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February 24 2014

Say it quietly, but this Defra report is about a right to food.

downloadWe are delighted to welcome Ben Warwick‘s guest post on the recent Defra report on the right to food. Ben is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD candidate at Durham Law School. His research centres on resource constraints and the implementation of economic and social rights. He is a member of the Durham Human Rights Centre and the Economic and Social Rights Academic Network (UK and Ireland). 

Last week saw the release of a long anticipated review commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of ‘Food Aid in the UK’. The research is to be welcomed as a continuation of public, policy and scholarly attention in this area. It is clear that the authors, who are leading names in the area of food policy, have brought a great deal of experience to the process.

The authors (Lambie-Mumford, Crossley, Jensen, Verbeke and Dowler) highlight a number of gaps in the literature in this area. They additionally note the usefulness of international sources in informing UK practice, and the limitations that the disparate sources of food aid place upon a constructive empirical analysis of the situation. My research on UK food poverty from a rights perspective, encountered many of the same experiences. Often scholarship was centred on overly narrow questions or was unaware of other disciplines working in the area. Here I agree entirely with the authors’ call for a more even spread of research on food and poverty.

Notwithstanding the difficulties this report faced in drawing together the limited research on the UK’s food aid programmes, the failure to address the problem from the human rights angle seems puzzling. The clear value and relevance of human rights perspectives to the subject matter has been neglected. Instead, a ‘food security’ paradigm is prioritised and adhered to. This, no doubt, reflects to some extent the remit of the authors and the priorities of the commissioning body, Defra. But, whatever the reason(s), the exclusion of discussion of the right to food is at best disappointing and at worst a glaring omission.

Rights, but not rights

The perceived stigmas, and experiences of clients who are ‘embarrassed to accept help’ are clearly highlighted. However, sections of the report discussing the ‘negative emotional experiences’ that recipients of food aid can experience, ignore the ‘recognition of inherent dignity’ that underlies human rights.

In one particular statement that has been picked up by the media, the authors of the report reject the use of temporary, voluntary-sector provision, as having ‘limited effectiveness’ and that ‘broader’ (state-based) provision is required. In doing so the high-profile words of UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food are both mirrored and unacknowledged. Professor Olivier de Schutter, the Special Rapporteur, in a visit to the UK in February 2013 said foodbanks should not become a permanent feature of social security provision. It is striking that a series of comments that dominated media and public attention should be silenced.

Household food insecurity is ascribed the meaning ‘the lack of economic and physical access to sufficient, acceptable food for a healthy life’ by the report. To those versed in the work of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the parallels will be obvious. In dealing with the right to food in 1999, that committee expounded, in nearly identical words, that, ‘the right to food is realised when every man, woman and child…has physical and economic access to adequate food or means for its procurement’. The Defra report makes no mention of this influential body. Indeed, there is no mention of the United Nations anywhere in the report.

A final observation is that despite being aware of the importance of nutritional qualities of food, and mentioning this in a number of places, the report’s authors do not engage with the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights’ statements on food of ‘sufficient quantity and quality’.

The implications of exclusion

The absence of explicit human rights standards is problematic as it obscures discussion of a number of further concerns surrounding food aid. Principles of

non-discrimination and the cultural appropriateness of food, are left unaddressed. The significant rights-based experiences of engaging with issues around business and corporatisation are also neglected.

This (non-)approach to the right to food raises a myriad of questions for those working with human rights. The issues are more diverse that can be captured here but perhaps a sample is; would (even a single) mention of human rights have damaged the report?; are human rights arguments ‘toxic’ in British political arguments?; are academics in fields other than human rights unconvinced by, or uninformed of, rights?; why are comparisons with the US, Canada and Germany used in this report but international standards are not?

Perhaps human rights standards were perceived as ‘asking too much’ of the UK state in the current climate. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights leaves little doubt as to the importance of being free from hunger as an element of the right to food. In the treaty itself, freedom from hunger is unusually described as a ‘fundamental’ right. The comments of the Committee note that even situations of ‘economic adjustment’ or ‘economic recession’ do not relieve states of the core duty to keep their populations free from hunger. Perhaps it is the biggest disappointment that this clear standard was excluded from the report.

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