The dream of a right to food: What lessons can Scotland draw from the rest of the world?


If we are to establish a national right to food, what can the history of other countries’ attempts tell us? Sean Bell takes a look.

FOOD defines humanity, and determines life. Hunger cannot be argued with. It is a historical truth and a global reality – and Scotland is no exception.

Scotland’s relationship with the provision of food – its cost, availability, health implications, and the human rights concerns to which it is inherent – have, in recent years, more usually been associated with particular contexts and circumstances: Brexit and its implications for tariffs, imports and the UK food market; post-2008 austerity and the resultant rise of food banks as a necessity for the day-to-day survival of many; and of course, the troubled course of the much-heralded ‘Good Food Nation’ bill.

The last is perhaps the most immediately pertinent; despite the Scottish Government committing to the legislation, it was only through dedicated campaigning on the part of a coalition of third sector interests – who have witnessed the effects of the nation’s unsustainable food poverty and rampant diet-related health issues perhaps more closely than many of our politicians – that prevented it from being surreptiously abandoned last year. On 18 April, the consultation on Good Food legislation will come to an end, at which point action on its codification and implementation will be expected by all those who have lobbied so hard to bring it into being.

Yet, as stated at the outset, Scotland’s relationship with food does not exist apart from the rest of the world or its history; by the same token, a statutory right to food – which many campaigners were adamant must be enshrined within Scots law in consequence of the Good Food Nation bill – is not defined by or limited to a single piece of legislation. Writing in Third Force News today, Graham Martin recognised this, encouraging us to look towards the lessons of both history and the international community in how Scotland might go forward: “Nothing happens in isolation.”

Martin points to the example of Brazil, which has since 2004 tackled the problem of food insecurity through a swathe of interconnected policy initiatives which recognise that no single governmental department can address issues underlying food poverty and inequality.

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This collective approach was embodied by the establishment of a national council – including 18 ministers and 36 representatives from across civil society – and given a clear legal and social mission by the 2006 passage of the Federal Law for Food and Nutrition Security, which requires that the state “enforce the universal right to regular and permanent access to good quality food in sufficient quantities, based on healthy food practices which respect cultural diversity and which are environmentally, culturally, socially and economically sustainable.”

This was pursued by the country’s ‘Zero Hunger Strategy’, which has been credited with reducing levels of inequality in Brazil to the lowest levels seen in three decades; however, the election of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, a man famously unconcerned with social programs which he regards as nefarious communism-by-stealth, endangers that progress. This, Graham Martin, argues, shows “how precarious progressive gains can be, unless they are reinforced and entrenched by an engaged people and a committed civil society.”

Martin’s assertion is self-evidently correct, but may also indicate the dangers of looking to single examples to guide our way in establishing a national right to food. By studying the concept’s history, and the various attempts to implement it in different national contexts, Scotland may stand a greater chance of cementing a human right with more permanence than whichever governments are tasked with enforcing it.

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Enforcement, predictably, has historically been where the chief obstacles to a right to food have lain. In the wake of the shortages and famine that had swept Russia over the course of the First World War, no rallying cry motivated the revolution of 1917 more than Lenin’s simple promise of peace, land and – crucially – bread. The subsequent Soviet famine of 1932-33 serves as a brutal historical reminder than promises are reliant upon policies capable of delivering them.

However, recognising the injustice of mass hunger – and its effectiveness as a driver for historical and social change – was by no means limited to Bolshevism. Extending New Deal rhetoric to a global scale, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that ‘freedom from want’ as a fundamental right for the peoples of the world in his famous 1941 ‘Four Freedoms’ speech – though he was careful to define this an endorsement of international ‘economic understandings’ that would allow for sufficient food and resources for all, as opposed to an obligation of the part of the state to provide it.

Despite Roosevelt’s optimism, it would be such international ‘economic understandings’ that would, over the latter half of the 20th century, fuel food poverty and inequality, and lead to such concepts as ‘food justice’ and ‘food sovereignty’. The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen earned his 1998 Nobel Prize partly on the basis of his work demonstrating that modern cases of famine and mass starvation were rarely the result of insufficient resources, but instead came about due to the inequitable or disrupted food distribution networks – as well as the government and economic systems which oversaw them.

Seven years after Roosevelt’s speech, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would define food as a human right; in reality, as with so much of the declaration, this would remain an aspiration at best for much of the world. The concentration of private ownership over the production and distribution of food, coupled with fundamental imbalances in the economic relationship between the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world, motivated many nations afflicted by food poverty to take bolder steps in achieving a right to food.

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During his four-year tenure in power prior to his assassination in 1987, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara dismissed the idea that hunger in his or any other nation could be addressed by foreign aid, which Sankara defined as an expression of the neo-colonial structures from which he attempted to liberate his nation. Food, in Sankara’s view, could never be a right if it was dependent on the generosity of foreign powers or international commerce. As he told the 39th General Assembly of the United Nations: “He who does not feed you can demand nothing of you.”

Far being mere anti-imperialist posturing, Sankara’s policy of refusing food aid and focusing on agricultural reform and redistribution not only made Burkina Faso self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs in only a few short years, but actually created a food surplus – an example which still inspires whenever food crises emerge throughout Africa. But in the wake of Brexit, with its uncertain implications for the UK food market, the possible necessity of greater self-sufficiency – in Scotland and beyond – may yet become more pressing.

Burkina Faso’s brief yet historic achievement was achieved on a national scale; for nations still dependent on imports and trade, for which self-sufficiency is not immediately possible, international concerns are a factor which cannot be ignored. Such concerns led to the rise of the food sovereignty movement, rooted in the La Via Campesina farmers’ movement of the 1990s, the principles of which were laid down in 2007 in the Declaration of Nyéléni, adopted by the 500 delegates from 80 countries.

Food sovereignty, it says, “puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.”

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Scotland, particularly if it were to pursue a path of independence, would need to consider how a right to food can be maintained, and it can be done without reckoning with those “demands of markets and corporations” that have proven such an obstacle to overcoming food poverty in other parts of the world.

While Sankara’s policies may be taken as an example of trying to achieve a right to food through policy, other countries have coupled that with legislation similar to the proposed Good Food Bill. In addition to Brazil, the right to food has been recognised in Ecuador, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, South Africa, Nicaragua and in the interim constitution of Nepal.

However, the applicability of such examples to Scotland is limited, given that most of these recognise a right to food on a constitutional level; at present, the UK has no written constitution, and until it does – or Scotland achieves independence as a constitutional nation-state – any right to food established by the Good Food Nation bill, or any other legislation, may be less entrenched, and more subject to the political climate of the day.

The dream of a right to food has been nourished for many years. As a reality, even in individual nations or brief moments in history, it has only been partially achieved, and the struggle towards it continues. Through its efforts, Scotland is a part of that struggle. What lessons it chooses to draw from other times and places may determine whether it realises the dream.

Picture courtesy of CIDSE – together for global justice

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