The interview: Michael Fakhri on the right to food

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The interview: Michael Fakhri on the right to food

Michael Fakhri is the new UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. He believes that changing the way we trade may be the answer to solving world hunger. He speaks to Hazel Healy.


Michael Fakhri started his new job as UN Special Rapporteur in May 2020, just as a global pandemic changed into a hunger crisis, and three months before the wildfires in his home of Oregon, US. ‘We didn’t see the sun for six days,’ he says.

He was busy with evacuations to escape the fires and childcare during lockdown. But the Canadian-Lebanese law professor has talked to food growers, labourers, and shopkeepers to make a plan to change the international trade system to make sure everyone can get food.

‘I’m trying to be responsible for what I do,’ 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 good if they are useful to the people organizing.’

Can you explain ‘the right to food’?

It’s the right to celebrate life. When we eat, it’s a pleasure. My mum just wrote a family cookbook for her kids and grandkids and she called it ‘Everyday Gourmet’. For my parents, eating was to celebrate each other, enjoy being together. That’s how I grew up.

It’s also the right to eat good food, together. I mean sitting with people you want to sit with – in your house, cafeterias. It’s the way we build our social and political institutions.

Food is also really important to our relationship with the land. The food sovereignty movement wants communities to have control over how we produce, trade, and eat their food.

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’. The idea of ‘food security’ was important in the mid-1970s, in the middle of global famine. It was a way to say food is just as important as world powers and war – but since then it has come to reflect the status quo, how things are already.

Tell us about food and trade and how they are connected.

You always need a theory of trade to talk about food.

When the idea of free trade came first in late 19th-century Britain, it was with the so-called Corn Laws. This is when free trade was part of the law. The argument was, ‘Let’s not feed ourselves only inside Britain, let’s trade, let everyone do their part.’ Then Britain alone reduced its tariffs, its tax on imports.

In the popular press they wrote about it as the price of bread - as corn meant wheat then. ‘If you want a cheap loaf, you support free trade because we can get wheat cheaper from other countries.’ That meant the colonies – the Empire. When I say trade and food are connected, I’m also saying it’s about capitalism and imperialism.

You’ve talked about making a different trade system which is about ‘how people actually eat’. How would you change it?

I would start from what social movements want. First, it is true that most people in the world get their food from local markets. So, start with making sure we support these markets.

Second, we need to make our relationship with the land the most important priority, the waterways, the biosphere, and with each other.

And then we get to international trade – trade is then the exception. If some people want to trade, or have to trade, let’s sit down and think about it. Supporting a new way of doing trade is not against business. Business happens everywhere. It’s about what you mean by fair: fair market, fair value.

You might form a coffee agreement between farmers, workers, national governments, and consumer groups. And then everyone sits down together to agree to a fair system – decide who’s buying from whom, the direction of trade, and how to make supply chains responsible.

How would this new international trade system happen?

There are many ways to do it. But we could start by stopping the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture and bringing people to the negotiating table.

There are already institutions. At the UN Committee of World Food Security, you have the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM). In the CSM, indigenous people, youth and women’s movements, pastoralists, fishers, and farmers are organizing and negotiating together.

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 making new relationships.

War and conflict create most hunger in the world. Do you have ideas for what to do about this?

Hunger, famine, and death are predictable, the result of political choices and some 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 gets power and wealth? Which countries, companies, or individuals?

How can the United States and other countries make and sell arms that result in the starvation of people in Yemen? What business institutions make that possible?

Most hungry people are experiencing conflict and war, by which I mean violence. We have to understand that 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 part of the trade union movement and the farmers’ movement coming together in a new form of food solidarity. Hunger brings people together. Workers also need a part in these international policies. That’s the future.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)