ourEconomy: Opinion

The UK needs a ‘right to food’. This is how it could work in practice

As prices and inflation soar, we must rethink our global food systems to help people, not boost corporate profits

Rob Booth
18 October 2022, 9.18am
To address the global food crisis we must first debunk the myth of scarcity
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Keith Morris / Alamy Stock Photo

As the UK’s catastrophic cost of living crisis deepens, calls are getting louder for a ‘Right to Food’, which would mean the government and local authorities are legally responsible for ensuring everybody in the country has enough to eat.

Campaigners – who include charities, councils, politicians and trade unions – are urging the government to adopt new laws to provide universal free school meals and funding for community kitchens, as well as to reveal how much money it factors in for food when setting minimum wage and benefits.

The campaign also asks the government to take food security into account during policy-making – including in setting competition, planning, transport and in local government – and to establish a regulatory body to enforce the legislation.

A Right to Food must be a priority for the UK government – but it must not come at the expense of farmers and workers in the Global South. After all, the UK is not alone: the global food system is experiencing crisis after crisis and prices are spiralling.

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Inflation is reducing the purchasing power of people worldwide. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has compromised grain supplies to countries in Africa and the Middle East, which rely heavily on cereals from both Ukraine and Russia.

Climate change-driven droughts and floods in regions as geographically diverse as Brazil, Europe, India, Pakistan and the US have worsened an already concerning picture. Amid this growing desperation, speculators and commodity traders are driving prices even higher.

To address the root of these crises, radical measures are urgently needed.

This process must begin by debunking the myth of scarcity. The global food system actually produces sufficient food to feed the world’s population – but produces, processes and distributes it in ways that serve to concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands.

A handful of titanic corporations enjoy massive market shares in crucial sectors such as fertiliser production, animal and plant genetics, commodity trading, and retail – making vast profits from an unjust food system skewed in their favour. For example, just four firms control 62% of the global agrochemicals market, according to the Food Barons 2022 report from the ETC Group, a food chain research organisation.

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Crucially, a Right to Food must do more than react to this particular moment of crisis, it must open up a systemic reimagination of our food systems, facilitated by democratic control and common ownership (as I explained in a 2022 report for the Common Wealth think tank).

Here’s a five-step framework for this essential project.

1. Reducing land use overseas

Any policy for enshrining a legal Right to Food in the UK must be embedded in the historical context of colonial extraction, and the uneven global distribution of the worst impacts of climate change.

It must not rely on extractive international supply chains that are dependent on millions of ‘ghost acres’ of land overseas, which produce the palm oil in our bread or the soybeans that feed intensive pig or poultry production. And it must not come at the expense of food or water security elsewhere.

Challenging the paradigm of so-called “cheap food” is also essential. For too long, large companies have considered the environmental harms of food production as part of the ‘free gifts’ of exploiting once biodiverse ecosystems in the Global South. Such corporations rarely incur a financial penalty for despoiling ecologies within ‘the rules’, and do not pay for the fertility provided by virgin soils from deforested land. Yet of course this has ruinous effects, which eventually translate from ecological harms to economic costs.

Progress would be a move away from supply chains linked to deforestation and land grabs, as part of a trade policy that promotes higher environmental standards and international solidarity between those in the Global North and producers and Indigenous peoples in the Global South.

2. Building local food production

Increased regulation must be matched with domestic development of more sustainable food production, via agroecological and organic farming methods. (Agroecology is a way of reshaping farming so that it works with, rather than against, local ecologies to build agricultural biodiversity.)

This is a huge and complex task that relies on public investment in research, development and popularisation of more ecological ways of farming.

Developing and financing more regional agricultural governance structures could help this process by establishing how best to use land and build biodiversity at a more local level. This would create the institutions for community-led, empowering ecological and agricultural change. Subsidies should be targeted at developing and future-proofing key sectors, such as the agroecological production of fruit, vegetables, cereals and pulses for human consumption.

Equally, any financial support and legal facilitation should be phased out from the most intensive livestock production systems, such as the industrial poultry farms that increasingly pollute rivers in Britain.

3. Investing in local organisations

It’s important to also consider the opportunities opened up by delivering a Right to Food – which can serve as a crucial step towards decommodifying our food systems.

For instance, this process could include the development of universal free school meals; community restaurants run as public-common partnerships (PCPs); and support for diverse co-operatives all inspired by community wealth-building principles.

These strategies can help grow, embed and nourish alternative food chains that do not rely on long, extractive, international supply chains.

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4. Tackling unjust trade

Even though reducing the use of land outside the UK and increasing domestic agroecological production are both central elements to this project, it should not follow a path towards autarky or self-sufficiency. That’s unrealistic.

Instead, when we grow what we can but import what we need, we need to do so in ways that facilitate food sovereignty and environmental justice – as outlined by the Landworkers’ Alliance. (Food sovereignty, like agroecology, is a concept championed in the Global South to reclaim power over food systems from corporations, financiers and land grabbers.)

Where trade is necessary and desirable, we must consider how to empower and support the communities, regions and nations involved.

At the moment, within the rules set out in the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture, this is nigh-on impossible. The UK must advocate for the reform and (where necessary) dismantling of institutions that protect processes of wealth extraction using international law and the accompanying legal infrastructure.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, has set out how these institutions could be wound down where necessary and repurposed towards facilitating the right to food, rather than the right to profit. Fakhri suggests there is legal precedent to replace existing rules with more specific commodity-oriented or regional agreements that could create the conditions for agroecology and the return to Indigenous land practices.

5. Building alternative supply chains

Although Fakhri’s proposal offers a reformist pathway beyond existing international arrangements, the growing coalition calling for a Right to Food in the UK and abroad could be the start of a movement towards fundamentally rebalancing power in the food system via supply chains that link producers, processors and consumers with shared models of ownership and democracy.

This goes beyond buying ‘ethical’ products at supermarkets – by using digital technologies to create supply chains that, although not necessarily geographically short, involve shared risk, reward, connection and solidarity between producers and consumers.

These could be place-based schemes linking cities and agricultural producers worldwide, or platforms that look to reproduce aspects of community-supported agriculture in a transnational way.

These are ambitious ideas. But a genuinely internationalist Right to Food, understood as a catalyst for systemic change, could help bring about the policies and institutions that help make them a possibility.

In this moment of global crisis and systemic breakdown, this radical agenda isn’t really all that radical.

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