Inequalities and failings in the food system

Imogen Richmond Bishop1, Dr Jasber Singh2


The UK, like many other countries around the world, committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. These interrelated goals are understood as crucial to ending poverty as well as tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment. In addition to the commitments to the SDGs over the decades successive UK Governments have also committed to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights as included in a number of legal instruments notably for our analysis this includes the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights. However as we shall show, these obligations and commitments are not being taken seriously by the UK Government and this is causing significant issues for millions of people both in the UK and in other countries.

In this alternative analysis on the UK’s progress on the SDG’s we have chosen to focus on SDG2: End Hunger, whilst recognising the interconnections that this SDG has with other goals in particular for the purpose of our current analysis SDG 1: End Poverty, SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 8: Decent Work and economic Growth, SDG10: Reduced Inequalities, SDG 13: Climate Action, and SDG16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

The complex UK food system contributes £121 billion to the UK economy, whilst also causing significant environmental degradation, and is characterised by poor pay and working conditions, and additionally fails to address the persistent problem of food insecurity and malnutrition3. Within the food system, the dominant intensive agricultural model across the UK has been widely criticised for being unsustainable as it causes soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and for releasing high levels of greenhouse emission45.

Another negative outcome of the current food system is food insecurity and malnutrition. However, food insecurity and malnutrition are complex, and direct attribution to the food system alone would overlook the ways in which entrenched structural inequalities and other sources of injustices interlink with rising levels of hunger in UK6. As such, tackling inequalities and other sources of injustice, such as racism and sexism are also required, alongside addressing defects and maladjustments within the food system. Given the sources of injustice linked to food insecurity, a key goal of achieving the sustainable development goals is fostering equitable access to justice so that actions that contribute to durable inequality and oppression can be legally challenged where policy interventions either fail or are linked to injustices in themselves.

Ending Hunger

Despite the UK having one of the largest economies in the world, food insecurity, is a persistent and growing problem in the UK. Food insecurity has been defined as ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.7

The current data on food insecurity paints a stark picture during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by the Food Foundation found that there were 2.3 million children and 8.1 million adults who experienced food insecurity since March 2020, the start of national lockdown8. Food insecurity has undoubtedly increased during the pandemic, with a notable increase in the number of young people accessing emergency food relief9. However, food insecurity is not a new phenomenon caused by COVID-19 but rather was a serious issue that was embedded across the UK, emerging from the context of austerity, welfare reform, Hostile Environment immigration policies, rising cost of living, increases in food and fuel prices, and stagnant wages.

Food insecurity correlates with poverty and reveals existing and entrenched inequalities in the UK. Data from England’s National Food Strategy, the Food Foundation, and the UK government’s Family Resource Survey shows that food insecurity is linked to inequalities based on gender, race, disability, health, age, and various intersectional combinations of these identities. To illustrate, before the pandemic people with a health problem or a disability were three times more likely to be food insecure which increased to five times more likely during the pandemic. Black or minority ethnic households are twice more likely to be food insecure and in January 2021 twenty percent of ethnic minorities households experienced food insecurity in the past six months compared to nine percent of White British households. Black households were most likely to face food insecurity than any other minority/racialised group, indicating that racism, and especially, anti-blackness, are key driver for food poverty1011.

Food insecurity is also a key concern for migrant groups, especially for people with ‘No recourse to public funds’ (NRPF), a condition imposed on people ‘subject to immigration control’12&13 . A person with NRPF cannot access most welfare benefits or social housing, but they can access publicly funded services that are not listed as ‘public funds’ for immigration purposes. Individuals without leave to remain in the UK are also not legally entitled to seek paid employment. There are approximately 1.4 million people who are subjected to NRPF, but the data on the levels of food insecurity in this group is unclear, but emerging research is indicating that this group faces high levels of food insecurity14. To illustrate, despite recent extensions to free school meals for some children with NRPF many children from NRPF families are still denied access to free school meals regardless of their need, and 3% of food bank users are asylum seekers yet only 0.1% of households in the UK apply to seek asylum15. Furthermore, the majority of people who seek asylum are from Black or minority backgrounds. In combination with the data on ethnicity, this suggests that structural racism is a clear driver of food insecurity in the UK.

Single-adult households, often women with children, are more likely to be food insecure than households with two or more adults and children, revealing how patriarchy and food insecurity interlink. Geography and deprivation both play a role in food insecurity, households in the North East and West are more likely to be food insecure that other regions16. It is also possible to draw connections between specific welfare policies and food insecurity. For example the ‘two-child limit’ that restricts welfare support to only two children is understood as a key driver of poverty amongst these households17 and the latest UK wide food insecurity data shows that nearly half of households with three or more children are food insecure.18 Furthermore, people who work in the food sector are more likely to be food insecure than those from other employment sectors that are typically low paid, including care work19.

Food workers

Work in the food sector in the UK is typified by low paid and with precarious working conditions. TheBakers, Food Workers, and Allied Workers union surveyed their members and found that during the COVID-19 pandemic 40% of them did not eat enough food because they could not afford it, with one in five members relying on a family or friends to provide a meal and nearly one in ten having to use food aid.20 COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing issues such as lack of adequate sick pay and furthermore raised new concerns for food workers such as the lack or inadequacy of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) provided and compounded the health risk this can pose to the workers and their family members.

Furthermore work in the agricultural sector in the UK, much of which is performed by migrant labourers who are at a higher risk of exploitation and abuse, is not only low paid and precarious but can also be dangerous. Agricultural work has 18 times the fatal injury rate of other industries.21 There is also limited scope for improving conditions in England as in 2013, the UK Government scrapped the Agricultural Wages Board, meaning there is no longer a collective bargaining body for workers in England unlike the ones that exist in Scotland and Wales.22

TheUK imports nearly half of the food consumed domestically therefore working conditions for farm workers and food producers in other countries is also a key concern.23 Due to leaving the European Union the UK is currently in the process of negotiating and signing new trade deals with nations across the globe, many of these deals risk undermining human rights in other countries and weakening food standards domestically. As the War on Want recently found, thesenew trade deals are putting nations in the Global South between a rock and hard place where they are forced to either face high tariffs to export to the UK or sign disadvantageous trade deals that impact on local food producers and economies.24 These disadvantageous trade deals are often locking countries out of value adding processing and destroying infant industries through trade liberalisation therefore creating significant inequalities in the long run. Of concern for domestic food production on the 1st of February 2021 the UK formallyapplied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement.25 For campaigners including Sustain this deal poses a direct threat to the UK’s public’s health, environmental protections and farming sector. It would also set a dangerous precedent that the UK’s pesticide and environmental standards are up for grabs in other post-Brexit trade negotiations.

Access to justice

Unlike many other counties in the world the UK Government has not domestically incorporated the right to food or broader socio-economic rights into domestic legislation. Whilst there has been a commitment from the Scottish parliament to introduce a new human rights bill that will bring four UN treaties into Scots law thereby expanding protections for the right to food, the same cannot be said in other parts of the UK.26 This means that there is currently very limited recourse for an individual or a group to bring legal action if a UK Government decision or policy impacts on a person's access to food. Lawyers are left with very few levers to pull in order to access justice for their clients and often rely on the limited scope for these cases afforded by the Human Rights Act 1998 or the Equality Act 2010.

In the summer of 2020 Sustain working with the Good Law Project threatened the UK Government with legal action through a judicial review over their refusal to provide support for children in England eligible for free school meals over the summer holidays.27 The UK Government u-turned and granted support before the case made it to court meaning full consideration of the legal arguments did not take place in a court of law. This case was one of many judicial reviews that took place in 2020 and 2021 that focused on access to food, including challenges focused on the extension of free school meals to some children with No Recourse to Public Funds and the extension of Healthy Start vouchers to some children with No Recourse to Public Funds. In a number of the legal cases that have made it to court that have would have a potential impact on food insecurity in the UK, like for example the challenge to the two-child limit policy, the courts have found in favour of the UK Government meaning that some of the key drivers of food insecurity have been left in place.28

Looking to the future the UK Government has launched an inquiry into judicial review, a key tool for challenging Government decision making, as well as a review of the Human Rights Act 1998, a crucial piece of human rights legislation. These inquiries are drawing considerable concern from human rights advocates and civil society especially as the changes that could be brought about would then compound the barriers people have in accessing justice that have been brought about over the past decade in particular through cuts to legal aid funding.29


The pandemic has highlighted and reinforced serious inequalities and failings in our food system, and has crucially shown the serious deficiencies of reliance on a market and profit orientated food system that ignores the needs of the people and the planet that make food production possible in the first place.

The food system in the UK has failed to address the challenges of poor employment terms and conditions, inequalities in food security, and environmental degradations. Strengthening environmental protections within the food system is therefore urgently needed. The pandemic also exposed how the food system is a site of poor pay and working conditions, failing to protect its workers, and showed how food insecurity and malnutrition outcomes dramatically increased, especially for young people, single mothers with children, and ethnic minority groups.

Negative outcomes of the food system speak to broader structural problems in the UK. Analysis of food insecurity reveals entrenched inequalities based on race, gender, disability, age, immigration status and intersectional formations. As such, food insecurity exposes an undercurrent in the UK of ableism, racism and sexism, which are generally erased or not considered as drivers of hunger . These sources of injustice need to be foregrounded more adamantly as current narratives of food insecurity reproduce a form of patriarchal ableist whiteness that does not reflect the socially diverse society in the UK, or address the structural power that leads to hunger.

The negative outcomes of our food system need to be addressed through changes to UK Government policies, but in their absence, legal challenges and remedies are often required to tackle emerging and entrenched social and environmental injustices. As such, strong legal access to justice is an important, and arguably foundational requirement for meeting all SDGs in the UK. However building on current human right protections we need the UK Government to advance human rights by incorporating socio-economic rights into domestic legislation as without better legal protections of these core rights the SDGs will not be achieved.

Grassroots Movement

In response to growing levels of food insecurity across the UK that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a grassroots movement across England of towns and cities declaring themselves to be right to food areas. These areas have include Liverpool and the Liverpool Combined Authority, Manchester and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Rotherham, Totnes, Brighton and Hove, Haringey, St Helens, Newcastle, Portsmouth and Durham. By declaring themselves to be right to food areas these places have committed to taking a rights based approaching to ending hunger as well as calling on the UK Government to take similar steps including through incorporating the right to food into domestic legislation.


1 Imogen Richmond Bishop coordinates the Right to Food programme at Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming and is also an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics.

2 Dr Jasber Singh is Associate Professor at Coventry University's Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resiliance.

3 Hasnain, S., Ingram, J. and Zurek, M. 2020. Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

5 Hasnain, S., Ingram, J. and Zurek, M. 2020. Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

6 UCL (2019) Structurally Unsound Exploring Inequalities: Igniting research to better inform UK policy

7 Dowler, E., Turner, S., and Dobson, B. (2001). Poverty Bites: Food, Health and Poor Families. London: Child Poverty Action Group.

8 Food Foundation (2021) The Crisis within a Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on household food security

9 Food Foundation (2021) The Crisis within a Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on household food security

12 Section 115 Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

13 Andy Jolly, Eve Dickson, Kimberly Garande, Imogen Richmond-Bishop, and Jasber Singh (2021) Immigration policies: enforcing borders, driving hunger and creating destitution

14 CAWR, Sustain, and Project 17 (2020) Sometimes My Belly Will Just Hurt No Recourse to Public Funds and the Right to Food

15 Trussell Trust (2017) Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability

17 Imogen Richmond-Bishop (2020) Why     is the two-child limit contrary to the UK’s human rights obligations?

19 Food Foundation (2021) The Crisis within a Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on household food security

20 Bakers, Food Workers and Allied Workers (2021) The Right to Food: A Law needed by food workers and communities across the UK

21 Health and Safety Executive (2020) Fatal Injuries in Agriculture, Forestry and fishing in Great Britiain 2019/2020

23 Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (2020) Food Statistics in your pocket: Global and UK supply

24 War on Want (2021) Empire 2.0: UK trade deals squeeze wealth from the Global South

25 Sustain (2021) New Pacific free trade agreement could bring 119 banned toxic pesticides to UK

26 Scottish Government (2021) New Human Rights Bill

27 Imogen Richmond-Bishop and Dr Sara Bailey (2020) Litigating for social justice with ‘one armed tied behind your back’: Why economic and social rights must be incorporated into UK law

28 Supreme Court (2021) Judgement R (on the application of SC, CB and 8 children) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and others (Respondents)

29 Liberty (2020) Limits to judicial review could undermine vital safeguard

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