In this guest post, Tony Phelan reflects on what the right to food means to us as we prepare for Church Action on Poverty Sunday on 7 February 2016.
Sometimes I can go a couple of days without food, sometimes for days and days, and [with] a lot of the bit of money I’m getting I’ve got to feed my dog – and my dog’s more important, because I can ask for a sandwich where he can’t.
(participant in our ‘Right to Food’ documentary)
Food is absolutely basic to us as human beings, not just because we starve without it:
It is essential to our lives: the cement of relationships, an index of status and love and the basis of livelihoods and much trade. (See ‘How should we eat? The principles and practice of just food’ by Elizabeth Dowler in Faith and the Future of the Countryside, edited by Alan Smith and Jill Hopkinson, Canterbury Press, 2012.)
We show who we are through food, who we respect and who we love; and we couldn’t live or work without it – and for a very large number of people (in the hospitality industry, catering, the retail sector, farming, and food processing), food is their work. So when we think about what living in a Good Society would be like, food is an absolutely fundamental part of our lives. Food gives us a chance to create things, to enjoy life with others, to experience and practice generosity, to be ourselves and see ourselves as part of a family and social group that has a share in the pattern of our culture and its ways of celebrating.
In the Christian tradition, we can turn to biblical pictures of fertile lands, running water, rich soils, animal fertility and nets full of fish; and in the life of most churches bread and wine, in the Eucharist or Holy Communion, are the means of our most intimate relationship with Christ. This picture of a generous creation through which God shares his life with us, challenges what we find in ideas of endless economic growth – and among some Christians! – that creation is ours to exploit as we like, mere fodder for human needs.
In many parts of the global South, hunger is still on the increase – and women are particularly likely to bear the brunt, as those who grow and produce food, who process it – and provide it. We have often been aware of the gap between the global South and the North. But food inequalities have become more and more obvious in Britain and Europe too, so the recognition that our basic humanity gives us a right to food is sharply relevant for us.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the origin of the idea that there is a human right to food. The UN’s special committee on economic and social rights explained what this means in 1999:
The right to adequate food is realised when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.
(CESCR Comment 12)
The British Government signed up to guarantee an adequate standard of living, including food, when the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as it was called, was ratified in 1976. So as citizens we are entitled to expect that the state we live in will respect and fulfill the right to food that is affordable for all our people.
So there are two ways of thinking about the right to food as we prepare for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2016:
Our society, through its elected governments, has recognized there is a right to adequate food or the means to get sufficient food. It’s not a right to be given waste food, so that poorer people have to eat what nobody else much wants; and it’s not a right just to be given food-handouts, however generous. It’s a right to food that puts us in touch with ourselves and other people, food we can work to provide, in a society that values everyone equally. If our society through the state really took responsibility for our right to food, it would involve some profound changes in the way we live together – in the United Kingdom today.
And as Christians, we can understand the right to food as an expression of what we believe about creation. In the Genesis story, the very sustainability of human life depends on the nourishment provided in God’s garden. Having access to that abundance is what makes us fully human. The phrase we often hear from Saint Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century, helps to make sense of it for us:
The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.
And we can’t have either unless the generosity of the Creator is shared equally with all.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has set out the KEY FACTS of the international agreements that states signed up to. Click here to read the statement on ‘The right to food’.
Governments must respect, protect and fulfil the right to food: so these aren’t just goals or good intentions that are expected from governments – they are obligations. Governments are expected to fulfil this right to food as part of the normal experience of their citizens – it is not based on emergency solutions such a charities. The right to food is to be respected, protected, and fulfilled as part of everyone’s everyday life.
RESPECT means that the State must not interfere with people’s livelihoods and their ability to access adequate food.
PROTECT means there must be regulations against any group that would hinder people from having adequate, safe food.
FULFIL means that governments must identify possible vulnerable groups and ensure that their access to adequate food and means of livelihood is strengthened.
FAO also produced a set of Questions and Answers that outline the force of the Right to Food – e.g. Question 3: Is the right to food a legally binding right?
For the 160 countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the right to food is a legally binding right, on equal footing as the human rights prohibiting torture and protecting free speech and the press. In addition, many countries have included the right to food in constitutions and legislation. Countries that have not ratified the Covenant should at least recognise their moral responsibility to realise this right.