What can we learn from the European Union’s first right to food law?

By Tomaso Ferrando and Roberto Sensi.

In this second article on the #RightToFood, part of a BMJ Global Health series, we discuss our experience of the conception and enactment of a right to food law in Lombardia, Italy. The “Recognition, Protection and Promotion of the Right to Food,” was approved by the Lombardia Regional Council in November 2015. The law was the first to recognise this right within the European Union and was the result of a desire to have a policy in place after EXPO Milano 2015, in line with the Milan Charter and its recognition of the right to food as fundamental right. In our opinion, the law rightly approached the problem holistically and recognised the importance of locally based food systems and democratic participation in order to fully guarantee the right to nutritious food. However, its implementation is still lagging behind expectations.

Firstly, the law has provisions for setting up a multi-stakeholder forum called the Regional Food Council for the promotion of the Right to Food (Consulta Regionale per la promozione del diritto al cibo). This is in recognition of the complexities of regional food policies, and the need to integrate political representatives of key players in the regional food system. As with any other body, its effectiveness depends on the way in which the general framework is translated into practice, the distribution of powers, and governance mechanisms. Recognising this, the authors and some members of regional food movements approached the signatories of the bill with a proposal to include in the Council representatives from farm workers, small-scale farmers, migrant workers operating in the food sector, consumers, charities involved in food banks, students, producers, transformers and providers (private restaurants and public canteens), local municipalities and those public institutions involved in the area of education, health, and nutrition at a regional level. Unfortunately, political responses tend to be slow and the Consulta Regionale has not been created yet, more than one year after the enactment of the law.

Secondly, the law rightly recognises the multifaceted nature of the right to food and its interaction with several regulatory areas (health, education, public procurement, etc). This means that, at least in principle, all regional laws and regulations need to be assessed to be in line with provisions of the right to food law. We believe this is indeed a positive approach as it highlights the need to take into consideration other domains (education, school kitchens, urban policies, public procurement, etc.) if we aim to a more long-term, sustainable, effective and universal right to nutritious food.

However, more than a year after the enactment of the legislation, it has been poorly implemented with no substantial changes on the ground. A possible reason for this might be that as the political momentum of the EXPO 2015 has disappeared, political will is lost. Moreover, rather than fostering further civic involvement and participation, the publication of the law was received as a point of arrival by civic groups. The lack of comparable examples around Europe and the lack of organized action around the right to food might also be other issues which contribute to this negligence.

The Lombardia Experience on Right to Food clearly provides us with three lessons for the future:

a) Firstly, it is essential to introduce mandatory terms for the implementation of laws and the possibility for citizens’ associations to influence the regulatory procedure.

b) Legislators, movements, and academics who support the institutionalization of the right to food in Europe can recognize the enactment only represents the first step in a longer process. The effective realization of this right depends on their ability to establish and activate spaces and forms of democratic participation as much as of accountability and control (i.e. Food Councils).

c) The importance of constructing political legitimacy and riding the political momentum are quite instrumental in launching and maintaining a process towards a right to food law.

We hope the revitalization of the debate at a European level, the forthcoming recognition of the right to food in Belgium and Scotland, and a more active civil society in Lombardia will feed regional politicians with the political will and the legitimacy that is needed to complete a task that began more than a year ago.

Please join the discussion on Twitter using #RightToFood and pitch your ideas for blogs to the BMJ Global Health Blog Editor at info.bmjgh@bmj.com.

tomaso_ferrandoTomaso Ferrando is Assistant Professor of International Economic Law at Warwick University School of Law. He is also the scientific coordinator of the Master in Food Law and Finance organized by the International University College of Turin. Tomaso researches extensively on food systems and food justice, with particular attention on the right to food and the transition towards conceiving food as a common good.


Roberto Sensi is Right to Food Policy Officer at Action Aid Italy. His work mainly focuses on engaging with public authorities (local, national and international) around the right to food and its implementation. He has been actively involved in the actions and debate concerning international land grabbing, the negative impact of EU renewable energy directive and the recognition of the right to food in the Regional Law of Lombardia.

Competing Interest: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that both of us have a personal and professional interest in fostering and strengthening the debate around the local and national recognition of the right to food as a central element of public policies – and food policies in particular. We have no other relevant conflict of interest to declare.