Dr Kirsteen Shields

MERCY Baguma was in the thoughts and hearts of many of us this bank holiday weekend. Recent reports suggest she was supported by family and friends and that her story is more complex than that first portrayed in the media. One of the striking aspects of her story is the role of community in her life in Govan, through her son’s toddler group, and through community food networks.

Shortly before her death, Mercy was videoed receiving a delivery of rice, yams, and other African foods from Africa Challenge Scotland. She is heard expressing appreciation for being able to have some home comforts at a difficult time. It is a touching scene and it underlines the importance of food as a means of not just physical but also psychological sustenance. It suggests that we should not measure food security by physical proximity to food but instead by the social, cultural, emotional and psychological distance one must travel in order to access it; moreover, to access joy from it.

Community food organisations such as Africa Challenge Scotland travel the distance between the mainstream and the margins, moving mountains on a shoestring, yet are reliant on donations and maligned by “super-marketeers as interfering in the market.

In recent years and throughout the pandemic, globally, governmental approaches to food security have focused on distributing emergency relief funds directly to households. In the UK context these household cash injections are generally siphoned back to supermarkets’ profits margins and do little to elevate or build local food systems that serve multiple civic, social and cultural needs. Doing so risks multiplying exclusion from benefits and perpetuating supermarket dependencies. Moreover it delays the opportunity for systemic reform along the food value chain.

The right to food is the corrective in this context. The right to food is sometimes waved simplistically, and just as simplistically waved away, but properly understood it is the vehicle for full-cycle reform of food systems. The UN definition of the right to food re-imagines food as more than a commodity and emphasises creating space for local food systems and food cultures beyond consumerism.

At the Scottish Parliament, discussions on the right to food have been in play for several years. If properly drafted the right to food would trump conflicting rules (such as immigration rules) and integrate a whole-system approach to food that brings multiple health, environment, and economic benefits. This would come at the expense of existing food monopolies, “Tesco town” civic planning and the mantra that the market provides.

In order to be effective, the right to food legislation should include powers to assess and revise existing laws in diverse areas that impact on access to adequate food in the UK – for example, immigration, employment, land and housing, transport, and tax laws. The Human Rights Act contains clauses to ensure that all UK legislation is human rights compatible – the right to food should operate on similar terms.

It should be supported by the establishment of a Food Commission, which could take its lead from the Scottish Land Commission as regards to reforming a particularly entrenched and politicised sector. Until we do so the right to food will be subject to eternal policy re-shuffles, dependent on the hard-fought advocacy of “activist lawyers”, and often forced to take a back seat to UK statutory law.

Dr Kirsteen Shields lectures in International Law and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh