Vegetables and Meat

“We need to accept social rights! Surely the British electorate can be mobilised by a right to social protection!” Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on the poverty and human rights at a public event in London in April 2019.

There are an estimated 8.4 million people in the UK who are suffering from household food insecurity. Whilst there is little official data to look at, from the information we do have we are able to see that some groups of people are disproportionately affected. 3% of food banks users are asylum seekers yet only 0.1% of household in the UK apply to seek asylum. The Trussell Trust found that “people dealing with a disability or health condition are far more likely to receive emergency food from a foodbank” that any other group. And finally last years food insecurity statistics from Scotland showed that 21% of single parents experienced food insecurity compared with 8% of the general population.

In the past few weeks alone, the largest food bank network in the UK released figures that show that they have distributed a record 1.6million food parcels in the past year; children were in parliament speaking about their lived experiences of food insecurity and calling for their right to food to be upheld; and an academic study has shown that there has been a rise in hunger amongst low income adults.

So what causes food poverty?
Well lots of things. But it is not an actual lack of food in the UK. Food poverty is predominately caused by more systemic issues that can be tied to austerity measures such as the benefits freeze, the two child limit, and the built in waiting time before receiving a Universal Credit payment, as well as stagnant pay and rising living costs.

The food system itself is also suffering. Research that looks at the full impact of the global food industry, including transport, packaging, and waste, estimates that this sector is responsible for around 40% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, more than half of all soils are now classified as degraded. This damage is largely the result of industrial farming practices, over-grazing and global warming. According to scientists, the UK only has enough soil left for less than a 100 more harvests.

Whilst this picture may look bleak it doesn’t mean that this is the only way that things can be done.

Social rights
Successive UK Governments have taken commitments on an international stage on various aspects of our economic and social rights. What we now need is for these rights to be brought home.

There are lots of examples from around the world of how this can be done. Right now the Scottish Parliament is looking into how to incorporate the right to food through its Good Food Nation Bill.

There are even tools that the UK Government could use that are already on the statute books. For example they could enact section one of the Equality Act 2010 and by doing so it would place a requirement on public bodies to adopt effective and transparent policies to reduce the inequalities that result from socio-economic disadvantage.

But what is the point of thinking of food as a right?
When we see food as a human right this can change how we view issues within the food system. Human rights place obligations on a state to guarantee that rights are upheld. This means that a state has to provide the conditions whereby its citizens are able to eat well, and must offer assistance when they are unable to do so unaided. This requires integrating the right throughout decision-making, and provides scope for challenge and remedies when the right is breached.

Food poverty doesn’t happen in isolation from other aspects of poverty and it also doesn’t happen in isolation from other issues within our food system such as environmental degradation or increases in diet related diseases. Human rights frameworks provide an opportunity to view the food system in its entirety as well as its inter-relatedness with other rights such as health or housing. By doing so human rights can be used as a tool to help ensure that our food system works for all of us.

Sustain
Sustain advocates for food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity. It represents around 100 public interest organisations working at international, national, regional and local level. As a charitable organisation it is impartial and does not endorse any political party.