In June 2020, Elaine Smith MSP set out a proposal for a Member’s Bill with the aim of incorporating the human right to food into Scots law. On 10 March 2021, this proposal gained sufficient support from MSPs to introduce the Right to Food (Scotland) Bill (“the Bill”).

This legislation will provide a legal framework with the aim of tackling the issues surrounding food and poverty within Scotland. In order to facilitate this, the Bill will establish an independent statutory body to monitor progress towards the right to food and to ensure that there is nothing in Scotland’s food system that is contrary to the aim of delivering a universal right to food. The Bill makes it clear that the right to food is not about giving individuals the right to take legal action against the Scottish Government, but rather it will ensure that the Government sets measurable targets for the right to food to be met, checks its policies and performance against the requirement to progress the right to food and can be held to account for any regression or failure to meet its obligations.

What does the right to food mean within the Right to Food (Scotland) Bill?

The Bill outlines that the objective of a fair food system is that food should be available, food should be accessible and that food should be adequate.

What does this mean in practice? Availability simply means that food should be widely for sale in markets and shops. Accessibility necessitates that food is affordable without the need to compromise on other basic needs, such as rent or medicines. The meaning of accessibility within the Bill also includes physical accessibility for people who are physically vulnerable. Finally, adequacy relates to the satisfaction of all dietary needs. Under the Bill, food should be nutritious and sustainable and should also accommodate any cultural dietary requirements.

The right to food encompasses the Scottish Government’s responsibility to do everything in its power to ensure that the food system is meeting the aims set out above. This obligation means firstly that the Government must not prevent access to food or inflict any conditions that limit the ability of individuals to acquire food. Secondly, the Government must promote and strengthen access to food and, when necessary, take positive action to ensure that the right to food is maintained and protected.

Why is this Bill required?

In recent years, food insecurity, poverty and injustice have become deeply embedded in Scottish society. Despite Scotland having copious natural food resources and a globally renowned food and drink sector, there has been a significant increase in the use of food banks. The Bill outlines that there is evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the problems faced by low-income families. The Bill aims to tackle these issues and provide a framework to eradicate food insecurity in Scotland.

There have been previous attempts to incorporate the right to food into Scots law. For example, in 2018, there was a proposal for a rights-based approach to poverty and food insecurity through the Good Food Nation Bill. However, the proposal was delayed as a result of the pandemic and subsequently it was decided that the right to food should be considered as part of wider work on the incorporation of human rights into Scots law.

International law has already provided for the right to food in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”), which has been ratified by the UK. Article 11(1) of ICESCR provides that State Parties recognise the "right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” In addition, Article 11(2) provides that States Parties recognise the "fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger."

Therefore, according to the UK’s international obligations, the right to food does exist however, this right is not enforceable under Scots law. The incorporation of the Right to Food into Scots law through the Bill would allow Scotland to conform with its obligations under international law more effectively.

In conclusion

Now that the Bill has gained sufficient support to be introduced, it will be presented to the Scottish Parliament in the coming months to be considered by a committee and subsequently debated.

This article was co-written by Clare Tuohy.