Experts lead push for human rights approach to diets and food systems

1 November 2019
Call for international guidance on human rights and healthy diets
Professor Roger Magnusson is calling for international guidelines to address the challenges of healthy diets and sustainable food systems. An opinion piece recently published in the British Medical Journal calls on the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to jointly lead the process.

Professor Roger Magnusson, Kent Buse, Professor Brigit Toebes, and David Patterson have made their call in response to lack of progress in addressing the inter-related challenges of obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, hunger, and unsustainable food systems.

They argue that joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines could help to disseminate a new frame of reference – putting people at the centre of food systems, and strengthening the protection of health in global and national policies.

180 experts in global health and development, human rights, food systems, and HIV from 38 countries have supported the call.

The following is an excerpt from Professor Magnusson’s affiliated blog post International Guidelines on Human Rights, Healthy Diets and Sustainable Food Systems: could they make a difference?

How would international guidelines make a difference?

The Open Call published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) draws on the example of the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights (1998), which clarified the legal obligation of States, under international law, to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in the context of HIV.

These guidelines helped to consolidate the framing of global strategy for HIV prevention and treatment in terms of the human rights of those affected by HIV. They also provided language and conceptual tools for civil society organisations to hold governments to account.

In the BMJ Opinion, the experts argue that joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines could have a similar effect, by putting people at the centre of food systems, and strengthening the protection of health in global and national policies.

Why a human rights frame for healthy diets and sustainable food systems?

Some of the most urgent public health problems today revolve around the interlinked crises of obesity, poor nutrition, hunger, and climate change.

The starting point is that in many countries, market forces are failing to deliver healthy diets, adequate nutrition and sustainable food systems.

If framing food purely as a commodity, and if framing food systems purely as business networks supplying commodities in response to market demand – was effective, then countries wouldn’t be buckling under the strain of a massive, preventable burden of diabetes, obesity and chronic, diet-related diseases.

The Lancet Commission on Obesity called for “a radical rethink of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international governance” to address these problems.

While many actions will need to be taken, the BMJ Opinion argues that human rights concepts and language are powerful, under-used tools. International human rights law provides a powerful way to frame these, and other challenges.

Joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines could help to push human rights concepts and language beyond the “UN human rights silo”.

International Guidelines on human rights and healthy diets could help to mobilise multisectoral action, strengthen the accountability of States and the private sector, and deepen community engagement in the urgent task of developing healthier, fairer and sustainable food systems.

You can join the open call at the Healthy Societies 2030 website.


Roger Magnusson
Professor Roger Magnusson
Academic profile

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