Menu

Reinforcing battle lines or facilitating cooperation?

Josefine Ulbrich, Vanessa Nigten | 16 October 2014

In May 2014, Hilal Elver was appointed the third UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Yet will the Turkish expert on climate change, human security and democracy have sufficient clout to contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable food system? Her first performance in Amsterdam left many questions unanswered on how to feed nine billion people worldwide in 2050.

Elver had the opportunity to share her interpretation of her role with the public for the first time in a recent public debate on ‘Agro-ecology: A Solution to the Food Crisis’ in Amsterdam, hosted by the Transnational Institute. Her task is not an easy one. Spurring states to fulfil their core obligation to take action to mitigate and alleviate hunger is challenging, especially with the plethora of different actors and interests involved. The fact that the United Nations established the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in April 2000 is a testament to this complex task. Under the mandate, the Special Rapporteur’s main responsibility is to promote the effective realization of the right to food for all and to implement sustainable food security policies by cooperating closely with states, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

The debate in Amsterdam focused on the impact small farmers can have in reforming the current industrial food system, and could have sparked an innovative discussion on how to integrate these disconnected methods of food production. However, the conversation with Elver on the right to food, small-scale farmers versus large corporations, the role of the WTO in food security and alternative ways of guaranteeing food for all opened up more questions and gaping holes than it provided answers on how to attain a sustainable global food system for all.

Defining the UN Special Rapporteur’s role in the food security debate

Like her predecessor Olivier De Schutter, Elver has a strong background in human rights law and fundamental rights and did not specifically work on food security prior to her assignment. Yet, where De Schutter was widely lauded for his interpretation of the role, Elver still has to find her way in approaching food security comprehensively. With a personal history of focusing on women rights and gender issues, Elver pledged to continue her efforts for women and children in her new office, as they are most vulnerable to and most heavily affected by food shortages and hunger. While she reasserted her responsibility to address governments regarding their duties as signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Elver admitted that it was up to NGOs to really push for these rights to be implemented and for more rigidly controlled value chains.

Food as a commons or a human right?

When asked about food as a commons as one of the cutting-edge debates in food security, Elver took a rigid standpoint. While agreeing that food as a public good could provide a way to realize General Comment 12 of the ICESCR, which is based on the recognition that states hold the moral obligation to provide access to food to citizens, Elver asserted that food has never been and thus will never be a public good. In her view, nature does not produce the required amounts of food to make this approach feasible and a global food production process not driven by enterprises engaged in mass production is unthinkable. She underlined that governments can and should protect and provide food security, adhering to the principle of the right to food. But unlike political rights, governments cannot enforce  this right. Since the right to food relies on freedom from hunger as a moral premise, governments should commit to it from a human rights perspective. The UN Special Rapporteur did not address the role private corporations could play in supporting realization of the right to food.

Small-scale farmers versus large corporations

Despite her previous support for small-scale farmers and her suggestion that NGOs push the right to food agenda, Elver left the most pressing challenge of food security unresolved. Reinforcing the battle lines between NGOs and small-scale farmers on the one hand and large corporations on the other will not facilitate the necessary involvement of business actors in finding the answer to comprehensive reform of the industrial food system. It also is not in line with current developments worldwide that are heading towards a more cooperative approach.
When asked about the role of large corporations in the transition to a more a agro-ecological food system, Elver replied that small farmers’ agro-ecological production is a way of life, not necessarily a process aimed at maximizing profit. As large corporate entities are not connected to the soil or to food, industrial laws and regulations are needed to open up opportunities for small farmers to enter and survive on national markets. Again, she emphasized, policies are needed to make that transition and mainstream small-scale agricultural production. Elver proposed that governments incorporate the rights enshrined in the ICESCR  in their constitutions to strengthen the role of small farmers. If they are unwilling to do this, an alternative could be to incorporate these rights in laws applying to individual sectors. If states did not comply with this compromise, Elver said that it was within her mandate to “name and shame” states, which could be an effective means to nudge them towards implementing the right to food at national level.

The WTO as a troubled partner

Elver also failed to explore the question of how to further reconcile industrial food production and small-scale agriculture when she elaborated on the need to reform the current trade regime. She took a more careful stand than her predecessor De Schutter, who had heavily criticized the WTO in November 2011 on its role in food security, calling its existing rules “highly ambiguous and inject[ing] a high degree of uncertainty into food security policymaking, thereby discouraging states to develop and implement comprehensive and innovative national right to food strategies”. Although Elver considers the WTO a key stakeholder in addressing issues of food security, she applauded India’s recent refusal to adopt the WTO’s trade facilitation agreement. She maintained that some WTO rules do indeed conflict with efforts to strengthen local economies, and that India's move to protect its small farmers against the WTO’s favorable custom duties and tariff-free access for international food companies exporting to India was understandable. In a powerful testament against the prioritization of international imports over domestic products, Elver claimed India's example should trigger other countries suffering from similarly unfavorable trade dynamics to “raise their fist at the global level”. 

The way to a comprehensive sustainable food system?

During the debate in Amsterdam, there was broad agreement that our current food system is exploitive, unsustainable, fixed on short-term profits and volatile to liberal market policies and needs to be reformed. While Elver applauded agro-ecological food production by small-scale farmers as the solution, she also argued that this was incompatible with the profit-oriented production of large corporate enterprises. On the other hand, she clearly stated that global food production and distribution can only be improved by engaging enterprises and business actors. She emphasized legislative approaches by governments and the role of NGOs in pushing for change, although her approach to the various business actors remained unclear. By proposing only stronger regulations for big businesses in order to open up market opportunities for small farmers, Elver cited a long-known mantra that has yet to take effect in global agricultural production. All in all, the UN Special Rapporteur outlined the main issues in food security and implementing the right to food, but was unable to provide clear answers on the steps required to promote a more comprehensive sustainable food system.