Katie Morris, PhD Student at Durham University
The current cost-of-living crisis is posing a severe threat to UK household food security. A culmination of factors, including post-Brexit trade barriers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and poor crop yields associated with climate change, saw the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages within the state increase by 19.1% within a year – a 40-year high. The rise in food prices is radically altering consumption behaviours across the UK; in April 2022, 13.8% of households has either had smaller meals than usual, not eaten on at least one occasion despite being hungry or not eaten for a whole day because they could not afford or get access to food. The increasing difficulties households are encountering accessing sufficient food is plainly at odds with the state’s commitment to guarantee the fundamental right to be free from hunger and to realise the right to adequate food, as per Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This blog post will conduct an analysis of the challenges to the realisation of the right to adequate food in the UK amidst a time of extreme hardship for many, drawing on the right’s key components.
General Comment Twelve of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) requires food to be available, either directly from the land or via ‘well-functioning…market systems’. States must also ensure that food is both physically and economically accessible, the latter meaning that the price of food must not impede the fulfilment of other basic needs. These core components of the right to adequate food greatly contrast to the situation in the UK, where supermarkets introduced rations of fruit and vegetable, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, in response to supply shortages from overseas producers. Whilst retailers cast the blame upon inclement weather in Morocco and Spain, the physical inaccessibility of fresh produce highlights the risks inherent in a food system which currently imports 47% of vegetables and 84% of fruit – an increasing number of which come from climate vulnerable areas. Economic accessibility of food is also a problem for many in the UK, as indicated by the 24% of parents who had already cut back on the quantity of food they were purchasing in September 2022 to afford essentials such as energy bills, ahead of further price rises in gas and electricity in effect from October.
The guidance from the CESCR also stipulates that there must be food available that contain the whole host of nutrients needed for physical and mental development. Soaring energy prices have been met with an 8% increase in meals prepared at home using a microwave; whilst the average ready meal costs almost four times the sum of the ingredients required to cook the meal from scratch, the oven use required for the latter is likely to drive up the household’s energy bills. This trend raises concerns pertaining to nutritional quality, with many ready meals classified as ultra-processed foods on account of their energy-density and high levels of saturated and trans-fats, sugars and salts. On a more general note, healthy diets were estimated to be almost three times more expensive than unhealthy alternatives prior to the recent rises in food prices and have become more inaccessible for many since, with 18% making more unhealthy food swaps than they did before the cost-of-living crisis began.
Lastly, the UK bears responsibility under international law to ensure that dietary needs of individuals are accommodated –  a further aspect of the right to food affected by the cost-of-living crisis. The experiences of those with coeliac disease, the only treatment of which is to observe a strict gluten free diet, serves as an example; gluten free products have typically had higher costs than their gluten containing equivalents, driven up further due to inflation. Those who can no longer afford gluten free products have been forced to switch to those containing gluten, posing a serious risk to their health.
Whilst the cost-of-living crisis constitutes a sizeable threat to households’ access to adequate food across the UK, it is worth highlighting that the effects are not being felt evenly. Article 2(2) of the ICESCR requires all rights enshrined, including the right to food, to be enjoyed without discrimination of any kind – including on account of socio-economic status. That being said, dietary inequalities were already visible in the UK prior to the cost-of-living crisis, with calorie-dense foods often more economical for low-income households in comparison to more nutritious, yet perishable, alternatives. Such households have equally been accustomed to making their food budgets stretch by shopping in multiple stores to make use of retailers’ offers and buying value brands, yet for many there are no further cuts which can be made. The greater economic barriers to a healthy diet faced by low-income households is indicative of the state’s non-observance of Article 2(2), undermining the Covenant’s predication upon the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all’.
Evidently, there are an abundance of challenges to the realisation of the right to food in the UK at present, yet the cost-of-living crisis represents only the tip of the iceberg. Whilst food insecurity has become more pervasive in recent years, the underlying causes predate both the cost-of-living crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a deep-seated resistance to the recognition of food as a right within the UK, dating back to Cold War divisions regarding civil and political and socioeconomic rights. The state has remained unwilling to incorporate the ICESCR into domestic law, in spite of repeated calls by the CESCR, nor introduce a freestanding right to food. In turn, food has been treated as a commodity, permitting policies which impede access to a balanced diet – exemplified by the Universal Credit regime. What is needed is the adoption of a rights-based approach to food insecurity across the UK’s governing institutions, which recognises that hunger is a political choice.
 ‘Food and energy price inflation, UK: 2023’ (Office for National Statistics, 23 May 2023) www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/articles/foodandenergypriceinflationuk/2023 accessed 25 June 2023.
 ‘Millions of adults missing meals as cost of living crisis bites’ (Food Foundation, 9 May 2022) <https://foodfoundation.org.uk/press-release/millions-adults-missing-meals-cost-living-crisis-bites> accessed 25 June 2023.
 (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1976) 993 UNTS 3 (ICESCR).
 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), ‘General Comment No 12: The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11)’ UN Doc E/C.12/199/5 3.
 Daniel Woolfson, ‘Why are UK supermarkets rationing fruit and vegetables?’ Telegraph (London, 24 February 2023) www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/02/23/food-shortages-fruit-vegetables-rationing-supermarkets-tesco/ accessed 25 June 2023.
 ‘Fruit and veg shortages – what do they tell us about the state of UK food security?’ (Food Foundation, 24 February 2023) https://foodfoundation.org.uk/news/fruit-and-veg-shortages-what-do-they-tell-us-about-state-uk-food-security-0 accessed 25 June 2023.
 ‘As energy prices rise again, a quarter of parents have cut back on the quantity of food to afford essentials’ (Food Foundation, 30 September 2022) https://foodfoundation.org.uk/press-release/energy-prices-rise-again-quarter-parents-have-cut-back-quantity-food-afford accessed 25 June 2023.
 CESCR (n 4).
 Hannah Boland and Chris Price, ‘Microwave meals surge in popularity as families struggle to cut costs’ Telegraph (London, 20 June 2023) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/06/20/grocery-prices-inflation-slowest-growth/ accessed 25 June 2023.
 Magaly Aceves-Martins, Philippa Denton, Bauke de Roos, ‘Ready meals, especially those that are animal-based and cooked in an oven, have lower nutritional quality and higher greenhouse gas emissions and are more expensive than equivalent home-cooked meals’ (2023) 26(3) Public Health Nutrition 531.
 Shona Goudie and Isabel Hughes, ‘The Broken Plate 2022: The State of the Nation’s Food System’ (Food Foundation 2022) 12 www.foodfoundation.org.uk/sites/default/files/2023-01/FF_Broken_Plate_Report%202022_DIGITAL_UPDATED_2023.pdf accessed 25 June 2023.
 Charlie Bayliss, ‘Cost of living crisis has made it harder to be healthy, new study says’ Independent (London, 16 April 2023) www.independent.co.uk/life-style/healthy-eating-weight-gain-food-costs-b2317742.html accessed 25 June 2023.
 CESCR (n 4).
 ‘Lancashire woman warns of high price of coeliac diet in cost of living crisis’ (ITV News, 24 March 2023) < www.itv.com/news/granada/2023-03-24/cost-of-living-sees-price-of-gluten-free-diets-rise-disproportionately accessed 25 June 2023.
 ‘Rising costs forcing people on gluten-free diets to buy food that makes them ill, Coeliac UK warns’ (ITV News, 9 May 2023) www.itv.com/news/anglia/2023-05-09/cost-of-living-crisis-forcing-people-to-buy-food-that-make-them-ill accessed 25 June 2023.
 CESCR, ‘General Comment 20: Non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights (art 2. para.2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)’ (2 July 2009) UN Doc E/C.12/GC/20 8,11.
 Scott Corfe, What are the barriers to eating healthily in the UK? (Social Market Foundation 2018); Rebecca O’Connell, Abigail Knight and Julia Brannen, Living hand to mouth: Children and food in low-income families (Child Poverty Action Group 2019) 10, 56.
 (n 2).
 ICESCR, preamble.
 Joe Wills, ‘The World Turned Upside Down? Neo-Liberalism, Socioeconomic Rights, and Hegemony (2014) 27 LJIL 11, 19.
 Katie Morris, ‘Faces of hunger: an intersectional approach to children’s right to food in the UK’ (2022) 49(4) J L & Soc’y 633, 738-739.
 ibid 740-743.
 Scotland has recently announced its commitment to a rights-based approach to poverty and food insecurity, see: Scottish Government, Food Insecurity and Poverty – United Nations: Scottish Government response (Scottish Government 2021) i.