What motivated you to write this book?
The book is based on my PhD thesis, which I completed in 2015. My motivation for doing research on climate change and food security was a genuine concern for the adverse impacts of climate change on global hunger. While climate change in itself does not cause hunger, as I argue in this book, it does exacerbate already existing inequalities and vulnerabilities that result in some people not having access to adequate food. My initial objective when I commenced my PhD research was to explore ways in which international law could be employed to tackle hunger and food insecurity in the context of climate change
As I was going through my doctoral research, I became aware that whatever solutions we devise to address hunger and climate change – including solutions grounded in international law – are entirely dependent on how the problems of hunger and climate change are understood in the first place. At this point my attention turned from finding solutions to understanding the problems. This is where the language of international law plays a central role. The way in which international law is developed, applied and interpreted influences our understanding of the problems of hunger and climate change. To give an example, international climate change law foregrounds the impacts of climate change on crop yields and actively invites the use of technologies to increase food production. This is not to say that international climate change law does not also acknowledge problems of access to and distribution of food, but the emphasis is quite clearly on production.
In revising my thesis for the book manuscript, I added more emphasis on the narrative function of international law and on viewing international law as a language. This entails exploring the broader impacts of legal texts, as well as supporting documents and discourse in which international law is used to argue for a way to feed the world in times of climate change. In broadening the focus, my intention was to make a bigger argument about the function of international law, and our role as agents of international law, in framing prevailing narratives.
What are the central contributions of your book?
My central contributions are three-fold: the first is specific to the question of climate change-induced hunger, the second relates to the function of international law, and the third is more generally about the importance of asking questions and challenging assumptions.
I show that dominant understandings of hunger in the face of climate change are embedded in a neoliberal narrative. This narrative assumes that (1) there is a strong correlation between climate change and hunger, (2) food production must increase in order to overcome hunger, (3) technologies are needed to increase food production, (4) private sector investments are needed to secure investments in technologies, and (5) intellectual property rights are needed to incentivise those investments. I argue that even those actors who strongly oppose the prevailing neoliberal narrative do not provide effective challenges to these five underlying assumptions and that the language of international law plays an important role in upholding them. My objective is not to reject these assumptions outright; it is rather to highlight legitimate doubts and concerns about them and to open up space for different – and perhaps more effective – narratives of hunger.
In examining narratives of hunger and the assumptions on which these narratives are based, I focus my attention particularly on the role of international law. I study how different voices in the narratives of hunger – including seed corporations, civil society organisations, human rights actors, government representatives, etc. – use international law to promote a particular solution to the problem of climate change-induced hunger. I understand “international law” in the broadest sense in my book. I look at the texts of international law treaties relating to climate change, the right to food and intellectual property rights, but I also study scientific reports, policy papers, popular media, and contributions by civil society and academia. In viewing international law as a language, I argue that the way in which international law is invoked by various actors across fora contributes to constructing understandings of the problems of hunger and climate change, and consequently direct and limit the possible solutions to these problems. While I focus specifically on narratives of hunger, the narrative function of international law has relevance well beyond hunger and climate change.
The last and most general contribution of this book goes beyond hunger and climate change and beyond international law. An important – and admittedly rather ambitious – objective that I had in writing this book was to critique the current political climate that, in my view, severely restricts questioning and challenging prevailing ideas. Heated public debates on climate, migration, Brexit, gender equality, President Trump, etc., are extremely polemic. The options in terms of having a legitimate opinion seem to be limited to being on either extreme end of such debates. Focusing my arguments on exploring narratives of hunger rather than promoting one particular narrative has resulted in frequent questioning including: But don’t you agree that Monsanto is terrible? How can you question well-intentioned struggles for food sovereignty? My book is a plea to take a step back from polemical positions and to ask fundamental questions, regardless of the answers to those questions. I strongly believe that especially in academia there must be space for questioning assumptions and moving beyond “for/against” positions.
Then what about the two competing narratives of hunger that you present in your book, namely the neoliberal one and the aspirational (food sovereignty) one? Should policymakers move beyond them?
One of the conclusions that I come to in my book is that even though the dominant neoliberal narrative and the oppositional food sovereignty narrative are often presented as being dichotomous, they are in fact based on a shared set of fundamental assumptions. The presumed dichotomy is reflected also in the question, which refers to “competing” narratives of hunger. The competition is in fact rather limited when we consider that the most heated debates between the narratives focus on questions such as who should have what type of property rights over seeds. There is little sustained discussion about fundamental questions relating to the problem of hunger. My argument is that the language of international law – for instance “rights” language – prevents such fundamental questions from being posed.
In terms of policymaking, this means that most of the efforts in feeding the world in times of climate change are directed at measuring the impacts of climate change on crop yields (as in the assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and developing technologies to increase food production. There is very limited policy space to consider much needed systematic change, including addressing questions of poverty and inequality that make some people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on food security. Asking questions and challenging assumptions is an ultramarathon, while law- and policymaking are (unfortunately) often reduced to short sprints. I sincerely hope that academics do no continue to follow policymakers’ short-term vision on problems that require long-term vision.
So, how do you see the prospective role of international law in the relationship between hunger and climate change?
What I show in my book is that international law currently limits our understanding of the relationship between hunger and climate change. International law contributes to the dominant neoliberal trend of viewing hunger primarily as a problem of production, and while emphasising that climate change is anthropogenic, it does not present hunger as the man-made problem that it clearly is. The implicit but powerful suggestion is that human action causes climate change, and climate change causes hunger, but there is little explicit attention for the fact that human action is the real cause of hunger, with climate change merely exacerbating the suffering.
Regarding the prospective role of international law, of course I hope that my book will encourage international lawyers and legal scholars to reflect on their role in articulating the relationship between hunger and climate change. And more particularly, I hope that all those who invoke international law will reflect on what the language of international law suggests about the relationship between hunger and climate change. I think, ultimately, that we must accept that there are no simple solutions to these enormous problems, and that we must take responsibility for our roles in framing problems, in narrating the world’s problems and possible solutions.
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Full citation of Professor Saab’s book:
Saab, Anne. Narratives of Hunger in International Law: Feeding the World in Times of Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
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Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science. Edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Picture taken from the book cover of Narratives of Hunger in International Law: Feeding the World in Times of Climate Change.