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UN Special Rapporteur Hilal Elver Discusses Global Food and Human Rights Issues

Hilal Elver
Hilal Elver || Photo by: UN Women/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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In May 2014, Dr. Elver was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert who is tasked with examining food and human rights issues across the globe.

Dr. Elver is also a Global Distinguished Fellow at the UCLA Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy. To learn more about the Resnick Program, read our Q & A with Michael Roberts. Dr. Elver’s work at UCLA is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world’s growing population.

Elver has been a visiting professor at the University of California Santa Barbara since 2002; she is the co-director of the Project on Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy housed at the Orfalea Center. She began her teaching career at the University of Ankara and was appointed by the Turkish government to be the founding legal advisor of the Ministry of Environment. Dr. Elver later became the General Director of Women’s Status in the Office of the Prime Minister. In 1994, she was appointed to the United Nations Environment Programme Chair in Environmental Diplomacy.

Elver has held fellowships and visiting professorships at several universities, including the University of Michigan Law School; Rutgers Law School (Newark); Princeton University; McGill University, Faculty of Law; Chapman Law School; and most recently Dickson Poon School of Law At King’s College London. She is a 2011-12 Fulbright Scholar. Her op-eds have been published in various media outlets, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera International and America.

Elver is a 2009 graduate of the S.J.D. program at UCLA School of Law, and holds a J.D., as well as a Ph.D. in Law from the University of Ankara. She is the author of three books, including The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion (2012).

I recently caught up with her at a Global Food Summit hosted by the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation at UC Irvine. I’ve followed her work for several years and continue to be struck by the breadth of her perspective and how her work demonstrates the interconnectedness of the food system.

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What lessons from the past are influencing your work right now? What can we learn from?

My previous work on women’s rights, environmental protection, water scarcity and climate change made me think more widely and to make connections between policy concerns that are generally treated as separated from one another. I learned to see larger pictures, rather than give attention to silo type of policy making processes.

 

Your professional background, which includes international aspects of environmental law, human rights and woman’s rights, seems to echo many of the concerns in the food movement. Can you comment?

Precisely. These areas are very relevant for advancing the goals of the global food movement. Women’s access to resources such as land, seed, water, finance and market is vitally important in the food production chain, as well as enhancing food security and nutrition for all, taking account of women’s role as care giver, as consumer, as producer and as mother.

Moreover, agricultural production, especially livestock, is one of the major obstacles in all efforts to reduce green house gas emissions, while at the same time food systems are impacted negatively by climate change. It is a doubly negative interaction.

Africa Food Security AUS Aid. Somalia.
Kate Holt, AUS Aid. Somalia.

The right to food, the right to clean water, and the right to a healthy environment seem like a given to many, but that’s not the case with everyone. How do you hope to positively influence the global situation in your position?

Countries that accept those rights and provide internalized remedies in their domestic legal systems for their implementation make our job one of monitoring, and investigating the fulfillment of such rights, as well as suggesting how best to deal with major obstacles. If countries do not have an appropriate legal structure, then our job is to encourage them to reform their legal order, and establish a workable and responsible system.

Besides suggesting and advising on legal and institutional systemic policies to enhance food security and eliminate hunger, we also recommend, encourage and help governments make the right policy choices in their efforts to deal with hunger and food insecurity. In developing countries, these policies and laws are very important as it is where 95% of food insecure people in the world live.

Editor’s Note: For more information about global food insecurity, review The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 materials prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Another great resource is the 2015 report presented by Dr. Elver to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

 

What do you think are the most acute crises the global community is facing? What is most concerning to you?

We still are not able to eliminate hunger entirely. Almost 1 billion people are chronically hungry even if the World Bank and the FAO criterion for measuring hunger understate its reality in the lives of many people. Now climate change makes the effort of eliminating hunger even more difficult as it generates more food insecure people due to adverse impact of global warming, especially in countries and regions that have already huge hunger and food insecurity problems.

FAO of the UN: Indigenous Food Systems and Agroecology
FAO of the UN Meeting || Photo by: FAO of the UN/Flickr/Creative Commons License

You’re an advocate of agroecology. Why is agroecology important in developing nations? Why might it be an important model for women?

Agroecology offers a community-oriented, less resource intensive, ecologically sensitive production model, and it is operative in many developing countries. In this time of climate change, agroecology is almost the only important way to get away from relying on excessive uses of chemicals and fossil fuels. It also beneficially prioritizes local production, as well as respects the participation of women in the production and decision-making process on the basis of full equality.

 

Is a second green revolution in the making? If so, who does that include? Who does it leave out?

There is some literature proposing a “second green revolution” especially in Africa, a continent not impacted by the first green revolution, and possessing major underdeveloped agricultural resources. We should not forget that during the green revolution production levels were greatly increased, but the problem of world hunger was far from solved. So, we need to be very careful about solving food security problems, while not doing more environmental damage, than we do good by increasing production.

Editor’s Note: For perspectives on the Green Revolution, read our Q&As with plant geneticist Pam Ronald and Dr. Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize.

Women In Their Organic Chilli Farm near Techiman, Ghana
Women in their organic chilli farm near Techiman, Ghana || Photo by: Global Justice Now/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How do we pursue the process of reconciliation as it relates to our food history…and our food present?

After World War II, the food system in the world, especially in the U.S., had evolved into a very productive model based on adapting an industrial model to agriculture. This model was resource intensive (heavy reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels), and used machines extensively to make farmers more effective. In addition, governmental subsides caused farmers to change what they produced and how they went about marketing their production. This pattern has to be reformed. We are now experiencing a new reality. We do not need food that offers more calorie intake as much as we need more vegetables and fruits. This process of adjustment is beginning to happen everywhere, but more slowly than desirable.

 

What advice would you give to someone beginning a practice of ethical, intentional and environmentally aware eating, which takes into account larger and pressing global issues?

During the last few years, this position is being advocated on a variety of platforms. Small holder and family farms are disappearing everywhere. They need to work together in a cooperative manner if they are to compete with giant food firms, which are taking over every link in the food chain from farm to fork. These farmers should also pay close attention to what kind of production makes the most sense for them to do. Instead of relying on cash crops, diversified prediction might often lead to better results. But such advice is easier to give that to enact.

 

Preparing Corn: Small Family Farms
Preparing corn to make cachapa (maize cake) || Photo by: Global Justice Now/Flickr/Creative Commons License

What kind of national and international food policies would you advocate for?

I favor consuming more local, less international food, more seasonal and less off season food, more vegetables and fruits, and less meat-based diets, which is bad for the health and bad for the environment. Avoid to the extent possible, junk foods and sugary drinks that contain too much sugar, salt and saturated oil. We also need a national food policy that connects food systems with dietary policies and these need to be harmonized with the environmental and climate change concerns. International food policy should strive to be in harmony with domestic food policies. As I said earlier, globalizing food production and distribution already had an enormous impact on us how we live, how we eat, how we feel and how we think!

 

From your unique vantage point, to what degree is food/economic insecurity driving the social and political instability we’re seeing so much of around the globe?

It is very much connected. This was apparent in the 2007 food prices crises. In many countries (around 50) food riots took place. Governments tried to subsidize bread prices in many Middle Eastern countries. A few years later, the so-called Arab Spring happened. Such social turmoil was an economic upheaval, (linked to environmental challenges) as much as it was a political phenomenon.

Editor’s Note: For more information about the connection between conflict and food insecurity, read Chapter Seven of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) 2014-2015 report and visit the Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker website.

Syrian family: Food Insecurity
“We won’t get into debt,” said Mariam, who is nearly 60. “But sometimes things get so hard, we can only afford to eat bread.” || Photo by: European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr/Creative Commons License 

Food as foreign policy…what are the most effective and ethical strategies American could use?

 

What keeps you up at night?

It really keeps me awake whenever I remember the children that I have seen during my mission trips, who have no clothes, no shelter, no school, no clean water to drink and no food other than instant noodle, sharing a meager meal with numerous siblings once a day, that is, if they are lucky enough to have even this. Also, I was affected by the sight of so many stunted children, victims of food deprivation.

 

What must institutions do to effect change in the global food system?

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