On a Constitutional Right to Food

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A right to food as a matter of constitutional principle is being proposed in India, which has a population of hungry people that exceeds the population of most whole nations. 421 million chronically hungry people in the world’s largest democracy are not only a gigantic political constituency but also a staggering health problem. India is acknowledged to have the largest population of hungry people in the world and it’s not immediately clear how granting a legal right to food will change this troubling reality. India’s proposal for a constitutional right to food provokes a discussion of how the nature of political rights differs from how we approach biological necessity.

The self evident “truths” that Jefferson coined in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are now recognized as rights but historically have generally begun as something less than obvious. For instance there was no expectation of free speech throughout most of human history until one was enshrined in law. Similarly, human civilization is perhaps predicated on an expectation that there will NOT be enough food. Institutions of government, standing armies, and the various ways economies are organized all seem to arise out of an historical experience where food was not generally plentiful or if it was it could vanish very quickly because of the changing seasons or competition from the empire in the next neighborhood.

Is it possible that freedom of speech only becomes a right when it is possible to organize society so that this is workable? The declaration of the right can perhaps be thought of also as a suggestion that we have reached a moment in human history when it is possible to live together without worrying about what everybody is saying about everybody else. Kings are not divine; governments aren’t absolute, so therefore it makes more sense to have everybody’s speech be equal. Is it possible that one can only imagine a right to food when there is a realistic expectation that there is enough food for everyone on the planet?

Economists believe that we reached that point some time ago with the advent of industrial scale agriculture and a robust planetary scale distribution system. The right, therefore, becomes a question of allocation and not about some biologically mediated “right” to live no matter what, even in the middle of a desert or something like that. Even be talking about food as a right suggests we have reached a point where we can make the case for a realistic global expectation of sufficient food to support the world’s population. For all of the numbing challenges of implementing an actual constitutional right to food one can find tangible hope in the milestone that we might finally agree there is enough for all.