New Internationalist | 24 March 2021
The interview: Michael Fakhri
by Hazel Healy
Michael Fakhri took up his post as UN Special Rapporteur in May 2020, just as a global pandemic turned into a hunger crisis and three months before wildfires ripped through his home state of Oregon, US. ‘We didn’t see the sun for six days,’ he recalls.
Between evacuations and juggling childcare during lockdown, the Canadian-Lebanese law professor has worked to root himself in peoples’ movements – talking to growers, labourers, and shopkeepers – while articulating a plan for how to reform the international trade regime to ensure access to food for all.
Fakhri is warm and effusive and wears his badge of UN food expert carefully. ‘I’m trying to hold myself accountable,’ he says. ‘For me, change doesn’t come from a good idea and having all the answers. It comes from social movements. Ideas are only as good as they are useful to those organizing.’
Can you define ‘the right to food’ for our readers?
It’s the right to celebrate life. When we eat, it’s such a pleasure. My mum just wrote a family cookbook to share with her kids and grandkids and she called it ‘Everyday Gourmet’. For my parents, the value we held was when you eat you celebrate each other, enjoy the fact that you exist together. That’s how I grew up.
It’s also the right to eat good food, in communion. I mean that in the secular sense, sitting with people you choose to sit with – in your house, cafeterias. It’s the way we build our social and political institutions.
Food is also central to our relationship with the land. I use the word ‘communion’ as a nod to the food sovereignty movement, which advocates for communities to have control over how their food is produced, traded and consumed.
So, it is more than just the right to be free from hunger. This is how sovereignty is different to the idea of ‘food security’, which had a critical edge in the mid-1970s, in the midst of global famine – when it was a way to say food is just as important as world powers and war – but has since come to reflect the status quo.
As Special Rapporteur your focus is on trade, which is often described as the ‘missing piece’ when it comes to food advocacy. One of things you argue is that the two are deeply interconnected.
You always need a theory of trade to talk about food.
When the idea of free trade first emerges in late 19th-century Britain it is with the so-called Corn Laws. This is when free trade is put into legal practices. The argument went like this: ‘Let us not feed ourselves within the boundaries of Britain, let’s trade, let everyone do their part.’ Then Britain unilaterally reduces its tariffs [a tax on imports].
In the popular press they articulated it as the price of bread (as corn meant wheat in those days). ‘If you want a cheap loaf, you’re in favour of free trade because we can get wheat cheaper from elsewhere.’ That meant the colonies – the Empire. By saying trade and food are inherently intertwined what I’m also saying is it’s about capitalism and imperialism.
Law captures power dynamics, if you focus in; it’s a story of political compromise, victories and opportunities.
You’ve talked about building a different trade system that reflects ‘how people actually eat’. Along what principles would you re-order it?
I would start from the demands coming from social movements. Firstly, the reality is that most people in the world get their food from local markets. So, start with making sure these markets are supported.
Secondly, as a principle, we need to prioritize our relationship with the land, the waterways the biosphere and with each other (human, nonhuman).
And then we get to international trade – trade becomes the exception. If some people want to trade, or have to trade, let’s sit down and figure that out. Being in favour of a new way of doing trade is not anti-business. Commerce happens everywhere. It’s about how you define what’s fair: fair market, fair value.
You might form a coffee agreement, say, between farmers, workers, national governments and consumer groups. And have everyone sit down together to agree to a fair system – decide who’s buying from whom, flows of trade and the mechanisms of accountability of supply chains.
How would this reformed international trade regime come into being?
There are many ways to do it. But we could start by winding down the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture and bringing civil society to the negotiating table.
Recognized institutions already exist. At the UN Committee of World Food Security, you have something called the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM). In the CSM, indigenous people, youth and women’s movements, pastoralists, fishers and farmers are organizing and negotiating collectively.
The CSM has negotiated multilateral policy agreements, so why not trade agreements? Then bring in the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Organization and the WTO. Start building new relationships.
New international food agreements could do away with the current trade regime’s idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subsidies. At the moment, the WTO allows rich-country agricultural subsidies, which directly financially support farmers. But it de-legitimizes the tools of the poor countries, with certain government-purchase programmes or price-support schemes, which are labelled a ‘bad’ subsidy.
Once that consensus is overturned, you might get to a place where if a government wants to support a rural community with price regulation or co-operatives, they can do it. And then we can form a trade agreement that ensures there’s stability in allowing people to share their goods.
Then if we take ‘subsidies’ such as the domestic practice of supporting farmers and food producers, which allows them to collective bargain and form agreements, and apply this internationally – the price will be fair.
You’ve had international commodity agreements before that have been about supply management as a way to regulate price. But this system would be different because here the power doesn’t reflect commercial power (who can buy and who can sell), rather the price would reflect a fair relationship between the buyers and the sellers, the producers and consumers.
It’s a different way of thinking but it’s something people are already doing in many ways; the question is how do we institutionalize that and organize it better.
Conflict is the biggest driver of hunger worldwide. Do you have ideas for how to tackle this?
Hunger, famine and death are by design – they are predictable, the product of political choices and particular institutions. In Yemen, the solution to hunger is: stop selling arms, stop playing geopolitics with people’s lives.
I think international human rights law and criminal law are not the only answer here. The question is – who is benefiting in terms of power and wealth? Which countries, companies or individuals?
I want to bring in commercial law to uncover what made those transactions possible in the first place. How are the United States and other countries able to manufacture and sell arms that lead in a straight line to the starvation of people in Yemen? What commercial institutions make that possible?
Most people who are hungry are experiencing conflict, by which I mean violence. We have to acknowledge violence is not an exception, it’s always there.
What do you see coming out of social movements that excites you?
The Indian farmers! From what I understand, this is a new alliance between a particular strand of the trade union movement and the farmers’ movement, coming together in a new form of food solidarity. Hunger unifies. Workers also need space in these international policy spaces. That’s the future.