U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.N. declaration recognized that a grave food crisis afflicted two-thirds of the world’s population and acutely imperiled the basic human right to life and dignity.

Summary of Event

The world food problem, including the history and geography of hunger and malnutrition, is a complex issue. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert proposed his now-famous thesis that population growth increases exponentially while food production increases arithmetically and thus that food supplies will always be just barely adequate for a given population, the population-food imbalance has been a central issue surrounding the persistence of hunger. Other important factors include food production, foreign aid, national security, the international debt crisis, political power and oppression, land reform, the role of women in Third World countries, literacy and education, employment, sanitation and health care, and environmental degradation. Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, U.N. (1974) United Nations;hunger relief Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations World Food Conference, U.N. (1974) [kw]U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition (Nov. 16, 1974) [kw]Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition, U.N. (Nov. 16, 1974) [kw]Hunger and Malnutrition, U.N. Declaration on (Nov. 16, 1974) [kw]Malnutrition, U.N. Declaration on Hunger and (Nov. 16, 1974) Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, U.N. (1974) United Nations;hunger relief Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations World Food Conference, U.N. (1974) [g]Europe;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] [g]Italy;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] [c]Agriculture;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] [c]Human rights;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] [c]United Nations;Nov. 16, 1974: U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition[01760] Marei, Sayed Ahmed Medici, Giuseppe Waldheim, Kurt

While statistics on the persistence of starvation prior to World War II lack accuracy, we know that massive famines Famine afflicted the Romans in 436 b.c.e. and India in 1291 c.e. An estimated 1.5 million of Ireland’s 8 million people starved to death in the summer of 1846 during the potato blight. During the Soviet famine of the early 1930’s, an estimated 3 to 10 million people starved as a result of the large-scale social dislocation resulting from Joseph Stalin’s Stalin, Joseph farm collectivization period. Flooding in West Bengal, India, in 1943 led to the loss of some 2 to 4 million lives through starvation. At the end of World War II, large numbers of people were close to starvation in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. Mao Zedong’s Mao Zedong Great Leap Forward Great Leap Forward policy caused massive famine and social dislocation in 1958. Mass famines resulting from regional civil wars in Nigeria (1969-1970), Pakistan (1972), and West Africa and Ethiopia (1974) led to starvation for hundreds of thousands.

During the post-World War II years, food supplies in most developing countries moved upward at modest rates, but the shift was from a substandard diet for many human beings. In the early 1970’s, however, the world witnessed a dramatic change in the international food situation that negatively influenced world hunger. The shift was related to a host of factors, including a soaring demand for food spurred by both global population growth and rising affluence.

The limitations of the international community’s ability to respond to changing global food emergencies became clear by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. World food reserves had gone from oversupply after World War II to a ninety-five-day supply in 1961, and then to a twenty-six-day global supply of grain by 1974. From 1962 to 1972, the world price of a bushel of wheat and that of a barrel of oil were roughly the same. Between the years 1973 and 1975, the price-setting policy of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) essentially quadrupled world oil prices. As a result of OPEC oil price increases, among other factors, the price of wheat on the agricultural commodities markets soared, and breadbasket nations such as the United States had to pay for their rapidly rising oil-import costs with food exports. The very structure of the world food economy underwent a dramatic shift resulting in land, water, energy, and fertilizer shortages that had been unknown in earlier decades.

The Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC) of the United Nations in its 1973 sessions noted with concern the seriousness of this conspicuous shift in world food prices, availability, and distribution. On December 17, 1973, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to convene the World Food Conference, to be held November 5-16, 1974, in Rome, Italy. The conference would study the problems of hunger and malnutrition facing the majority of the world’s peoples. The conference was opened by Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the United Nations, and was attended by representatives from 133 states and six national liberation movements and by observers from twenty-six intergovernmental organizations. Those present examined new ways and means of increasing global food production and distribution.

Waldheim noted with dismay that governments and the international community had failed to meet the target of a 4 percent annual increase in global agricultural production that had been called for four years earlier by the International Development Strategy for the Second United Nations Development Decade. Because excessive food imports and consequent drains on the foreign-exchange reserves of the developing countries had continued unabated, the conference agenda included concrete strategies for increasing food production in both developing and developed countries, measures to strengthen world food security policy, and proposals toward stabilizing and expanding markets for exports from the developing nations.

On November 16, 1974, conference representatives adopted the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition. The declaration’s preamble and twelve principles were linked to the aims and objectives of the New International Economic Order New International Economic Order (NIEO) that was set forth on May 1, 1974, by the U.N. General Assembly and designed to redress the international economic imbalance felt by the developing nations. The twelve principles of the declaration built on the principle that every man, woman, and child has an “inalienable right” to be free from hunger and malnutrition. The declaration called on governments to work cooperatively for equitable and efficient food distribution and adequate nutrition policies.

The declaration noted that states have the responsibility for removing obstacles to food production by means of agrarian, tax, credit, and investment policy reform, and for recognizing the key role played by women in agricultural production. Appropriate education, extension programs, and financial facilities are to be made available to women as well as men. Marine and inland water sources are to be exploited for food requirements, even as food production at all levels is to be carried out with waste prevention policies in place and a willingness to conserve the planet’s natural resources.

The declaration also specified that developed nations must aid developing nations by means of unconditional technical and financial assistance. The delicate interrelationship between the world food problem and international trade requires the cooperation of all countries in an effort to stabilize world markets and promote equitable and remunerative prices through international agreements. Finally, it is the common responsibility of the entire international community to secure adequate world food supply reserves, including emergency reserves.


The most significant impact on human rights at the World Food Conference was the establishment of the World Food Council World Food Council (WFC) on December 17, 1974. The WFC was the highest political body in the United Nations dealing with global food policy. It reviewed food policy proposals advanced by national governments and regional institutions and established cooperative, long-term global food policy. The WFC was suspended in 1993, and its responsibilities were taken over by the U.N. Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, U.N. (DPCSD).

One important human rights development at the grassroots level was the establishment of World Food Day, observed each year on October 16. The day serves as an annual reminder of the scope and consequences of hunger and its principal cause, poverty. On many college and university campuses in the United States, students participate in a simple, symbolic meal of rice and water as an act of solidarity with the undernourished. Primary and secondary schools have held essay contests, workshops, debates, exhibitions, and farm visits as reminders of the basic human right to food.

WFC initiatives positively influenced global human rights. WFC policies raised the political profile and priority of world food issues, doubled the assistance of donor countries for food and agricultural development between 1975 and 1979, facilitated an agreement on a 7.6-million-ton Food Aid Convention, helped establish both an International Emergency Food Reserve administered by the World Food Program (WFP) and a food credit facility in the International Monetary Fund, and continued to promote cooperation among less developed countries in food and agriculture.

Malnutrition continues to deny about 850 million human beings their basic human right to realize their full potential and human dignity. Every year, about 6.5 million children under the age of five die as a result of hunger and starvation. Suffering from undernutrition is concretely apparent in the young mother nursing her emaciated child during famine in Ethiopia, in the huddled masses of drought victims waiting to be admitted to a refugee camp in the Sahelian region of Africa, in the naked frames of Bangladeshi children living in shanty towns with inconceivably poor water and sanitary facilities, and in the dehumanizing barrios in Recife, Brazil.

Since the advent of the Universal Declaration, the overall percentage of people suffering from chronic undernutrition has declined. Although the 1974 Universal Declaration helped bring direct or indirect food aid relief to many victims of hunger, much more care and work remains to be done at the global level.

Political, economic, population, and environmental factors all thwart efforts toward the global eradication of hunger and malnutrition. In 1974, the United States opposed expansion of the WFP, which sought to aid in famine areas and to help vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and others through food-for-work projects. In late 1975, the U.S. Congress passed a new assistance bill, H.R. 9005, which many humanitarians hailed as an opportunity to recapture food aid for a human rights commitment. The bill, however, spelled out in no uncertain terms the link between U.S. food aid and the goal of expanding commercial markets for American commodities abroad.

When the representatives of many nations gathered at the Millennium Summit Millennium Summit (2000) in New York City in 2000, gains were observed in the reduction of world poverty and in the number of people at risk of hunger. The number of hungry nonetheless still neared a billion, or about a sixth of the world’s population, indicating that more work still remained to be done. One of the Millennium Development Goals that came out of the summit was to reduce by half the proportion of people around the world who are subject to hunger by 2015. The highest incidence of hunger remains in Africa, which has one-third of the world’s hungry people, even as gains against hunger have been observed in Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, U.N. (1974) United Nations;hunger relief Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations World Food Conference, U.N. (1974)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester R. “The New World Order.” In State of the World 1991, edited by Lester R. Brown et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Discusses selected global economic, environmental, food, and population indicators affecting hunger and malnutrition. Includes useful data on regional and world grain production from 1967 to 1990 and world grain stock supply trends from 1963 to 1991. Notes, index, and excellent related articles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George, Susan. Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger, and Power. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1984. Articles attempt to reconstruct an alternative knowledge about hunger and malnutrition, concluding that hunger is primarily a problem of socioeconomic power and will. No index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">The Hunger Project. Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. New York: Praeger, 1985. An excellent resource for the general reader. Organized around the issues of population, food, foreign aid, national security, and the New International Economic Order. Appendix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, D. Gale, and G. Edward Schuh, eds. The Role of Markets in the World Food Economy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Scholarly essays that address the world food situation and hunger from the perspective of pricing policies and the role of trade, markets, and governments in the world food economy. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lappé, Frances Moore, and Joseph Collins. Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Shatters the “myth of scarcity” and introduces the economic and political roots of hunger into the discussion of the causes and cures of world hunger and malnutrition. Includes notes, recommendations for further study, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lappé, Frances Moore, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. 2d rev. ed. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Drawing from research from the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the authors point out the misconceptions about hunger and examine the politics that have prevented the hungry from getting the food they need. Extensive notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nielsen, Ron. The Little Green Handbook: Seven Trends Shaping the Future of Our Planet. New York: Picador, 2006. Acclaimed, comprehensive source on the global trends that are negatively affecting the environment. Covers topics ranging from global warming to world conflicts. Includes bibliographic references, notes, appendixes, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanchez, Pedro, et al. Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done. Sterling, Va.: Earthscan, 2005. Authors of this Millennium Project Task Force Report examine world progress toward eliminating hunger.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warnock, John W. The Politics of Hunger. New York: Methuen, 1987. Surveys the evolution of agriculture under colonial rule and examines the long-term ecological and resource constraints on a sustainable food system and impacts on the underdeveloped world. Includes tables, references, and comprehensive index.

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Categories: History