RtF Series: Towards the right to food in Belgium

Author: Manuel Eggen, FIAN Belgium

Editor’s note: this is the second of a series of blogs on the right to food that we are glad to host on our webpage. Tomaso Ferrando (scientific coordinator of the FLF master) and Jose Luis Vivero Pol (faculty member) have been gathering the contributions and we all look forward to receiving more in the future.

Despite Belgium having ratified several international human rights treaties recognizing the human right to food and nutrition, it is not formally enshrined in the national statute law. The right to food is not listed with the other economic and social rights in article 23 of the Constitution. And up to date no judicial decision has been based on the right to food to my knowledge.

It was therefore very welcome by food justice organisations when the political group Ecolo-Groen submitted a draft bill “to implement the right to adequate food in Belgium” in 2014. Would this bill be adopted, it would represent a milestone to advance the realisation of the right to food in Belgium and in Europe. Based on the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, the bill promotes a holistic approach of the food system. Its main objectives are to:

  • develop a national food strategy based on broad social consultations;
  • specify obligations in terms of food aid;
  • support sustainable food systems;
  • prevent food waste;
  • enhance the nutritional quality of food and consumers’ right to information; and,
  • ensure that the practices of Belgian actors do not negatively impact the RtAF in developing countries.

Of particular relevance is the participatory approach promoted by the bill. It provides for the creation of a National Food Policy Council, which would offer the opportunity to marginalised groups, CSOs and other stakeholders to participate to the decision making process of a national food strategy. This is a key aspect of a human rights approach and the best way to effectively defeat malnutrition and face the challenges of the food system.

In Belgium those challenges for food justice were highlighted in a CSO report submitted to the Human Right Council (HRC) in 2015. According to European statistics, 5,8% of the Belgian population is “severely materially deprived” and approximately 400.000 people rely on food aid, which is only channeled through charity based organisations. On the other side, the situation of malnutrition due to junk food is getting worse every year. Between 1997 and 2013, the proportion of people overweight increased from 41% to 48%. And 14% of the population is now obese. The National Health and Nutrition Plan (NHNP) launched in 2005 has proven inefficient to reverse the trend so far, mainly because it relies on voluntary schemes and on a very narrow vision of nutrition.

The situation in agriculture is also dramatic. Since 1980 Belgium has lost 67% of its farms. As in other place in Europe the agroindustrial model favored by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) only allows big commercial farms to survive, while progressively squeezing out small-scale farmers. The agricultural sector currently employs less than 2% of the working population and farmers are one of the group most affected by burn-out and suicides. This is a threat not only to the rights of farmers but a threat to the food sovereignty of the Belgian population as a whole.

The proposed bill would surely be a first step towards the effective realisation of the right to adequate food for Belgian citizens. Unfortunately the chances for the bill to pass are very narrow with the current conservative, right-wing government. This was made clear in a statement made in response to the HRC’s recommendation to adopt the bill: “The question of the right to food is addressed by various laws and social measures in Belgium. The Belgian Government has no plans for generic legislation in this area”. Missed opportunity!
Anyway, we, as food sovereignty and food justice organisations, will not wait any longer to democratise our food system. We are determined to exercise our power right now! This is already happening in some important cities like in Gent and in Brussels, where ambitious food strategies have been initiated in partnership between local authorities and CSOs. And this is rapidly expanding everywhere with the multiplication of food transition initiatives impulsed by citizens. And now local actors are getting organised at national level, as this was the purpose of the “Agroecology in Action” forum in December 2016. This event gathered more than 700 food justice activists to discuss about future collective strategies to achieve the right to food and food sovereignty in Belgium.

 

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