In his latest report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, argued that strong land rights can help overcome the current food crisis made worse by the pandemic. This World Food Day, we had the chance to ask him a bit more about that.
Watch the interview on Instagram.
Can you tell us about what you were hearing during the pandemic and people’s desire to connect back to agriculture and land?
At the beginning of the pandemic, people weren’t able to go into work, people lost their jobs, and as a result there was immediately a food crisis. People’s access to food was disrupted, supply chains were disrupted, supermarket shelves were empty, local farmer’s markets were closed and so hunger was on the rise, malnutrition was on the rise and people had to think about food more than ever before.
People immediately started thinking about where their food comes from and in thinking that they immediately started thinking about land and access to land. People started relying on local producers more, they started gardening more, and sharing more. Because hunger was such a prominent issue during the pandemic, people started thinking about food in a more conscious way.
People’s relationship with the land improved and that was a source of health. In the end the better your relationship with the land, the better your health is - spiritually, psychologically, emotionally and not just in terms of physical health. And so with people stuck at home in lockdown people rediscover, not just their relationship with the land, but their love for the land.
How does people’s access to and control over land and natural resources affect their resilience and opportunities?
Ultimately everyone's ability to feed themselves, to feed their families, their communities is determined by their access to resources and land. It’s about hunting, fishing and growing your own food, that’s the most direct relationship with land when it comes to feeding ourselves and our communities. The more access you have, the more you share resources with others, the more resilient you are, the more you can withstand changes and work with others to overcome challenges.
The problem today is that less and less people have access to resources. The other way people access land and resources to feed themselves is through access to shops, to markets. But they also need to have a stable livelihood, a living wage, a secure home so it’s all connected. But thinking about access to resources is the best place to start when thinking about resilience.
How significant were local food systems in ensuring people didn’t suffer from severe hunger during the pandemic?
What we witnessed early on in the pandemic is how agribusinesses and corporate dominated food systems are broken. Those were the first things that broke when the food crisis started.
What did work, what did end up feeding people are local and regional systems. Communities found new ways to access food, to ensure local markets were working, and to ensure consumers had more direct access to food producers.
What we are seeing now is people realizing what worked is access to local markets and local food systems and they are trying to build upon these local systems.
The challenge is that corporations and agribusinesses have been part of the problem for years and this proved to be true during the pandemic not just in terms of access to food but in making the pandemic worse. For example, in North America, the corporate owners of meat packing plants did not address workers’ safety. They did not make sure that workers had protective equipment, they did not make sure workers were separated from each other and as a result these meat packing plants became vectors of the virus and workers got sick at rates higher than the national average. Which also meant that communities around these meat packing plants got more sick with the virus.
How you treat workers, farmers, people who work in the food system affects the whole community. The problem is that corporations treated essential workers as if they were expendable. Industrial systems made people hungrier and more sick.
In your recent report, you mention that strong land rights and genuine agrarian reform can help not only overcome the current food crisis but transform food systems for the long run - can you expand on this?
When we talk about strong land rights, people’s right to land and access to land we address the question of who has control and power over land. If you have a system of land rights which prioritises individuals and allows individuals to own large tracts of land as private property, it leads to great inequality, it leads to a food system that treats food and people as if they were commodities, something just to be bought and sold.
But if you have a system of land rights and give people a right to land, we can create a system that gives people stability, that gives them a clear understanding of how to use the land, who gets to use the land, who gets to share these resources. So it’s not just about individual control over land but it’s about sharing our relationship with the land and it’s about deciding as a community how we should establish our relationship with the land and what are the common rules.
It creates stability and it encourages cooperation and that's what we need for a food system to flourish.
How did your experience at the ILC Global Land Forum (GLF) back in May 2022 influence the content of the report or some of the conclusions you made?
When I attended the ILC Global Land Forum in Jordan I really learnt so much more about land in relation to climate change and in relation to ensuring flourishing food systems. The reason is, I knew in theory how important land is and how important land rights are. But what I had the chance to do there was meeting people from social movements, including groups from all over the world, and I got to learn from their experience and stories. And I also left with new friendships and for me that’s how change happens. The only way change can happen in the world is by developing new relationships and new friendships and I found that the Global Land Forum was a space of friendship and new relationships.
Last year, the UN Food Systems Summit created a momentum to propel our food systems to achieve the 2030 agenda. What do you think we can learn from the process? Do you think what was committed to at the end of the Summit is realistic in addressing the present crises and if not what needs to be done?
The United Nations Food Systems Summit that was held in 2021 forced all the governments of the world to focus their attention on developing national food plans. Usually food is dealt with by the Ministry of Agriculture and small departments here and there but what the Food Systems Summit did was take entire governments and get them to focus on food.
Unfortunately the Summit didn't treat human rights as a central feature. In fact, at the beginning, the Summit excluded the right to food, human rights, peoples’ organisations, social movements committed to human rights and to more equitable food systems based on the notion of justice. What we can learn from that is that if you exclude human rights, peoples’ perspectives and communities from the most vulnerable places then you are not going to develop a successful conference that gives people a clear plan.
And that's what we see today, the Food Systems Summit did not give the world a clear way forward, it did not give people the tools they need to deal with a crisis that is even worse today. So what we are left with is the momentum that the Summit created. But it also created a jumble of ideas and it increased conflict among different peoples and it did not give countries the tools they need to cooperate together.
That being said, I hope we learnt that we cannot marginalise people’s voices and human rights and that we have to put them as a central feature. So when I appear before the General Assembly in October, I hope that’s what I’m going to hear. And that’s what is going to be in my report.