Recognising the right to food does not mean handouts but radical transformations

by | 26 Sep 2019

Four years after the Lombardia regional council in Italy approved the first law on the ‘Recognition, Protection and Fulfilment of the Right to Food’ in the European context, time seems to be ripe to put food at the centre of analogous political and legislative processes across the European Union.

After the establishment of a Right to Food Observatory in Spain, the Good Food Nation consultations in Scotland and the announcement by the Liberal Democrat party of a Fairer Share for All, the last act of support was that of the United Kingdom Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Sue Hayman, who announced few days ago that the UK Labour party – if elected – will formally recognise everyone’s right to food under a new UK Fair Food Act.

We can identify several drivers behind the ongoing attention towards food as a political item even in Europe – and therefore an object of legislative prerogatives: the generalised increase in food poverty, the faltering of life expectancy, the widening of the inequality gap, the desire to fight against the perversity of food waste, and, more importantly, the possibility that food provides to policy makers to talk directly to voters – mainly because you are talking to their stomachs while talking to their brains.

The recognition that food is political and a space for political debate must be welcomed. Yet, the use of food for political purposes – and the use of the right to food in particular – should be handled with care. Throughout history, hunger and lack of food have generated unrest, riots and revolutions. Who is not familiar with the phrase ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ (Let them eat cake) supposedly pronounced by Queen Marie Antoinette few days before the French revolution? Along the centuries and across geographies, kings, dictators and more democratic governments have tried to feed their people to avoid social unrest and to gain electoral consent. Including by running campaigns stating that Italians should be fed and been housed before migrants.

In this context, the right to food offers the intellectual and legal tools to avoid a strategic use of food as a political opportunity. Despite the general perception that it means the right to be fed or receive adequate and sufficient food, the right to food has a transformative potential that goes beyond the satisfaction of the individual right and that incorporates ecological elements and a strong notion of socio-environmental justice. More importantly, it deploys an understanding of food that pierces the fetishism of the commodity and discloses the complexity of the food system and the way in which rethinking food means rethinking the economy.

In the holistic interpretation of the right to food proposed by former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter and then strengthened by the current Rapporteur Hilal Elver (and hopefully central to the work of the holder of the future mandate), states fulfil their duties only when three conditions are present: they intervene to guarantee the continuous, stable and effective access to healthy, nutritional and adequate food by everyone who is present in their country; when such food is obtained in a way that fully respect both the people involved in its making and the planet; and when food politics go hand in hand with a wider set of measures aimed at fighting the poverty and inequality that are mainly responsible for food insecurity, unhealthy diets and exploitative food systems. It would not be enough to make food accessible or affordable, as Queen Antoinette wanted to do in 1789: both the food system and the economic system must be re-imagined.

Considering all this, UK Labour’s recent commitment appears as a step in the right direction, although a partial one that raises some concerns. Firstly, it is noteworthy that along with the recognition of the right to food the pledge was made to halve food bank usage within its first year in government and to end the need for them in three years, a statement that highlights the tensions between a charity based access to food and the fulfilment of the right to food. With this move, Labour seems to embrace the content of a letter dated March 2019 where UK and USA signatories denounced the use of food banks as a solution to food poverty and normalisation of food banking as a ‘plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality in our societies’. If rights are effective when they are certain, enforceable and independent on contingencies, there is no doubt of the incompatibility with charitable provisioning depending on private donations.

According to the sources available, the goal will be achieved by reforming the benefit system and scrapping Universal Credit: for sure, the increase in purchasing power and the availability of more resources to buy food would align with the third pillar of the right to food and the fight against poverty and inequality. However, in the absence of clear indications on how this goal will be reached, some questions arise: is Labour considering the entirety of the food aid network in the UK, or just the food banks organised under the Trussell Trust, which represent around 25% of the total? Will Labour also intervene on the standards of food integrity, as suggested by a representative of the National Farmers Union, so to make food cheaper and thus risk compromising the socio-environmental impact of food production? Will the measures be universal and provide effective support to everyone struggling with poverty and inequality, or will reproduce the selectivity of the current structure of subsidies and public support? Is Labour planning measures to make sure that food accessed by families with limited financial possibilities will also be healthy and nutritious, while being environmentally and socially sustainable? To reiterate the point, it would not be enough to reduce the number of people starving: people should feel empowered, choices should be available and feasible, and no exploitation in the food system should be rewarded.

The second reason to support Labour’s commitment is the establishment of a National Food Commission to monitor food insecurity, a body that we hope will be used to hear the voices of all those who make the UK food system possible – in particular the diverse voices of food workers, including migrant workers, fast food workers, couriers and providers of care  labour – but will also be provided with consultative powers, a budget to realise enquires and a strong political voice. Too often, multi-stakeholders platforms do not take into consideration the power differential among members and are used more to silence dissent than to engage in effective, transparent and participated conversations about the future of food. The National Food Commission shall be a democratic space for true confrontation and direction, a national food council that could then be supported and support local committees in the establishment and implementation of a bottom-up national food strategy.

Thirdly, Labour’s proposal must also be praised because of the promise of a £6 million contribution to an Access to Food Fund to kick start the development of local community food plans in the 50 most food deprived areas of the country. Such measures reveals a strong understanding of the holistic nature of the right to food, as it recognises that true improvements in the access to food of individuals can only be obtained through the redefinition of local food dynamics and the support to projects that involve people in producing, transforming, cooking, distributing and eating food. By shifting the focus from individuals to communities, Labour shows that food is much more than consumption. It reveals that eating is first and foremost an agricultural act and that food offers a unique opportunity to bring people together and to deal with some of the hardest conditions experienced in the contemporary world: isolation, lack of community, unemployment, hunger and psycho-physical conditions. Of course, unless the fund will be used to fund redistribution projects and an easier access to food surplus, a quick fix that reproduces the problems of a food system based on over-production and lack of financial means and that – similarly to charity based provisioning – is incompatible with the right to food.

To conclude, there is no doubt that Labour took a step forward in the fight for a food system that regenerates people and planet rather than starving and extracting. The recognition of the right to food, the measures to make food banks unnecessary, the National Food Commission and the Access to Food Fund are complementary measures that share the centrality of food in any society and that aim to go beyond handouts and charity. Yet, the road is long and there is a strong risk of a strategic use of food as a political card rather than a political item for confrontation and democratic engagement with some of the direst problems of contemporary societies. As a matter of fact, public authorities must do much more than this is to build a right-based food system: universal and free access to food canteens in mandatory schools, a reform of public procurement rules, the support to educational projects and the implementation of sanctions against unhealthy and unsustainable food are just few ways to fulfil their duties vi-s-a-vis all the commitments that have been taken towards people and the planet. In the mess of politics at the time of twitter storms and sensational headlines, the right to food – intended as the right to accessing a sustainable food system and the duty to fight against inequality – can act as a lighthouse to direct and empower the UK journey and inspire other countries to undertake the same journey. Yet, there is little that the right to food can do without awareness, political desire and the conviction that another food system (and another society) is possible.

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*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



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