Opinion: We need a 'right to food'

It’s a disgrace that so many live with food insecurity in one of the world’s richest countries, where modern food production methods should make hunger obsolete. It’s time to do something about it, writes Neil Findlay.

As human beings we have fairly basic needs: food, water and shelter are enough to provide us with the existence our primitive ancestors experienced.

However, as we have evolved our lives and needs have become more sophisticated so we can add other items such as housing, healthcare and education to the list of essentials for a good life.

Many other things make life more comfortable but it can be argued they are not life and death necessities.

We only need to look at the numbers of people living on the streets, languishing on housing waiting lists, the people forced into arrears with water bills and the numbers of our fellow citizens forced to seek help to source emergency food and we can see that far too many of our citizens do not enjoy the basic nutrition needed to sustain life.

While Britain may not be at the stage where we see emaciated children perishing in famine-like conditions in front of our eyes, every day in our towns and cities we see queues of hungry people standing outside church halls, mosques, community centres and vans seeking food.

Why is it that in some of the richest countries in the world where consumer and material excess and waste is everywhere, do we see more and more people begging on our streets and going hungry?

How can human ingenuity split the atom, identify our DNA code and create the most sophisticated computer technology, yet we cannot put affordable food into the bellies of all our citizens?

Well, we know it is not about a lack of know-how. Modern food production is highly efficient. It delivers massive profits to the multinational corporations who control the growth, development and distribution of food products.

These companies invest billions every year in research and development to maximise yield and output.

So the problem of hunger is not a lack of knowledge — it is all about politics.

Food supply is a complex jigsaw influenced and controlled by very powerful and influential people.

It encompasses issues such as land ownership, exploitation of growers and indigenious communities, subsidy, international trade and tariffs, competition, labour laws and abuses, food standards and quality, low pay, taxation and tax avoidance, social security, human rights, morality and much more.

In Britain I would suggest the overwhelming number of people are unaware that the right to food as set out in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, was ratified by Britain government in 1976.

This means that Britain is obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food.

In practice, this means the state must a) not take action which would prevent access to food, b) protect this right by making sure that other enterprises or individuals do not deprive people of access to food and c) should fulfil that right by facilitating people’s access to food and food security — and when necessary, provide that right directly.

End Hunger UK, a coalition of more than 40 national charities, front-line organisations, faith groups, academics and individuals working to end hunger and poverty, says the right to food is achieved when “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

That right is being breached across the country every day by governments across Britain.

This is why there is now a move in the British and Scottish Parliaments to enshrine the right to food in law.

Labour MP Ian Byrne and MSP Rhoda Grant, backed by a range of NGOs, trade unions and community groups, are in the process of introducing member’s Bills on this important topic.

Their interventions are timely and absolutely necessary. How can Britain’s government possibly be adhering to its UN obligations when it has just cut universal credit by £20 a week, reducing the ability of the poorest families to feed themselves?

How do year-on-year cuts to local government affect people’s ability to access food?

What effect does the reduction in support for voluntary organisations have on food access?

A piece of research we recently carried out on behalf of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) showed how many of the workers who produce the food we eat are themselves unable to identify where their next meal is coming from.

What a damning indictment of the system it is, when the people who make the products that will feed us this Christmas can’t afford to feed themselves.

The BFAWU is fully supportive of the right to food being enshrined in law and has been campaigning hard on this issue.

Tonight (14 December) general secretary Sarah Woolley and president Ian Hodson will be joining Ian Byrne MP and Rhoda Grant MSP for a public online meeting to discuss their proposal.

You can join register for this meeting at www.tinyurl.com/RightToFoodDecember2021.

Neil Findlay was a Labour MSP between 2011 and 2021 and is a director of Unity Consulting — a social enterprise research and campaigning organisation that works with trade unions, community groups and the charitable sector — www.unityconsulting.scot.

First published in the Morning Star