Hilal Elver is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. She grew up in Turkey, where she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Ankara Law School and began her teaching career. Her expertise was soon pressed into government service when the Turkish government appointed her as the founding legal advisor to the Ministry of the Environment. Later, they asked her to serve as the General Director of Women’s Status.
She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Law School, where she worked on the International Environmental Law Convention on Hazardous Materials and International Rivers. Following that work, she was appointed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as Chair of Environmental Diplomacy at University of Malta.
Returning to the U.S. in 1996, she resumed her university teaching career, while continuing to work on environmental issues, human security, climate change, and food security. She also earned a Doctor of Judicial Science (SJD) from UCLA Law School.
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Dr. Elver is now a research professor and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her publications have focused mainly on international environmental law, women’s rights and international human rights law. Her book, Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: Case of Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, was published in 2002, and her most recent, The Headscarf Controversy, Secularism and Freedom of Religion, was published in 2012 by the Oxford University Press.
She has been a contributor to numerous textbooks and academic journals on the topics of global justice, new constitutionalism, secularism, women’s rights, water rights, environmental security, climate change diplomacy and food security. She was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in May 20014 and began acting in that capacity in June 2014.
She spoke with The MOON from her home in Santa Barbara, California.
The MOON: What is the path you took to become the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food?
Elver: The UN conducted a global search, and people who had the specified educational and professional background applied. A long list of candidates was narrowed down to a short list by the members of the Human Rights Council. Individuals on the short list were interviewed and three candidates were identified. The president of the HRC—which rotates among the HRC every year—had the right to make the selection, and he selected me. His decision had to then be approved by the entire Human Rights Council.
I’m an international law professor and used to teach in Turkey. I also was the founding legal advisor of Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and was General Director of the Women’s Status in the Office of the Prime Minister. UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, also appointed me chair of environmental diplomacy at the University of Malta. I was a member of the climate change negotiations for the Turkish government, and also a member of the intellectual committee of the least developed countries. So I had an appropriate academic background, UN experience, and a body of work in this area that qualified me.
The MOON: I read that the U.S. condemned your appointment when it was made public. What does the U.S. government have against you?
Elver: A small Geneva NGO called UN Watch came out against my appointment, not because of my qualifications, but because I am married to Richard Falk, who was the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967, whose position expired in June 2014. This NGO consistently and irresponsibly accused my husband of being anti-Semitic, and I was presumed guilty merely as a result of being his wife. I was also falsely alleged to be collaborating with his writings on the Palestine-Israel conflict. This accusation has no basis in fact. The U.S. government did not oppose my appointment. The United States is a member of the Human Rights Council. If I was appointed they must not have voted against me, as the decision is based on consensus. So it was just a politically motivated publicity campaign mounted by this small NGO, which is preoccupied with defending Israel against all forms of criticism, and in my case, criticism I never even made.
The MOON: You created a bit of a stir with your remarks at a September 19 Agroecology Conference in Amsterdam, which was sponsored by the Transnational Institute. What was controversial about your talk?
Elver: Again, I wouldn’t characterize my talk as controversial. Agroecology should not be a controversial subject; it should be a topic we are able to discuss. The Amsterdam conference was structured as a debate, however. Sharing the platform with me was the Dutch Minister of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs, who was much more an advocate of corporate agribusiness. This is understandable because the Dutch government leads the exports by the major food companies. I was presenting the agroecology viewpoint as a result of my background in environmental law and sustainable development. If you really believe in sustainable development you have to realize that conventional agribusiness models are extremely resource-intensive in terms of water, soil, and petroleum-based energy. Agroecology, on the other hand, reconciles the needs of the planet—the ecology—with the needs of human beings for food. This is increasingly important in light of climate change. So agroecology should not be considered controversial, but necessary.
The MOON: The Green Revolution is credited with feeding the world and preventing famine and starvation. Do you agree with that assessment?
Elver: Yes and no. Certainly the Green Revolution created great leaps in production. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Green Revolution was considered the solution to food shortages and scarcity. But unfortunately, the Green Revolution also created environmental problems because of its heavy use of chemicals and artificial fertilizers. The Green Revolution is not sustainable. Also, in many places, it was implemented to increase agricultural products for export; not to feed local populations. In fact, it forced many farmers out of business. That’s why we’re seeing many local uprisings against these methods. I don’t believe we can rely on the Green Revolution as a way of providing food security going forward. Moreover we are in 21st century now, and Green Revolution methods, which are based on increased production, are no longer compatible with the conditions of our planet. The Green Revolution might have been helpful in certain countries in the 20th century, but not now.
The MOON: But aren’t the Green Revolution’s methods—including petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and GMOs—continuing to be recommended to, or imposed upon, developing nations, and perhaps most notably in Africa?
Elver: Interestingly, the Green Revolution never really took hold in Africa. The Green Revolution’s leaders were reluctant to enter Africa because of structural problems there. They preferred countries like Mexico, India, the Philippines, which they believed to be more workable than countries in Africa. In this sense, Africa has been the beneficiary of its lack of structural development. Maybe now the proponents of a “new,” or “adjusted,” Green Revolution will decide that Africa is ready. However, for a long time, countries like Mexico, India, and the Philippines dealt with many of the negative consequences of the Green Revolution, because it was implemented along with the so-called “structural adjustment” program imposed by the World Bank. In other words, these countries had to adjust their agricultural policies to align with the global economic order. Their agriculture became more monocultural—planting large tracts of land in a single crop, rather than a variety of crops—because the Green Revolution is quantity-based. It is oriented towards creating crops for export rather than securing food supplies for local populations. Pushing the soil and water so hard for production is not sustainable, as we are finding out now. As a result, developing countries today are more careful about adopting the Green Revolution’s methods. They’ve been warned by the experience of other countries, which may have been successful in terms of production; but that production has come at a price. So developing countries are resisting. For example, some of them are banning GMOs, even though the U.S. does not even require GMOs to be labeled. So it’s not as easy for the Green Revolution methods to be exported to the developing countries in the 21st Century as it was in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s a different world.
The MOON: I’m glad to hear it because, as Nick Cullather wrote in The Hungry World, “As in Mexico and India in 1950, Africa today is a major food exporter. No French market would be complete without cut flowers, coffee, lobster, citrus fruits, and salad greens from across the Mediterranean (Africa). The total value of food aid coming in is less than the value of one of the smaller market segments—vegetables—going out.” In other words, “Africans are hungry not because there is no food, but because there is no entitlement to food.” As the UN’s appointed advocate for the right to food, how are we going to change the status quo?
Elver: This is a very important issue to understand: food security is not about inadequate production of food; it’s about access to available and culturally acceptable food for all. If you look at how much the world produces in terms of calories, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that we have more than enough to feed everyone. But if you look at who is able to access these calories, and at what price, that’s where the problem lies. For example, an average Swiss family spends seven percent of its household budget on food, but a family in a developing country spends seventy percent of its household budget on food. We need to make food available, affordable, and sustainable for all. That is the human rights approach to food security. That is the lens through which countries need to be able to design their food and agriculture policies—how best to feed their citizens, especially their most vulnerable: small farmers, women, children, those with disabilities, refugees, migrants, undocumented workers, even food workers. Ironically, those who produce, harvest, and otherwise work with food are often the most food insecure. That’s why we have to advocate for the right to food. It’s an access issue, not a productivity issue, under the UN Human Rights approach.
The MOON: It seems rather provocative, to me, the notion that we need an advocate for the right to food. If we have a right to life, don’t we have a right to food?
Elver: Well, yes. But the concept of “right to food” means establishing a legal entitlement. We can say we have a right to life, and therefore a right to food, but if we don’t establish it as a legal right acknowledged by our governments, then we have no way of enforcing this right. We have no way of holding governments accountable. By establishing a legal right, we give governments—and even corporations—standards for establishing policies. It’s a reminder to them to make the necessary changes to their constitutions, their legal systems, to ensure this right. This might include the “right to know”—in other words, the right to access to information about their food; the right to access food—meaning it is affordable; the right to be part of the decision-making process about food policy; and the right to use the court system if there is a violation of one’s right to food and other related rights. This is why the UN creates special rapporteurs in various areas—such as the right to water and sanitation, the right to housing, protecting women from violence, protection of children, and so on. We advocate to governments that they should adopt a human rights approach to protect their citizens and give them basic rights.
The MOON: You told the Amsterdam conference hosted by the Transnational Institute, “Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), seventy percent of food we consume globally comes from small farmers.” This isn’t the narrative we’re given. Why not?
Elver: Yes. There are some myths about hunger and food insecurity that have been repeated so often we believe them. The Guardian published ten of these myths on October 16, which is World Food Day. One of them is that large-scale agriculture feeds the world; that small farmers are not sufficient or efficient. Another is that there’s a food shortage. These are myths; they are not supported by facts. The FAO and many academics in agroecology and agroeconomy can document this. Keep in mind, also, that not all agricultural production is about food. Agriculture also produces cotton, industrial inputs like soy, biofuels, alfalfa and other animal feeds, and so on. In Africa an even larger percentage of food—ninety percent, not seventy percent—comes from small-holding farmers—and I mean really small—less than an acre. Their crops go directly to the local market. These are the farmers who must be supported by their governments because they are the people feeding the people. Every country should pay attention to their small farmers if they want to ensure the food security of their own people. The larger agribusinesses are typically focused on exports, on international trade, on biofuels and other non-food markets.
The MOON: What kinds of support do small farmers need from their governments?
Elver: Small-scale farmers, who represent ninety percent of all farms worldwide, and who produce seventy percent of the world’s food on less than a quarter of the world’s farmland, need financial support. Countries that subsidize agriculture typically subsidize the large producers, not the small farmers. Small farmers need access to easy credit and low-interest loans. They need low- or no-cost insurance in the event of crop failure. In Turkey, for example, there is government insurance that covers all small farmers in case of extreme weather events. That is very important to the success—even the survivability—of small farmers. Also, more than fifty percent of small farmers are women. However, in many developing countries women don’t have land rights. They can’t own land either by way of law, or traditional rules, so their legal status is that of a farm worker. They can’t access credit, seeds, insurance, and other resources. Governments need to recognize, promote and empower women farmers so they can access necessary resources and be included in the decision-making mechanisms regarding agricultural policy. If big agribusinesses are coming to a region, for example, small farmers—men and women—should be informed and able to make their own decisions about it. Governments also need to invest in infrastructure such as roads, transportation, and warehouses that farmers can use to bring their goods to market without loss and waste. This is the human rights approach—ensuring that people have access to resources, to decision-making, to markets, and to the infrastructure that supports their livelihood and food security.
The MOON: You point out that while most of the food is grown by small farmers, most of the government subsidies go to corporate agriculture, which is unsustainable. Wouldn’t this be a marvelously elegant solution: simply withdraw the subsidies from corporate agriculture and they will no longer continue their unsustainable practices?
Elver: Agribusinesses have a very strong lobby; they’re not going to just go away and leave all that money on the table. But governments need to recognize that it’s the small farmers who are feeding the people. They should at least get equal access to credit, insurance, markets, decision-making, and the justice system. The problem is limited resources: how much land do we reserve for small growers instead of agribusinesses? How much do we allow agribusinesses to do what is best for profits and ignore what is best for the farmers feeding local populations? It is not impossible to do both, but it takes political will. Recognizing these as human rights principles helps to provide that political will. We’re not going to get rid of corporate agriculture. The World Trade Organization is not going to shut down. We’re just trying to make the global economic order and trade human rights-friendly.
The MOON: But, in the name of limited resources, why couldn’t we eliminate corporate agriculture subsidies? After all, if they’re not feeding the people, why should they get the government hand-out? And, if it’s government subsidies that make corporate agriculture profitable, then ending subsidies would end profitability and corporate agriculture would quit of its own self-interest. Or perhaps they’d even adopt more sustainable practices.
Elver: That’s an interesting way to put it. Theoretically it’s possible. Politically, we’ll have to see.
The MOON: So, what is agroecology?
Elver: Agroecology has had a lot written about it recently, but it is nothing new. It’s traditional agriculture, which is not resource-intensive—or at least not petroleum-based resource-intensive. So it has fewer negative consequences on the planet. It includes things like planting a variety of crops so that you get natural control of pests; rotating crops to give the soil a rest and rebuild its nitrogen content; using animals and animal wastes to perform important agricultural functions—like pest control, soil aeration and fertilization; and taking the social and economic impact of agricultural practices into account. There are two simple phrases that summarize it: feeding the world without destroying the planet, and applying ecological principles to agriculture.
Agroecology incorporates local knowledge, technical knowledge, traditional knowledge—along with perhaps some new concepts. You also respect the social, economic, and cultural life of the people. This is not rocket science. I don’t think anyone is really against it, but they don’t believe it works because of the myths we referred to earlier. They say, “Oh, there are too many hungry people; that’s why we have to focus on production.” But as we’ve discussed, these arguments are false. Small farmers can feed the world; they’re the ones feeding it now. They just need support. And by shifting resources from agribusiness to small farmers, we’ll reduce many of the negative impacts of corporate agriculture.
The MOON: What role does climate change play in all of this? In its draft report to the UN in September 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote, “Farmers across Africa are struggling, as they now face failed seasons as a result of being overwhelmed by climate disruption.” The report also noted mounting threats from pests taking advantage of ripening harvests and from fungal pathogens leading the global invasion of agriculture as ecosystems are disrupted. Care to comment?
Elver: Yes. Climate scientists have actually been warning us of these problems for decades, but now, at last, they’re getting attention.
Who first noticed the impact of climate change? In many cases it was farmers, especially subsistence farmers, because their work and livelihood are intimately tied to meteorological conditions. Extreme weather events, drought, floods, temperature, and the timing of the seasons all affect crops. Any of these disruptions can wipe out small farmers. Agribusinesses are not nearly as vulnerable. They not only have more resources to marshall—flood control measures, irrigation systems, covering crops in giant hoop houses, trucking in pollinators, and even changing their crops—they have the capital to structure—or restructure—their business. Their focus is on profitability. Small farmers, however, don’t have capital and they are focused on lifestyle. Their farm is their life. They’re not able to go elsewhere, or make other expensive changes. They plant the seeds they collected from last year’s harvest. They grow what they’ve always grown, which is what their local customers expect from them. This is another reason why small farmers need protection and assistance—because they are at greater risk from climate change.
The international climate change meetings tend to consider agriculture effects as a side event, but they really need to get frontal global attention. The coastal areas, small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the equatorial region, the Middle East and Africa, these are the most immediately impacted by climate change and in many cases these are also developing countries. That’s why climate justice is also important. For the most part, these regions are doing very little to contribute to climate change, but they are bearing the brunt of the negative consequences. Recently, several special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council have been trying to influence climate change negotiators to include the human rights-based approach to future climate change agreements, which will be negotiated in Paris in 2015.
The MOON: In that sense, climate change does seem to be creating a food production issue, does it not?
Elver: Yes, you’re right. Climate change does affect food production and quality. One solution that is popular right now, which is presented by developed countries and corporations, is what they call “Climate Smart Agriculture.” This policy focuses on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of large-scale industrial agriculture—which negatively impacts the livelihoods, land rights, ecosystems, crop diversity and resilience of farming systems around the world—using carbon trading, carbon offset and sequestration in agriculture. It completely ignores the overall environmental consequences, social impacts, accountability, and food security issues that a rights-based approach to climate change would take into account. Without addressing these elements, “Climate Smart Agriculture” may serve to undermine the very objective it says that it aims for.
The MOON: I don’t know whether you’ve seen the documentary film Cowspiracy. It’s billed as “the film environmental organizations don’t want you to see.” It makes the argument that because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and because large-scale cattle operations produce a lot of methane, the cattle industry—indeed, the website says “animal agriculture”—is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution.” The website also says “animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry; and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean ‘dead zones,’ and virtually every other environmental ill.” Yet many small farmers rely on animals to provide non-petroleum based nitrogen for their soil, chickens for pest control, pigs for soil aeration, and so on. What is your perspective on animals in agriculture?
Elver: I haven’t seen the film, but I would say that it sounds like a very simplistic—that is to say non-ecological—answer to climate change. Cattle are part of agroecology. Yes, they produce methane, but they also produce fertilizer. They pull the plow. Chickens give eggs and also control pests. Pigs give meat and also consume kitchen waste and aerate the soil with their rooting.
If the film is referring strictly to large-scale cattle operations, then I can understand the point: large-scale cattle operations are not eco-friendly either. They create huge ponds of waste, which become a source of pollution, rather than replenishing the soil on which the cattle grazed. In agroecology, plants and animals work together to balance the ecosystem. But it is rather absurd to blame cattle for climate change. Human beings created it from not understanding basic ecological sustainability principles.
The MOON: What about soil fertility?Haven’t generations of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides resulted in sterile soil—which must not only be amended with fertilizers, but which yields produce that is lacking vital nutrients? How can soil fertility be restored?
Elver: Yes. This is true. It’s one of the negative consequences of the Green Revolution; one of the ways in which it is not sustainable. But ecosystems have remarkable regenerative powers and the soil is part of that. Water, too. If you stop polluting the water, it will clean itself. Soil will too. But it needs rest. You can’t insist that it keep producing year after year. That’s why farmers should not apply more and more chemicals.
Of course, there are limits to an ecosystem’s ability to restore itself. If you destroy the soil to the point of desertification, it won’t come back just by being left alone—at least not within human timeframes. Look at the American Dustbowl. They plowed up and destroyed the prairies and created a desert. Excessive use of chemicals may also damage soil beyond its capacity to heal. That’s why moderation is advisable. We need to act within environmental limits. If we don’t, we destroy the very thing that makes life possible.
People may say, “But there are so many people to feed. We can’t afford to let fields lie fallow.” But if we turn our fields into sterile deserts, devoid of nutrients, how does that help a hungry world?
The MOON: You mention population. Haven’t modern agricultural methods made the human population explosion possible? How can we bring population, food, and planetary sustainability into balance?
Elver: Again, that’s what agroecology aims to do: feed the world while protecting the planet’s resources. Since the 1970s, the developed world has focused on population growth as the biggest threat to sustainability. But the developing world asks, “What about excessive consumption in the developed world?” These are two sides of the equation we have to balance out. Yes, population increase creates strains on the environment because we need more food to feed more people. But on the other hand, what about people who consume too much? Thirty percent of the world population is obese. Under-nutrition and over-nutrition are both problems. Also, between thirty-five and forty percent of current global food production is lost or wasted. If we addressed just these two problems—food waste and obesity—we would have enough food to feed everyone. That’s why we need more global thinking when we craft solutions to our problems. Our problems are interconnected. When we try to solve them piecemeal, one at a time, we just keep creating new ones.
The MOON: I believe development history shows that when women have control of their reproduction and when people have achieved basic economic security, they voluntarily curtail population growth.
Elver: Definitely. That is why women’s education and women’s empowerment are two of my priorities in improving food security. Women are pivotal as farmers, as workers, as consumers, and as mothers, and their reproductive rights are important, but not in isolation. We need to empower women as women, not just as mothers, or as farmers. That’s a justice and equality issue.
The MOON: But isn’t the American style of consumption the aspirational goal of the rest of the world? We’re told that it is. And yet, if everyone on the planet consumed at the rate Americans do, we’d need four planets and we only have this one. What kind of policy recommendation can you make to address that problem?
Elver: A very simple one: Don’t follow the American way of life! An examination of what has gone wrong in the United States is the best way to make policy decisions to guide a better course of development for the rest of the world. Why do we have to waste more than forty percent of our food? That’s an American reality. Why do we have to have so much obesity in our country? It’s the result of agricultural policies that promote processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat—in other words, junk food. This is what Americans are suffering from now. Unfortunately, the U.S. food aid programs export these problems. We are literally exporting chronic degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
This is also a class issue. Upper-class Americans enjoy fresh, healthy, organic local food; but if you go to working-class neighborhoods, you cannot find healthy food. You can find convenience stores and liquor stores, but not grocery stores or farmers markets. So even in the United States, we don’t have the right to healthy food. We don’t have equal access. We have to make sure nutritious, adequate, and healthy food is available to everyone. It’s really not that difficult to do, but it means we’ll have to take back control of the production side of our food industry, as well as the consumption side. Look at the advertisements—especially those targeting young children—that encourage unhealthy food consumption, like sugar-laden cereals, or processed foods in general. Nor should we encourage young mothers to feed their babies expensive, chemical-laden baby formula, rather than breast milk.
The MOON: Does the United States use agriculture and development policy to impose its own agenda on the world?
Elver: The United States is the most powerful country in the world. That includes agriculture and agricultural policy. The U.S. is the number-one food exporter in the world. It’s the number-one food aid donor in the world. So whatever the U.S. does has huge impact. We would need another interview to adequately discuss this. For example, you have to examine how humanitarian aid and development policy go hand-in-hand. You have to examine if the food aid is helpful, or not, and whether its method of delivery is helpful, or not. Does it help local food producers, or destroy them? For example, American food aid typically has two arms. One arm gives free food to vulnerable populations—women, children, refugees, people living in war zones, and so on. The other arm sells discounted food at the local markets—destroying local producers who can’t compete with the subsidized prices. For another example, European food aid programs typically utilize the food and shipping resources of the recipient countries to deliver the food. But American food aid programs require shipping American farm products via American transportation companies. So who is this aid really designed to help—the recipient country, or companies in the U.S.? There is no question that U.S. agricultural policies are a major factor in determining the food security of the rest of the world. If we want to ensure the right to food, we have to address U.S. agricultural policies—particularly those that favor industrial agriculture over small-scale farmers. These are the farmers who are feeding the world.