Realising the right to food: a global challenge

When I first started working on food insecurity in Scotland, I never imagined it might take me to debate issues as wide ranging as sovereignty over natural resources and violence against women with campaigners from countries as diverse as Sierra Leone and Canada.

But last week I sat next to Billy, a human rights activist from Malawi, and Hiba, from an agricultural workers’ union in Palestine, for the three days of the Right to Food consultation at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. Spending three days with activists from over 20 countries generated so much rich discussion and learning (I filled 20 pages of my notebook!) and left me thinking about how I apply it all to our work in Scotland.

Participants were representing civil society organisations and movements engaged in all things food justice – from the rights of indigenous people in Argentina, to challenging the food bank system in Canada. It was fascinating to learn about right to food violations by governments, corporations and international institutions across the globe, and to find so many common experiences and shared challenges.

Some specific comments from my fellow participants have stuck with me –
“There is this general perception that if people are fed then their rights are being met. People can be well fed but still be oppressed by their governments.”

Billy was speaking about the experiences of people in Malawi, recipients of food aid and nutritional programmes imported by some international agencies, but denied land rights or freedom to grow indigenous crops.

And yet the same reflection could be applied to many other contexts; it certainly resonated with my own concerns about charity responses to food insecurity at home.

Indeed the theme of ‘rights vs charity’ was identified as a challenge we all share in realising the right to food. Group discussion on this theme brought together the impacts of international aid with those of food banking.

Another quote from my notebook –
“Our government believes market forces and charity will take care of people. The language of rights is just not on the table.”

Suzanne was taking about the ubiquity of food banking in the USA as the only response to hunger, and the huge challenge of engaging policy makers in serious debates about human rights.

Another common theme which emerged was participation and democratic governance. We discussed how to best ensure effective participation of civil society in developing policy which might progress the right to food.

Examples of concerns included the influence of the private sector in policy making, such as the role of the meat industry in shaping nutritional guidelines in Canada. We also talked about the importing of nutritional programmes to Togo, without consultation or acknowledgement of the expertise of local people. Yet it was agreed that even when participatory spaces do exist, it can be very hard for the most marginalised to be heard.

In discussing participation I was able to cite examples of where the Scottish Government has done policy consultation well, including the Fairer Scotland conversations when over 7,000 people across the country helped shape the Fairer Scotland Action Plan. Yet these examples from Canada and Togo – of the challenge from corporate interests, and the often-limited scope for genuine participation in policy development, will feel all too familiar to those involved in this work in Scotland.

The discussions in Rome also identified frustration with the lack of accountability from governments for their progress on human rights. For the right to food to be meaningful, there need to be mechanisms for monitoring and holding governments to account on how their actions are helping or hindering its realisation.

We heard that without formal watch-dogs, it is civil society groups which are often taking the lead in monitoring national progress on the right to food. This has certainly been the case so far in Scotland, with Nourish Scotland recently reviewing our performance on realising the right to food.

Back home, the Good Food Nation Bill consultation is happening this year and is an opportunity for us to think about the sort of food policy we want for Scotland. Crucially, the bill will consider putting the right to food in law – a step which we would be the first country in Europe to take. This is an exciting prospect, but from what I learnt in Rome, one which will need a lot of work and commitment if it’s to really make a difference.

Some insights from activists who have been long campaigning for the right to food in their own countries seem a useful place to start. Reflecting on what I learnt from them, these appear to be key factors for success in working towards achieving a genuine right to food:
• a clear understanding of rights – from both those in power and civil society (how can we claim our rights if we don’t know what they are?);
• real opportunities to participate in decision-making;
• and effective monitoring mechanisms to hold governments to account.

My visit to Rome drove home to me the realities of the global challenge of achieving a rights-based approach to food, but also the importance of ensuring ‘the right to food’ does not become an abstract concept, but one which is owned and fought for from the grassroots.

Author: Mary Anne MacLeod, Research and Policy Officer