. Now we know human hubris has brought us to a point where civilisation as we know it is almost bound to collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.50C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The food system is responsible for about 30% of Green House Gas emissions. Without a fundamental change to our food system much of the land on our planet that is currently capable of producing food will tip over to being, in effect, desert. Actually I see no prospect of avoiding that eventuality.
A rights based approach neatly aligns with the view that human ingenuity (in practice this means science and technology) will mean that we will be able to develop a food system which satisfies the ‘rights’ of everyone by supplying them with a diet that is ‘acceptable within a given culture’. It is surely too late to be arguing in this way. Adopting a gift-based approach would means a fundamental change in thinking about land and water and their capacity to produce food for us. More respect for the nature of the gift of creation planet is required and less confidence in our abilities to save ourselves.
Thirdly, a rights-based approach, buys into prevailing notions of individualism: that individuals should be free to choose their own identities and destinies and that they automatically have the right to choose what they eat. If individuals have rights then groups, communities, societies do as well but declarations of rights seem to give scant recognition to collective rights and how these might conflict with rights of individuals; Of course, this focus on individual rights is designed to ensure that governments assist the more vulnerable members of their societies. But in public health we know that the health of a population is not just the sum of the sates of health of the individuals of which it is composed. The ‘health’ of the relationships between members is equally important in ensuring a healthy society.
A food as a right-based approach come perilously close to buying into consumerism: the view humans can and should find their identity in what they consume rather than in what they produce. A right to consume should surely be balanced with a right to produce, but elaborations of the right to food barely acknowledge the needs of producers except as a constraint. A food as gift perspective restores the importance of the producer in the food system.
Fourthly as I suggested earlier the most important problem with the food system at the moment is its impact on the environment. We need a huge change in how we produce and consume food – particularly animal-based products - to avoid climate catastrophe. If humans have a right to food do other animals have a right not be eaten? What about the rights of life-forms that share our planet? Do they have right not to be driven to extinction. I think the notion of planetary rights makes little sense. If food is a gift, the planet and its living and non-living inhabitants are a gift too, and we have the responsibility to look after it both for itself and for future generations,
In conclusion I am in favour of a regarding food as a gift rather than a right. I accept that a gift-based approach makes more sense to those who believe in a giver than those who don’t. However we can feel gratitude for our food/regard our food as a gift without necessarily believing in a giver. I think that public health – in turning to human rights as justification for promoting the public good - may be doing more harm than good in response to problems faced by humanity today and in particular climate change. Without an appropriate respect for what we have been given, the environment in which we live will become increasing unpredictable and I hope this might prompt humanity to throw itself on the mercy of God the creator of all we have been given but I am not optimistic. Hopeful but not optimistic.
[iii] Samuel Moyn, The last utopia: Human rights in history, 2012