UK food poverty: The right to food is a human right

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A food bank in Palmer's Green, North London. Credit: Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.
Imogen Richmond-Bishop from Sustain discusses the fight for the right to food and its intersections with land and workers’ rights in the UK.

The food system in the UK is full of contradictions. On the one hand, millions of people have difficulties accessing and affording food, but on the other, there is no shortage of food, or indeed wealth, in the country. Furthermore, despite the immense financial profit that is made in the food sector, farm workers and food retail staff both in the UK and abroad have serious financial worries.

In this blog I hope to explain why we need the UK government, working with devolved governments, to better protect our right to food so as to meaningfully take steps towards eradicating household food insecurity and start building a food system that protects both the environment and workers.

The right to food

Successive UK governments have signed up to international treaties that include provisions for the protection of the right to food. These rights are included in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

These treaties call on states as duty bearers to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food of all people. It is only when an individual is unable to enjoy the right to food by the means at their disposal that a state is obliged to fulfil or provide that right directly. One example of this could be through the state providing dignified sustainable meals on wheels services to people who are unable to cook for themselves.

While interconnected, human rights are traditionally divided into two groups: on the one hand there are civil and political rights, on the other, economic, social and cultural rights. The right to food sits in the latter group. In domestic legislation, we have the Human Rights Act that upholds our civil and political rights, the Equalities Act that aims to prevent discrimination. Whilst there is some progress in the devolved nations, we do not yet have any equivalent legislation that upholds our economic and social rights across all of the UK. This lack of incorporation means that if a person’s right to food is violated, then there is no way to seek remedy or redress in the domestic courts

What is the point of looking at food from a human rights perspective? Human rights allow us to focus on the root causes of poverty and inequality, and examine the intersections between different issues such as between food and housing or food and education.

Finally, and crucially, human rights are universal and afforded to all. This means that regardless of a person’s race, gender, or age, the government is obliged to ensure that their right to food is always respected without discrimination.

Food poverty in the UK

In the UK millions of people experience household food insecurity. This means that they are forced to skip meals or to eat less and/or poorer quality food. Certain groups in the UK disproportionately experience food insecurity: these include disabled people, lone parents, people who are Black, Asian, and minority ethnic, asylum seekers, people with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ as well as more broadly people on lower incomes.

Household food insecurity in the UK is not caused by a physical lack of food in the country. Rather, it is due to individuals not having enough money to afford the food through their income from work and/or welfare payments. Hunger in the UK needs to be understood outside of the context of individual decision making. It should be seen in relation to ever rising living costs, stagnating wages and precarious work, as well as dwindling welfare payments. 

The cause of the disconnect between household incomes and living costs in part stems from a series of austerity-justified tax and welfare reforms undertaken over the past decade that were more likely to negatively impact poorer households than richer households. Furthermore, ‘hostile environment’ immigration measures have left asylum seekers with less money than they need to live on, and people with 'No Recourse to Public Funds’ are excluded from the welfare state entirely. 

Whilst food aid is not the solution to food poverty, it can help illustrate the growing scale of household food insecurity in the UK. Year on year there has been significant increases in both the number of food aid providers as well as the number of food parcels distributed in both the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) as well as the Trussell Trust network. 

The pandemic has seriously exacerbated food insecurity. IFAN saw a 177% increase in the number of food parcels distributed from May 2019 to May 2020 and in the first three weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown an estimated three million people were reported to have gone hungry with half of this group not having eaten for a whole day. Disabled adults, Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals, and families with children were found to be those particularly vulnerable to experiencing household food insecurity due to Covid-19. This shows that whilst Covid-19 does not discriminate, society does, leaving some people at higher risk of experiencing hardship than others.

The solution to household food insecurity has to be a rights-based rethink of the work and welfare system as well as the immigration system so as to ensure that all people are able to afford the food that they need in a dignified and sustainable way. Some local authorities are leading the way on the right to food, so far this year Liverpool and Manchester have pledged to be Right to Food cities.

In the immediate, we need a cash first approach that enables households to afford the food and other essentials that they need. As highlighted by the recent school food parcel scandal during which social media was flooded with photos of food parcels provided by private catering firms that were inadequate to say the least, privatised food assistance is not a solution.

Food production, people and planet

The right to food of course extends to the production of food and the consequences this has on the environment as well as workers’ rights. 

In the UK, land ownership is highly concentrated. In England, half of the country is owned by less than 1% of the population, with the majority of these landowners being male and white. This concentration of land and lack of access to land is rightly being challenged by a number of initiatives, including Land In Our Names (LION) – a Black-led, grassroots collective that is committed to reparative justice in Britain by securing land for BPOC (Black people and People of Colour) communities.

It is not only important to see who owns the land, but also the working and living conditions of those working on the land. A tractor driver who spoke to my Sustain colleague is representative of many of his colleagues when he said that he felt his employment was precarious and characterised by “ever lower wages, reduced employment rights, falling health and safety standards, increased job and housing insecurity.”

Some agricultural workers in the UK – mainly from Romania and Bulgaria – are putting in 15-hour days at less than minimum wage and living in ‘horrific’ conditions. Even when working conditions are not horrific, agriculture continues to be low paid and dangerous: in fact, the rates of injury and fatalities make it the most unsafe industry in the UK. And of course, as the UK imports significant amounts of its food, working practices in other countries and trade deals have a significant impact on the right to food, both domestically and globally.

Valuing farm workers is key to having a fair farming system and all workers should be paid the Living Wage as a minimum. However, in 2013, the government scrapped the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales, a key tool for farm workers to collectively negotiate pay rises with their employers.

The right to food also extends to future generations, meaning that our food production must not be harmful to the environment or outstrip planetary boundaries. Unfortunately the UK significantly outstrips proposed environmental boundaries in most categories – by 55% in terms of biodiversity loss, 64% of in terms of ocean health, 250% in terms of land use change and 410% in terms of climate change. If we are to tackle climate change effectively, we need to address the role that the food system has.

Guaranteeing the right to food in the UK

It is clear that food cannot be treated as a commodity and left to the market, but rather it needs to be understood as a fundamental human right that must be upheld for all people.

The fulfilment of this right must include ensuring that people are able to afford to buy food in a dignified way, as well as respecting the rights of those who work in the food system, from the growers, to the pickers, to the shop staff. This needs to happen through a redistribution of wealth and power, both within the food system and throughout society. In a country as rich as the UK there is no excuse for such high levels of poverty.

McDonald's workers strike outside a London store. Photo: TUC/Jess Hurd

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Imogen Richmond-Bishop is the Right to Food Coordinator at Sustain – the Alliance for Better Food and Farming. This article is adapted from Imogen’s presentation at our webinar “Reclaiming the food system: The fight for the ‘Right to Food” held at The World Transformed in September 2020.