Australia’s Right to Food Coalition was set up in 2016 to promote food security, that is, for all Australians to be able to access healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food. We chose to do this using a rights-based framework for two main reasons. Firstly, we see food security as being a fundamental human right, with a key role to play in maintaining physical and mental health. Secondly, Australia has signed up to several international agreements which spell out our national obligations to ensure food security for all. We believe that holding our government to account in meeting these obligations provides an important pathway to achieving fair food access.
We believe that the right to food is not being realised in Australia today. While estimates of the extent of food insecurity vary, even the 4% estimate provided by ABS data from 2011-13 would mean that over one million Australians are ‘running out of food and being unable to afford to buy more’. However many local studies have shown much higher levels among at risk groups such as single parents, low income groups, refugees and Aboriginal communities. The RTF Coalition believes this is not acceptable in one of the richest countries on earth.
To date, Australia’s primary response to food insecurity in the community has been reliance on the charitable food sector to provide emergency food relief. But while there has been huge growth in food rescue and relief in the last twenty years, the rate of food insecurity has barely changed. We cannot accept that a residual proportion of people should always remain food insecure. Emergency relief, while providing a critical stop-gap, cannot address the underlying issues.
What is the ‘Right to Food’?
The concept of a human right to food is well established internationally. It is specifically required by several international agreements to which Australia is a signatory.
In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) included the right of every person “to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing”.
While the UDHR was not legally binding, it was followed up in 1975 by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) which Australia signed, and which requires countries to take pro-active steps to ensure food security, through ‘respecting, protecting and fulfilling’ the right to food. In 1990 Australia also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for provision of adequate nutritious foods and drinking water to combat disease and malnutrition in children. Australia has to report internationally on progress in this work. For more details of these legal commitments, see the RTF Coalition’s 2016 position paper: The Human Right to Food.
More recently, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030 has provided another avenue for action to reduce poverty and food insecurity.
Is Australia meeting its legal obligations?
The RTF coalition believes there is still a lot of work to be done for Australia to meet its commitments. A recent analysis of Australia’s progress, using the Food & Agriculture Organisation’s 2005 voluntary guidelines on the Right to Food, provided a roadmap for a rights-based approach to food security, with 6 areas for action (Lindberg et al 2020). These range from government leadership and resourcing to empowerment and participation by those affected by food insecurity.
What can the RTF Coalition do?
The strength of the RTF Coalition lies in the wide range of individuals, groups and organisations engaged in action to promote fair access to healthy food. By working together, we can raise awareness of food insecurity, share strategies and ideas, and seek opportunities to improve public policy at a local and national level. Using a multi-layered and rights-based approach, we can take action on the many interconnected and underlying issues such as poverty and inadequate welfare payments, lack of regular monitoring of food insecurity, regional differences in food access, and lack of a national nutrition strategy.
Australia has committed to a human right to food on the international stage; let’s make sure that this is translated into a reality on the ground.
About the author
Liz Millen is an organising committee member of the RTF Coalition in NSW. Prior to her retirement in 2019 she worked in health promotion for 20 years in south west Sydney. She has advocated for many years on food security matters, including through the former Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.