The right to food – what does it mean?
3 October 2016 - Daniel Crossley

Elli Kontorravdis of Nourish Scotland sketches out what the right to food might look like in the UK.

In the UK our domestic rights framework is centred on civil and political rights. This means that we lack experience of what socio-economic rights – like the right to food – look like.

Do we have a right to food in the UK?

In short both yes and no. The UK government committed to the right to food in international law when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. However, because of the UK’s strong constitutional principle of sovereignty, international law does not usually have direct effect until it is incorporated by legislation.

Strong ideals around sovereignty at the fore of UK politics at the moment, are reshaping our relationships with the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. In this context it is unlikely that the Westminster will pass legislation incorporating the International Covenant. But in Scotland, where policy divergence is now the norm from social security to climate change, things are a looking a lot more hopeful.

Do we need a right to food?

Our current food system is characterised by inequality and exploitation at all levels. The figures are stark: the incomes of around 27% of people are too low to enable them to access to a nutritious diet; 66% of adults are overweight or obese; 70% of people working in catering and hospitality have jobs that pay below the real Living Wage; 46% of farms fail to recover their annual costs; 44% of ecosystem services are in decline; agriculture and related land-use contribute 23% of climate emissions; and over 30% of is being wasted at all stages of the food chain.

That adds up to a lot of simultaneous failings: and that’s just the domestic challenges. More than two-thirds of the land used for our food and feed consumption is outside of the UK. This externalisation of environmental and social responsibility – with limited oversight – has serious consequences ranging from land-grabs to child labour.

What could the right to food look like?

Food is a difficult issue because everyone is constantly engaging in thinking about, buying and consuming it. And it’s always about more than just food. Underpinning it all, food is about power.

A rights-based approach could include…

  • Everyone would have enough money to be able to access food with dignity and choice.
  • Our collective food environment would support us to make healthy food choices; we would integrate dietary considerations in to strategic and local planning policies, and have restrictions on the promotion and advertising of unhealthy food.
  • People who cannot geographically access food because of age, illness, or disability would be entitled to support that meets their dietary needs and taste preferences.
  • Access to land and other resources to grow food in urban, peri- and rural areas would be financially and technically accessible. Growers would be paid a fair price for produce and feel valued by society.
  • Infrastructural support for small to medium scale production in the form of indigenous processing, distribution and markets would enable people to make a living out of local food. We would grow more of what we eat, and eat more of what we grow in the UK.
  • Clear food chains with legal responsibility for social and environmental rights would prevent the externalisation of exploitation.
  • We would have a plan with timeframes for the reduction of chemical and fossil fuel use in food production, and provide financial and technical support to farmers to make the change.

How can we get there?

Nourish Scotland has been running a campaign on the right to food for just over a year now, and believes that these challenges can only be effectively resolved by thinking strategically about the food system as a whole. We’re calling for a framework piece of legislation in Scotland to protect and progress the right to food.

Key components of this would be a duty on Scottish Ministers to introduce a Food Rights and Responsibilities Statement every five years, and the establishment of a statutory and independent Food Commission to review progress across statutory targets and report publicly to Parliament on the state of the food system.

Earlier this year we gave evidence to a UN Committee who agreed with our overall analysis in favour of a framework approach and issued the first ever recommendations to the UK specifically on the right to food.

The SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens all made manifesto promises in May this year to consider the incorporation of international covenants, and to introduce a Food Bill – with varying degrees of reference to it being a vehicle for the protection and promotion of the right to food.

And last week, the commitment to introducing a Good Food Nation Bill was placed firmly in the Scottish Programme for Government, with consultation starting in 2017. The Scottish Government hasn’t yet confirmed what will be in the Bill, but it’s likely to be more policy divergence. Fertile ground for action; watch this space!

This blog is a companion piece to the Food Talks event ‘Food fights and food rights’, which takes place on 13th October 2016 (6.30-9pm) at the Impact Hub King’s Cross. Our speakers for this event are Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty and Patta Scott-Villiers, Research Fellow at Institute of Development Studies, both leading experts on the right to food – in the UK and internationally respectively. The discussion will be chaired by Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council.

Click here for more information, and to book your place at October’s Food Talks event.

Image credit: Elli Kontorravdis, Creative Commons