Starving in a rich world

Hannah Smith looks at food poverty, farming and food systems and asks whether nutritious food is a human right

For most of us in the rich first world, having enough food and food that is nutritious is something that we take for granted. The only time we ever feel hunger pangs is when the month of Ramadan rolls around every year. When we think of those in need we turn our attention to those starving in the third world and send our charitable aid there. However, we might be surprised to find out that our neighbour here in the UK is just as in need of food donations as any third world family and that their common food insecurity is part of a global food system that is designed to maximise profit rather serve human needs.

In the UK, 8% of all adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, almost four million people reported experiencing food insecurity in the past 12 months. That means that these adults and their dependents did not have enough money to purchase enough or nutritionally-adequate foodstuffs. Many ran out of food and went hungry, although estimates suggest the number who actually go on to visit a food bank is much lower, perhaps 17 times lower than the actual number of people who are food insecure at any one time.

This is all the more surprising when one considers that 7% of these people were in work. For unemployed people, the number who are food insecure jumps to 47%. Clearly, some wages and welfare benefits in the UK are inadequate to ensure adequate food for many families. Is this acceptable? I would argue that food, alongside adequate shelter, is the most basic of human needs and surely everyone deserves a balanced diet sufficient for good health and growth. In a country that grows and produces much more food than is eaten by its population, it is cruel and mean to allow some people to starve. We do not deprive prisoners of food, so why do we expect people on benefits to survive without sufficient funds to buy adequate food?

Is access to adequate food a human right? Yes, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states: “the right to adequate food is realised when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” According to guidance published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the food must be “available, accessible and adequate”.

Available means that the food must be grown or sold to the consumer, accessible means it must be obtainable by financial means or other and adequate means that will adequately nourish the body to the needs of the recipient whether young or old. The OHCHR even goes as far as to state that “if children’s food does not contain the nutrients necessary for their physical and mental development, it is not adequate. Food that is energy-dense and low-nutrient, which can contribute to obesity and other illnesses, could be another example of inadequate food” and “food should be safe for human consumption and free from adverse substances, such as contaminants from industrial or agricultural processes, including residues from pesticides, hormones or veterinary drugs”.

How many families on low or fixed incomes (including pensioners), those families that have no disposable income for luxuries or have to make difficult decisions such as between heating their homes or purchasing food are able to afford optimally nutritious, effectively organic diets?

My own anecdotal observation is that organic foods are typically 2-3 times more expensive than similar ‘conventional’ foodstuffs grown using artificial fertilisers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. In the UK, just 1.5% of food and drink on the market is organic. Clearly there is an accessibility issue and sadly where people need the most nutritious food, such as in state maintained schools and public hospitals, what is being served is widely known to be below par, featuring cheap non-organic ingredients, chemical additives, and too much sugar and refined carbohydrates, the kind of food that nutritional research suggests is responsible for the ever-increasing rates of modern diseases from obesity to cancer to diabetes to dementia, diseases that some scientists argue are in many cases caused by long-term nutritional deficiencies and exposure to toxins through food and other environmental sources.

The consequences of food insecurity and inadequate foods, which include significantly higher medical treatment, low achievement at school and child welfare costs stretch beyond those low-income families that are food insecure. In Canada, healthcare bills were on average 121% higher for people who were food insecure in 2015, and in an economy like the UK, these costs will pass on to the taxpayer through the use of the NHS. Society is also diminished through related mental health problems and loss of talent. Making sure that every member of our society is adequately fed is socially and economically better for all of us.

Zooming out to the global level, we have a food system in crisis: despite being able to produce enough food for all the people currently living and up to projected peak population of 9 billion, 795 million people are currently estimated to be chronically undernourished, the environment and natural resources essential for farming are being significantly damaged, a huge amount of food is going to waste, yields are diminishing, chemical resistance is growing, and farmers are becoming heavily indebted. In the UK, a whopping 7.3 million tonnes of food was being wasted every year at the last estimate in 2015.

Many argue that returning to a system of local organic smallholdings, away from large-scale mechanised chemically-reliant methods will not only reap dividends for human health and the environment, but is actually the only way of ‘keeping the world fed’; that actually we need to invest in efficient organic farm methods because yields are declining and crops are becoming unsustainable, particularly in the third world due to environmental damage and chemical resistance. This is in stark contrast to the mantras of the multinational seed and agrochemical companies who argue that farming needs more technological fixes such as genetically-modified seeds. Surprisingly, the simple humble agricultural life of the Ahlul Bayt, in which they would involve themselves directly in the food and farming of their local community, and the wise food system they developed, is reflected in many modern solutions put forward by campaigners for food justice. The Prophet Muhammad(s) and his family certainly gave us clear guidance on the quality and nutritional value of foods, teaching us only to eat pure and unadulterated foods, and recommending what kinds of foods we need to eat for optimal health at any given time.  This is alongside blueprints for eating, avoiding waste, farming, food production, charitable distribution, land conservation, animal welfare and taxation.

When it comes to making food more affordable, available and accessible in the marketplace, some initiatives such as those implemented in the City of Belo in Brazil have been amazingly successful at eradicating hunger by adopting the view that food is a fundamental human right for all.

As Muslims, is it a duty of ours to fight for food justice, to re-balance the sustenance that God has provided for all and eradicate injustice against people and planet? Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply on our global food system and find answers in the Sunnah.




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