The Right to Food

UN right to food expert: COVID-19 is pushing the world into a global hunger crisis

Experts' corner - 21.09.2020

21 September 2020, Oregon -Michael Fakhri started to carry out his tasks as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in a time of global crisis, marked by the COVID-19, the Beirut explosion and the wildfires in Oregon, where he is based. His first thematic report to the UN General Assembly is now out and focuses on trade and human rights doctrines.

He has already engaged in dialogue with a range of actors, including international organizations. He believes the Committee on World Food Security is a critical actor in finding consensus to respond to food systems´ challenges.

Your first thematic report to the General Assembly will focus on trade. Could you highlight a few main policy recommendations included in the report. And what other topics do you envisage to address throughout your mandate-if you have already given this a thought?

Michael Fakhri: My report begins with a summary of longstanding critiques of the Agreement on Agriculture. Whether you are in favor of a trade regime that prioritizes increasing the flow of trade or a trade regime that addresses human rights, there is a widely-held consensus that the Agreement does not work well – the Agreement is neither free nor fair. At the same time, the international trade community has ignored human rights claims, and the human rights community has not put forward an institutional alternative.

In my report, I blend trade and human rights doctrines and outline right to food principles that can form the basis for a new international trade regime in agriculture. This will allow trade institutions to address today’s issues – things like climate change, food security, land tenure, and working conditions. These are issues that were nowhere to be found in the negotiations that led up to the WTO in the 1980s! Moreover, the Agreement on Agriculture has not been significantly updated since its enactment in 1995. As we saw at the Bali and Nairobi WTO Ministerial negotiations, governments can only deal with pressing food security concerns in a temporary way within the WTO as it is. The current system is very outdated. 

I provide an institutional map of how to change the trade regime. I suggest that we wind down the Agreement on Agriculture leaving us with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT provides a lot flexibility to negotiate new International Food Agreements that can tackle 21st century issues and create an equitable and resilient food system.

"I suggest that we wind down the Agreement on Agriculture leaving us with the The GATT provides
a lot flexibility to negotiate new International Food Agreements that can tackle 21st century issues
and create an equitable and resilient food system".

Now in terms of other topics, the current COVID-19 pandemic requires that I remain flexible as things unfold. I will be spending the next few months holding public consultations and solicit a wide-range of input on what I should focus on. But based on informal talks I have already had, I expect to focus on farmer’s rights especially under plant treaties, food workers’ rights, agroecology principles, Indigenous sovereignty and rights, deepening the connection between biodiversity and nutrition policies, and armed conflict. Infusing all this, of course, is the immediate issue of climate change.

You said if workers aren´t safe and healthy, we are not safe and healthy. As the pandemic has showed protection of workers safety is key to stop the spread of the virus. Why is this issue important to ensure everyone has access to adequate food? 

MF: Food workers have been treated as essential but expendable during the pandemic. To understand what’s at stake, think of food workers as a broad category as anyone who makes our food. That includes people in fields, factories, shops, and kitchens. So when people talk about “supply chain disruption” what this partly means is that food workers are too sick or scared to work because of dismal working conditions. It means that caregivers at homes, schools, and hospitals are not provided the resources they need to feed families, children, the elderly, or people who are sick. It means migrant workers are brought in and not provided with adequate protection. And a lot of food workers are women; so women are bearing a disproportionate amount of the risk and burden. When food workers get sick, we don’t eat. If we don’t adequately pay and protect workers, then there’s no one to gather, transport, or cook our food.

One important thing to remember is that even though the COVID-19 virus is new, the problems it creates are not. The pandemic has just exacerbated existing inequalities. It is now out in the open how important food workers are and how they are always essential. Therefore we should always be prioritizing their livelihood and well-being.

We should always be prioritizing the livelihood and well-being of food workers,
as they are essential.

Country visits provide first-hand information on the right to food and give the unique opportunity to identify any problems and to make recommendations for how these could be resolved. What will be the strategic approach to your country visits in order to achieve the goals for your mandate?

MF: It's hard to imagine travelling anywhere right now. But I am canvassing everyone I speak to and asking different organizations what they think. Of course, I want to make sure I cover as many regions as possible. I think I can be most effective in places where there is active energy coming from civil society.

The purpose of my visits is not only to point out where a country may be falling short of their human rights obligations, but also to find places which can serve as examples for others. So I’ll be looking to visit places that are trying to transition to or are augmenting agroecological practices. Or places that are working with governance structures like local food councils or cooperatives. Schools are proving to be key places to ensure all children have access to adequate food; I would be interested to see how different governments are connecting schools to other parts of the food system.

"The purpose of my visits is not only to point out where a country may be falling
short of their human rights obligations,
but also to find places which can serve as examples for others". 

In your last OPED in Al jazeera, you asserted that the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is “best suited” to shape the global response to the pandemics´ effects and become a forum to foster global cooperation from a human rights perspective. How do you suggest the Committee can make all voices are heard, putting them at the center of policies actions against hunger and malnutrition? And how can global actors engage in the discussions to make more sustainable food systems?

MF: This pandemic is creating a profound effect on the right to food and may push us into a global hunger crisis. The CFS was at a crossroad during the 2008 food crisis but it is facing a more significant moment now. The CFS remains one of the few multilateral spaces that is also very inclusive to all elements of civil society, commercial interests, research organizations, and other UN organizations. But with the challenges that lie ahead, especially with climate change, the question in my mind is can the CFS actually empower people working in the fields, waterways, supply chains, and kitchens?

My worry is that the CFS may regress and slip back into being only a talk-shop, a place where the only accomplishment is words on paper. A crisis is a time for action, not the time for negotiating new rules.

"A crisis is a time for action, not the time for negotiating new rules". 

Institutionally, this would require changing the Committee to becoming a more autonomous Council with more control over its own resources and budget. In the least, this would include more equal support from all of the RBAs and new support from other UN organizations. Ideally, this would include more regular support from a wide-range of governments.

Substantively, the CFS should develop formal partnerships and a permanent position with at least three other multilateral organizations that are also committed to a rights-based approach. The ILO is important not only because of its long-standing role in developing legal and policy instruments around working conditions, but because it is also an inclusive system with its unique tripartite structure that comprises government, employer, and worker representatives. Since agroecology is so important at the CFS and is becoming central to food systems around the world, the CFS would do well by developing formal relationships with the Secretariates of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and Convention on Biodiversity. These partnerships would also bring more international legal heft to the CFS’s work. I can also imagine making space for parliamentarians and local governments.

Operationally, the CFS should focus on implementing its already existing policy tools (or “uptake” as they say at the CFS). This could be done in partnership with other international organizations, parliamentarians, local governments, or civil society organizations. For example, the VGGT is a rare policy instrument that is globally celebrated and well-developed; the FAO has worked in partnerships with CSOs to create several implementation and monitoring guides. As the issue of land grabbing is only getting worse during the pandemic, the CFS could direct more of its attention to encouraging and assisting countries implement something like the VGGT instead of developing new instruments that may or may not be used.

The upcoming Food Systems Summit is an important opportunity to discuss at a high global level a number of significant challenges that are contributing to the exclusivity, inefficiency and unsustainability of our food systems. What do you think this Summit (is so far missing and) can realistically achieve? Do you think we can expect a human rights-based approach to drive these discussions and follow-up actions?

MF: In some ways, the Summit represents some elements of a global consensus: climate change is the defining political issue of our era and food systems are central to any climate change solution; the current food system must be changed; small-holders are important to any change; and countries of the Global South must have a prominent role in the food system. This consensus came out of decades of struggle by unions, peasant movements, Indigenous peoples, and environmental activist groups.

But those same groups along with a number of governments, from the outset, have raised concerns that the Food Systems Summit has not garnered sufficient goodwill. Their main criticism is that the way the Summit has been put together has not been transparent or inclusive, has side-stepped the CFS, prioritized ideas from the World Economic Forum, and has excluded human rights.

I am happy that the Summit organizers and I are meeting regularly to determine what role I can play at in the lead up to the event. I have also informally met with some members of the Advisory Committee. I have read the Summit’s latest organizing documents and have attended different online events lead by the Summit organizers. It is still not clear to me what exactly is the purpose of the Summit and what is the intended outcome.

To date, it seems that human rights is either excluded from most aspects of the Summit or is marginalized. By not giving human rights a central role, then it is harder for people to hold powerful governments and companies accountable. It also suggests that solutions will only be technical with no regard to social justice: scientists and entrepreneurs are not going to know how to create the new social and ecological relationships that will be necessary for a new food system. This takes me to my final concern that agroecology is nowhere to be found at the Summit. Agroecology is one of the few approaches that blends experimental science and traditional knowledge, and considers social and ecological dynamics as s singular issue. A significant number of very different countries from all regions, as well as different international organizations, are committed to agroecology in some way so it must be adequately addressed at the Summit.

"By not giving human rights a central role, then it is harder for people
to hold powerful governments and companies accountable".

Also, the CFS is not on the Advising Committee. It is not clear why the Summit includes the CFS but only in the margins. The Summit touts itself as a “People’s Summit and Solutions Summit” but does not build upon the CFS’s mechanisms of inclusivity or its policy accomplishments. There’s currently a lot of energy around the Summit, but we’ll have to see if anything comes from it.


About Michael Fakhri and Special Rapporteurs

Michael Fakhri assumed functions as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in May 2020.

He is a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where he teaches courses on human rights, food law, development, and commercial law. He is also the director of the Food Resiliency Project in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center. Mr. Fakhri holds a Doctorate from the University of Toronto, Masters from Harvard Law School, Bachelor of Laws from Queen’s University, and a Bachelor of Science in Ecology from Western University.

During his practice as a lawyer, he fought for the rights of people who were indigent and incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. More recently, his book Bandung, Global History, and International Law was cited by the International Court of Justice.

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, promote and raise awareness on a particular human right all around the world, as well as facilitating global discussion.

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