Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Access to Land and the Right to Food

  • Claire DebucquoisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_349-1


Human Dignity Rural Household Adequate Food Commercial Pressure Threaten Food Security 
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Examining the relationship between access to land and the right to food requires that we first define what we mean by access to land on the one hand—thus, both land and access—and the right to food on the other. We will then briefly draw the complex relationship existing between access to land and the right to food. Finally, we will propose a short analysis of the issue against the current international backdrop of rising commercial pressures on land and then conclude.

Access to Land

Land is, in a first definition, “the part of the earth’s surface that is not covered by water” (Oxford English Dictionary). It is not simply “everything but water” but bears certain features that make it a particularly complex resource. Land does not move; it is heterogeneous and indispensable to almost all human activities; land is inherently linked to notions of identity and authority as well as territory, and it distinguishes itself by the power and depth of the sense of belonging people feel to it (Hall 2013). In this article, we will not consider the role of land as space and territory but solely as a resource, given our focus on food. The relationship between land and food will be examined below after a brief account of the right to food.

Access entails “the ability to benefit from things – including material objects, persons, institutions, and symbols” (Ribot and Peluso 2003, p. 154). Property is one of several possible (institutional) means toward achieving access. It is “a right in the sense of an enforceable claim to some use or benefit of something,” an enforceable claim being “one that is acknowledged and supported by society through law, custom, or convention” (Macpherson 1978, p. 3). Property refers only to claims that are sanctioned by socially legitimate politicolegal institutions—these institutions being effectively legitimized if their interpretation of social norms is heeded (Lund 2011; Sikor and Lund 2009).

We take the opposite of access to be exclusion, defined as “the ways in which people are prevented from benefiting from things” (Hall et al. 2011, p. 7). A good or resource is excludable insofar as it is feasible to exclude others from access to and use of the good or the resource (Ostrom 2003). While it has been convincingly argued that inclusion is intrinsic to property (Dagan 2011), the ability to exclude is generally regarded as a defining feature of property rights (Rose 1994).

Right to Food

The right to food protects the right of all human beings to feed themselves in dignity, either by producing their food or by purchasing it. As authoritatively defined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) “The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement” (General Comment No. 12, para. 6).

The legal basis for the right to food in international law lies in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of everyone “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 25). This right is also protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which stipulates that states “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions” and requires them to “take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right” (ICESCR, Art. 11.1). Finally, the right to food is recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Articles 24.2(c) and 27.3, as well as in a number of other international and regional instruments. The CESCR provides an authoritative interpretation of the content of the right to food and guidelines for its progressive realization in the abovementioned General Comment No. 12, and the Voluntary Guidelines adopted in 2004 under the auspices of the FAO complement it with recommendations.

Three key elements form the core content of the right to food: availability, accessibility, and adequacy. First, availability requires that food should be available from natural resources and/or in markets and shops, which means that there exist mechanisms to move food from the site of production to where it is needed in accordance with demand. Second, accessibility requires economic and physical access to food to be guaranteed, meaning that food must be affordable (without compromising any other basic needs, such as school fees, medicines, or rent) and accessible to all, including to the physically vulnerable, such as children, the sick, persons with disabilities, or the elderly, for whom direct access to food may be difficult. Third, adequacy means that the food must be safe and satisfy dietary needs, taking into account the individual’s age, living conditions, health, occupation, sex, etc.

The right to food, like other economic, social, and cultural rights, places three forms of domestic obligations on States. First, the obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires State parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access. Second, the obligation to protect requires measures by the State to ensure that companies or individuals do not deprive other individuals of their access to adequate food. Third, the obligation to fulfill (facilitate) means the State must proactively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. Whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfill (provide) that right directly.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations developed the so-called PANTHER framework, deriving from human rights treaties a number of principles—namely, Participation, Accountability, Nondiscrimination, Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment, and Rule of law (FAO 2009). States ought to follow these in order to create monitoring mechanisms, both judicial and nonjudicial, of decision-making processes to advance the right to food. Participation means that everyone should have the right to subscribe to decisions that affect them; accountability requires that elected representatives and government officials be held accountable for their actions through elections, judicial procedures, or other mechanisms; nondiscrimination prohibits arbitrary differences of treatment in decision-making; transparency entails that people be able to know processes, decisions, and outcomes; human dignity requires that people be treated in a dignified way; empowerment requires that they are in a position to exert control over decisions affecting their lives; and rule of law, that every member of society, including decision-makers, must comply with the law (Cotula et al. 2008).

Access to Land and the Right to Food: Drawing the Relationship

The relationship between access to land and the right to food is not obvious, nor ubiquitous. In many cases, the right to food can entirely be fulfilled without access to land being provided through means such as formal employment with high-enough wages or off-farm business activities. However, for rural households in the global South, land is the strongest and oftentimes the only guarantee of relative food security (Cotula et al. 2008, esp. pp. 23 and 59). More generally, it is estimated that 80 % of the billion people suffering from hunger today—mostly smallholders as well as agricultural workers, herders, artisanal fisherfolk, and members of indigenous communities—depend on land for their livelihood (De Schutter 2010). Among them, many farmers can only cultivate plots of land that are too small or not irrigated enough to ensure subsistence. In addition, peasants are usually poorly protected by law, which makes them vulnerable to various limitations on their activities including, in extreme cases, evictions.

Insofar as land rights ensure access to productive resources and are key for realizing the right to food—that is, when there exists no alternative means of producing or purchasing food that is sufficient, adequate, and culturally acceptable—they are of paramount importance. But land ownership and use are often subject to confused and intertwined regulation, combining, for example, customary law (i.e., administered in accordance with the customs of indigenous groups) and statutory tenure (usually introduced during colonial periods)—not to mention the array of laws and codes at the international scale.

In addition, realizing access to land is extremely complex. First, one needs to distinguish property rights and effective access since rural households can have either one without the other (Hall 2013). Property alone does not ensure that rural households will be able to derive benefit from the land (to “access” it) but needs to be complemented with “structural and relational mechanisms of access” such as technology, capital, and markets (Ribot and Peluso 2003, p. 160). By contrast, people can have access to land (“benefit from it”) without property rights—through agricultural labor, for example.

Second, having in mind the focus on land as a resource, exclusion (i.e., nonaccess) from a specific piece of land (as opposed to any land at all) is essential to virtually every productive use of land by anyone (Hall et al. 2011, p. 4). Aspirations for land access necessarily include the wish for some degree of exclusionary power (Hall et al. 2011, p. 7). This key dilemma causes manifold tensions, which are particularly complex when it comes to the recognition and implementation of a positive right to land for land-dependent rural households (as distinct from a negative right not to be evicted from land already held) through land reforms or similar programs of land redistribution (Hall 2013). Thus, exclusion is inevitable and goes hand in hand with access, engendering dynamics that involve a wide range of actors, powers, and legitimizing narratives.

Beyond local and national tensions affecting access to land, the issue takes on new dimensions within the current wave of international land transactions, which can also be analyzed according to the benchmark of the right to food. The land, water, and other resources that have supported local groups’ livelihoods for generations are now increasingly being subtracted from their access and control and converted into large-scale agro-industrial plantations, aimed to a considerable extent at nonfood production (see the data available at http://www.landmatrix.org/). This transformation from small-scale farming for personal and/or local production to large agrobusinesses can threaten food security inasmuch as agricultural products are generally sent abroad, bypassing domestic markets. Moreover, the deals provide few or no guarantees for small landholders and are therefore likely to negatively impact the most vulnerable groups. Besides, although small-scale farmers sometimes resort to techniques that are detrimental to the environment, these large monocultures with intensive use of pesticides and mineral fertilizers aggravate in a much more powerful fashion soil erosion, groundwater contamination, and climate change, through the significant amount of greenhouse gases they entail. In the mid- to long run, this is expected to considerably diminish both the quality and the availability of natural productive resources, hence to reduce the ability of rural communities to feed themselves. Thus these large-scale land leases and acquisitions are likely to pose considerable challenges to the realization of the right to food by bringing about changes regarding access to land, choice of products to be cultivated, and where these products are sold (i.e., international or domestic markets) (Cotula et al. 2009).


The access to land of rural farming households in the global South is jeopardized by a variety of dynamics, spanning from local to international dimensions. It is an extremely complex issue especially in its positive side (to be granted access), but it is also under fire in its negative component (not to be deprived from current access) due to growing commercial pressures on land worldwide.

In this context, to borrow Amartya Sen’s formulation, “the law stands between food availability and food entitlement” (Sen 1981, p. 166). This statement highlights the central role of legal entitlements in ensuring that the most vulnerable have access to the necessary resources to either produce enough food or have a purchasing power sufficient to acquire food in the market. Since hunger does not result so much from a lack of food production as from institutional bottlenecks and deficient economic and political empowerment (Cruz 2010), the place of human rights in the design of strategies and mechanisms to combat hunger becomes fully meaningful.

In particular, public policies aimed at improving access to food, and to land when it appears as a necessary means to this end, should target the most marginalized, enable and foster participation, enhance accountability and monitoring, and engage in individual and community empowerment. These touchstones are no silver bullet, yet they are conditions to improve entitlement to land and ultimately to food as a resource indispensable to life.


The right to food does not necessarily translate into a right to land. Yet, for most of the world’s hungry, access to land is a condition to guarantee their livelihood and to achieve a decent standard of living. Thus, the relationship between these notions is far from simple. Moreover, given the various layers of significance attached to land as well as its many dimensions, realizing access to it is fraught with complexities as well. Nonetheless, the issue has to be explored, even more so in the current context of rising commercial pressures on land worldwide and the far-reaching transformations they entail.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FRS-FNRS), affiliated with the University of LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium
  2. 2.Columbia Law SchoolNew YorkUSA