IntroductionFeeding the approximately seven billion people who inhabit planet earth is a topic of continuing controversy and promise. It is controversial because people continue to go without food on a daily basis, which may eventually lead to their starvation. The promise lies in the fact that technological advances, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hold out hope that more food can be produced so that the amount of food available for consumption would balance the absence of food we have grown accustomed to witnessing. However, a recent article in The New York Times suggested that GMOs have not lived up to their potential or promise of a greater food supply (Hakim, 2016). In addition, just because food arrives in a particular nation to feed hungry people does not mean that the food will be distributed properly or at all. This gives rise to many ethical issues that are ripe for debate, but rarely on moral grounds.
Food and Freedom
In his article titled, “Food and Freedom”, Amartya Sen argued that, “The provision of food is indeed a central issue in general social ethics, since so much in human life does depend on the ability to find enough food to eat,” (Sen, 1989, 769). To put this a different way, a person’s freedom to live a decent life and to adequately work to earn resources for that life depends on being free from hunger, early morbidity and premature death. To enjoy these freedoms, a person must also have freedom of access to food so that the person’s health permits living that decent life. Consequently, food for freedom and freedom for food becomes a central issue in life.
Sen expands on this notion of freedom and food by discussing four concepts of freedom (Sen, 1989, 770). First, freedom can be seen as either negative or positive freedom. Negative freedom theory advocates freedom from something such as interference from the government or one’s neighbors. Positive freedom theory presents freedom in terms of what a person can actually do or be (Sen, 1989, 770). The other concepts are instrumental freedom and intrinsic freedom. Instrumental freedom is freedom that becomes a means to an end. Intrinsic freedom means that freedom has value in and of itself (Sen, 1989, 770). So, the approach to freedom can be negative-intrinsic, negative-instrumental, positive-intrinsic or positive-instrumental. From Sen’s perspective, approaching food should be positive and deal with the freedom of a person to do or become better.
In Sen’s earlier work, he advocated an entitlement approach to food and famine (1981). With respect to food, famine and starvation, Sen defined entitlements as “the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that he or she faces” (Sen, 1984, 497). It should be noted here that entitlements derives from legal rights, not from morality or human rights (Devereux, 2001, 246). Consequently, what is available for people is not the result of what is right in a human sense, but in the legal sense of a transaction, which may or may not be ethically based. Much law is ethically based, but not all. In any event, the ethical perspective of being obliged to feed someone has no standing here. Ownership rights are what matters. In fact, Sen reduces entitlements to four categories – growing one’s own food; buying food from someone else; working for food; and, being given food by someone (Sen, 1981, 2). If a person cannot engage in any one of these “transactions”, then that person has only one entitlement left – starvation. Morally, that is unsuitable; legally, it is acceptable.
Any ethical argument concerning food and freedom should begin with rights and capabilities. Food is a basic need, along with other necessities, but to speak in terms of human need is to broker from a weak position, which is less likely to push change (Solis, 2014, 1). However, once freedom for food is positioned as a human right, moral and legal forces are available to help bolster needed change than can help produce more food and reduce the entitlement of starvation. Secondly, the capability approach should be used along with rights as an ethical starting position. This approach entails two normative claims that draw from ethics. First, capability approach says that the freedom to attain well-being is of primary moral importance; and, second, achieving well-being should be understood in terms of a person’s capabilities (Robeyns, 2016, 1). This freedom should permit people to realize their real opportunities to do and to be what they find of value (Robeyns, 2016, 1). This cannot happen unless freedom for food is considered and dealt with as a moral right for every person. Transactions, or entitlements, must go beyond legal rights to include intrinsic value.
Sen’s position is that food is an entitlement that can be attained by one of four categories of transactions. In a famine, Sen assumes that a person will automatically begin to turn his or her endowments into food for survival (Devereux, 2001, 249). When the entitlements do not contain food to meet a person’s minimum food requirements, then the person faces a starvation set, which may lead to actual starvation, or short-term starvation in order to enhance the person’s future endowments. However, the decisions here are not made on the basis of moral or ethical principles, but on legal rights (Devereux, 2001, 248).
Sen’s critics point out that legal rights are not necessarily the same from region to region, so some transactions may actually be illegal in certain areas. Also, people’s food consumption may fall below their minimum requirements for reasons other than famine; and some famine deaths may be the result of famine epidemics rather than starvation (Devereux, 2001, 248). The starvation model posited by Sen postulated a linear path that began with destitution, moved to starvation and ended with death. However, this is not necessarily the result of famine. For example, if none of the four transactions were available to an individual, starvation might result simply because the individual could not gain access to food. The discouraging part of this model is that unless some ethical or moral concepts are introduced, the same result will occur over and over again. As of now, the model operates under the notion of legal human rights, which means that humans are not necessarily entitled to food because they need it to survive. Ownership, or the ability to establish ownership, must be a precursor to having food and preventing starvation. Surely there is an alternative where ownership can be established on moral grounds, rather than legal and/or economic grounds.
Regardless of the theoretical framework for food production and consumption, future modeling needs a stronger connection to moral and ethical precepts. Most models of human consumption patterns place food in the category of being a necessity. That means a person must have food to stay alive. If we truly a society that values human life and seek to prevent unnecessary deaths, then food availability and consumption must be thought of as being intrinsic rather than as merely instrumental.
- Devereux, S., 2001. Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques. OxfordDevelopment Studies, 29(3), pp. 245–263.
- Hakim, D., 2016. Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops.The New York Times, 29 Oct. Available at:www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-fales-short.html?emc=edit_ta_20161030&nlid=55863192&ref=cta [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].
- Robeyns, I., 2016. The Capability Approach. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3 Oct.Available at:
[Accessed 1 Nov.2016].
- Sen, A., 1981. Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Sen, A., 1984. Resources, Values and Development. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
- Sen, A., 1989. Food and Freedom. World Development, 17(6), pp. 769-781.