Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "right to food"?

I need to give a little context for this post. I'm in Winnipeg as a guest at the Board meetings of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and then I'm staying on for the World Religious Leaders Summit at the University of Winnipeg next week. There are two issues that I've been thinking about these last few days and I intend to talk about one in this post and the other next time - probably in a few days. Just so you know what's coming, the topic for today is the concept of the right to food. Next time it's going to be some thoughts on the role of faith in promoting peace.

So - the right to food. Simple proposition really. Every social activist apparently resonates with the idea that no matter how rich some people are, or how poor other people are, everyone should have the right to eat. From grass roots activists to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the right to food is about declaring that we ALL have the right to eat. Sounds good... fair... right. Who can argue? But the thing is, I think that when we dig a little deeper this proposition is problematic from both a pragmatic perspective and from a Christian perspective. Hear me out.

First, the pragmatic perspective. So what happens? According to the UN,

The World Food Summit in November 1996 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and gave a specific mandate to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to better define the rights related to food and propose ways to implement and realize them. (see

That was in 1996. See where I'm going with this? It's easy to say that everyone should have the right to have access to safe and nutritious food, but who's responsible? When drought destroys the crops in whole regions of the world, or when scarce agricultural land is used to produce cash crops for rich people a world away, or when a flood ravages the subsistence farmland of small shareholders, or when food is contaminated, or livestock gets sick and dies, who makes sure that all those people and their families have safe and nutritious food?

The right to food campaign may make some sense in a political context - when a layer of government makes a conscious commitment to patrol the distribution of food so that even the poorest have their basic needs met - but let's think a bit about the implications from a Christian perspective.

I'm thinking that we shouldn't take food and water for granted OR see them as entitlements. We also shouldn't exploit them for profit - and certainly not when somewhere around a billion people are chronically hungry. Nope. The way I see it, if God created this earth with the capacity to sustain life, then food and water are actually sacred gifts. Our relationship to food then is not about rights or demands but gratitude and humble stewardship so that there's enough to share - not as a right but as a privilege. And the privilege part is not just that we have the privilege to enjoy safe and nutritious food, but the greater privilege is in the sharing at a common table - having enough for everyone to eat and some to spare.

See when we're not hording the resources there is an amazing multiplication that happens around the table. Five loaves and two fish become both food for the masses AND symbols of abundance. But the minute we start arguing about rights, they're just five loaves and two fish - a snack pack for a little boy's lunch. BTW - if you're not familiar with this bible story, you can read it at John 6:5-13 or just click on this link:

These are tricky times. Sometimes the rhethoric can get the best of us and we get turned around. Sometimes the very thing that sounds fair and just is actually a diversion. Let's be careful about using the language of rights, even when it's someone else's rights we're talking about. This is literally just scratching the surface of the issue, but it's a start.

And speaking of rhetoric, next time I'm going to be talking about faith, peace and politics. Some interesting ironies.

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