A Conversation with Hilal Elver, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
The world of food systems might seem like a distant thought while munching on morning granola or savoring a delicious pizza. However, my conversation with my incredible grandmother, Hilal Elver, former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations (UN), has shed light on some essential aspects of this complex domain.
Elver served as rapporteur from 2014 to 2020, a tenure that she found to be both illuminating and troubling. With her background as an international law scholar specializing in water rights and climate change, her shift in focus to the food crisis was fairly seamless. Elver explained that she entered her new role after the 2007/2008 global food crisis. She noted that 43 countries had food riots and there was a very sudden hike in food costs. “This made me think about areas of global importance and the UN’s role in relation to hunger and malnutrition,” Elver said.
It is no secret that rapidly advancing climate change and the food system are deeply interconnected. Industrial agriculture is responsible for around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions per year by way of methane and fossil fuels. In turn, climate change often harms food production, causing sporadic floods and droughts. In light of this, Elver emphasized “climate change policies should not negatively impact food security, and food production should not increase the impact of climate change.” One possible solution to this dilemma that Elver mentioned is agroecology: a farming method that focuses on small-scale farming and the use of technology and materials to localize a food system within a country. However, while agroecology is a noble goal, Elver noted that our capitalism-driven food system makes implementing the less lucrative agroecology challenging.
The food system’s financialization began around the 2007/2008 food crisis, with the realization that it was a big sector with lots of profitability and low transparency. Elver explained that inside players quickly had influence both on food prices and production. Elver revealed that there is a group of companies labeled A, B, C, and D, which each stand for one of four companies (Archer Daniels, Bunge, Cargills, and Louis Dreyfuss). Elver said that “they effectively dominate food trade systems and global food policy.” Each company is responsible for some vital part of your diet like rice, wheat, and animal products. To further demonstrate these companies’ influence, Elver pointed out that in the current Ukraine War, President Joe Biden sanctioned Russia in support of Ukraine, yet Cargill (the C company), retained access to the region. Cargill, a US-based corporation and a dominant force in the wheat industry, is the sole exporter of wheat from the Black Sea to the world. Elver said this reveals an alarming global dependence on key players to provide good quality food and keep prices in check.
In response to the food system’s financialization, Elver emphasized a need to support small-scale farmers and your local food system. “Farm workers are so important to access the right to food for everyone and to resist the influence of large global corporations,” Elver said. However, in many developing countries a powerful local food system is just not possible. This is due to the high costs to maintain a food system that actually produces nutritious food. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) has estimated that providing an individual with a healthy and nutritious diet costs about $5.50 per day, a sum beyond the means of half the world’s population. Therefore, many developing countries have turned to the cheaper alternative of importing food. But an increased reliance on food corporations puts you at the mercy of corporate price gouging, and in times of economic disaster or even global disaster like the Covid pandemic, there is often very little economic support for consumers.
The Covid pandemic proved to be an illuminating moment for the food system which was widely regarded as an invincible machine. Elver explained that it showcased the hard work of food systems workers in times where production was down. “Especially in the covid period, it became so important to depend on these people,” Elver said. “Essentially they were frontline workers who didn’t get enough recognition.” Despite this, Covid quickly caused tears in the food system, exposing issues in production and exportation. As a result, Elver notes that increased regulation of the food system may be necessary to protect both vulnerable countries and ensure another disaster does not lead to food shortages. “This dependency becomes problematic when a crisis arises because a lot of these developing countries do not have the financial means to get food from outside the country,” Elver explained.
But Covid did not directly impact Elver’s time as rapporteur, as her service ended in early 2020. Throughout her tenure, Elver was responsible for biannual reports presented to the General Assembly as well as multiple mission trips. Elver emphasized that the mission trips allowed her to talk to people in affected countries, which made all the difference, particularly when direct interaction with people was scarce during the pandemic. “If you do not go to the ground level in these remote areas you will never understand the problem,” Elver said. She recalled a time when she talked with indigenous tribes in Argentina to find out more about their food production and discovered that she was the first UN contact to ask those vital questions.
Elver’s final report was centered around Italy, an unconventional choice considering its reputation as a Western powerhouse. However, beneath Italy’s veneer of exquisite wines, delectable cheese, and world-renowned pasta, a more sinister reality lurked. Hilal discovered that the individuals responsible for producing these culinary delights were undocumented African immigrants living in deplorable conditions. By unveiling this information on the global stage through her report, Hilal provided a voice for underappreciated food system workers, despite resistance from the Italian government, which asserted that the situation was entirely under control.
Throughout her time as rapporteur, Elver sought to highlight the stories of food systems workers that were missed on the global stage. This also drove Elver to focus on the role of women in food systems, a critical topic as the first female rapporteur. Elver noted, “I thought that it was a very important area because they are generally invisible despite their incredible impact on food security at every stage of our life, from family to community to the global level.” She found that the participation of women as food system workers has increased exponentially, yet there was a huge inequality and mistreatment of female food systems workers. Elver drew on the example of countries in Africa that saw large populations of men traveling to Northern African countries seeking better job prospects. Oftentimes this meant leaving the women behind to care for the children, elderly, and farmland. As more women become key parts of the global food system, Elver emphasized the need to support and better highlight their participation.
I believe one of Elver’s great legacies from her time as rapporteur was her ability to get legitimate results via her work. A primary example of this came shortly after her appointment, as ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East contributed significantly to escalating levels of malnutrition. This malnutrition became the focal point of one of Hilal’s reports to the UN. Leveraging her background as an international law scholar, Hilal identified a legal gray area pertaining to the use of food as a weapon of war. Her essential point was that “Deliberate action towards starvation and famine should be considered a crime against humanity.” This initiative proved successful, as the UN Security Council passed a resolution based on her report affirming that the utilization of food and water as tools of warfare constitutes a crime against humanity.
One of the biggest takeaways from my conversation with Elver is the relevance of the food system in connection with climate change. As a member of the generation meant to fix the climate crisis, I believe analyzing the ways in which our food can both harm and help the climate is essential. From implementing more sustainable agriculture to cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and supporting local farmers, there is a lot of potential for improvement. Food is much more complex than it seems, and understanding the system is critical as climate disasters will inevitably make access to food more difficult and require precision and action to ensure that people do not go hungry.