The Industrial Agricultural System is Limiting Food Access and Driving Climate Change

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Have you wondered how climate change might affect your food supply? Well according to a new United Nations report on climate change, agriculture and food, 42 million people will be vulnerable to hunger by 2050. This will be due to climate change. This figure does not include the growing numbers of people effected by extreme weather events. The report came just ahead of the UN conference in Rome last week on world food security. It’s worth noting that last week, the UN office for disaster risk reduction said the number of weather and climate related disasters has more than doubled in the last two decades, compared with the two prior decades. So how do we prepare for the future and feed 9 billion people, which is what the estimated human population will be in 2050. And what does sustainable agriculture look like to address this problem?

To discuss this and what came out of the Rome Conference to address food security, climate change, and how we can make agriculture more sustainable, we’re joined by Kirtana Chandraeskaran. She is the food security program coordinator at Friends of the Earth International. She’s also the author of the article We Need an Agroecological Revolution. Kirtana, so good to have you with us.

KIRTANA CHANDRAESKARAN: Thank you.

PERIES: Kirtana we know that agriculture and forestry and changes in land use are the greatest emitters after the energy sector. Together they produce apparently more than 21% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. So what came out of the Rome Conference, which you were at, that addresses this problem?

CHANDRAESKARAN: Well to first put the contribution of agriculture to climate change a bit more in perspective, the figures that were released by the FAO are of course the official figures that they look at. But actually if you consider the fact that a lot of the contributions to greenhouse gas emissions from the food system are not counted and the food emissions. So for example, the fact that deforestation which accounts for a huge number of climate emissions globally. The food sector contributes about 80% approximately of deforestation worldwide to produce kind of massive amounts of industrial commodities like fire fuels and animal feed and palm oil and soy oil and these kinds of things which is not counted in the food system.

Then you also have things like transportation. Transportation is a 5th of global emissions and food transportation is somewhere you could say a quarter of those which again don’t get counted under food. So all in all, if you really judged it by what we would say the whole industrial food system is contributing, it could be almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions.

PERIES: That is tremendous. So was the problem seen in that perspective?

CHANDRAESKARAN: Yes, and no and I’ll explain that a bit. I think the meeting in Rome was a multilateral UN meeting of UN governments and its kind of the most important, the most multilateral space to discuss what’s guilty in nutrition. But it has its limitations. So one of the issues that we consistently bring up at Friends of the Earth which you can also see in the article is the fact that you can’t just clump the whole food system together. Why?

Well first of all, it’s not the whole food system, it’s the industrial food system that really contributes to carbon emissions, through for example, things like deforestation which I just brought up, the huge emissions from the use of fossil fuels for industrial agriculture. Emissions from making and then applying nitrogen fertilizer in inorganic fertilizers. Livestock industrially produced livestock contributes a massive amount of emissions. So this is on one side where you see these huge contributions.

On the other side, you have a small scale farming. What we call small scale holder agroecological food production which is not really given that much importance. But actually if you look at the figures and the FAO has done some research on this, small holder food production produces 70% of the world’s food that is consumed today. So they are the most important food producers. They do it with the least amount of land and the least amount of resources. So it’s actually a myth that the industrial food system is feeding the world because they’re not. What they’re actually doing is contributing to climate emissions, which is why we really push hard in these type of multilateral conversations to get the role of small holder producers, identified and also their contribution to reducing climate emissions.

So the concept of agroecology is getting a lot of attention nowadays from governments and its basically things like adding carbons to soil, to have integrated livestock pasture systems. Things like this. It’s quite simple concepts really but it’s more actually small scale farmers in the developing world and probably a long time ago in Europe and North America as well, have done for hundreds of years until they are now being destroyed by the system. So what we really need is massive return. A big kind of system change to return to this type of farming. Which is what these governments need to be promoting. So we made some big steps I would say in doing that. But we still could do a lot more.

PERIES: So give us some really practical examples of how what they discussed in Rome could have in terms of impact locally. So basically you are advocating here that the best route to go is local agriculture and sustainable farming. What does that mean?

CHANDRAESKARAN: Well to answer your first question first, so the governments they discussed two major issues let’s say. Every year they discuss two different types of issues in this forum. It’s called the committee on world food security. This year they discussed small holders and markets. So what that actually means is why, what is important, how you support small holders basically to have the right market conditions for them to make their agriculture more viable. They actually came up with a very positive set of recommendations. So for one thing, they actually recognized again that in terms of food security, small holder farmers are the most important people. So that they operate in local [inaud.] markets which are the most important. About 80% of global markets of food are really local and regional markets and those are the most important markets, not really the global agri-food chains that you see when you shop in Wal Mart or Tesco or Carrefour. Those are not the most important markets.

So they came up – they first recognized these two things which is a huge step for governments to take and then they came out with some recommendations as to how you can actually support small holder food producers to get good prices for what they produce, support them to actually be a part of these markets and enable these markets to grow. So this was a first set of quite good recommendations and now what needs to be done really is for governments who are part of the world committee on food security to take this back and see how they can actually work with this in the various national and domestic regulations and legal frameworks that they have.

The second set of issues that they discussed is also extremely relevant to climate change which was sustainable agriculture and livestock. Here they also had some helpful recommendations. They stopped just short of recognizing that in fact it’s the industrial sector that contributes the most to emissions. But they did recognize for example, all the different types of livestock that you could have for pastoral systems for example or mixed livestock farming systems. You know where you have no mans ranging and producing pasture fed livestock for example. They came out with a set of ideas on how to make the industrial system more sustainable. So it kind of implicitly suggests it’s not sustainable.

PERIES: Why are they not being so outspoken about it?

CHANDRAESKARAN: You said they fell short of naming the industrial sector as the greatest polluter here? Who’s around the table? Why are they so careful?

PERIES: Well the two answers are actually extremely related. Around the table are governments. But around the table there’s also what we call civil society, that’s us and organizations like friends of Europe but also organizations of [inaud.] people. So organizations of small scale food producers, of indigenous peoples, of pasturalists, of women food producers, youth food producers. They all sat around the table. They also have the private sector who sit at the table with governments and of course talk to governments behind the scenes. There are huge financial interests in livestock production as we know.

So there’s several countries, not just private sector companies but also countries that are very reluctant to have the importance of their livestock production taken away. So what they would prefer to do is to what they call green wash, which is to keep the system essentially the same but make a few tweaks here and there. So you could for example, try to make feed production more efficient. So then you would say okay I’m not causing 10 [inaud.] of deforestation for every kilo but a few less.

So the system goes on with a few tweaks. But that’s not enough as we know. If we want really to address climate change, it needs to be here and now. We need kind of a whole scale change of existence.

PERIES: And as you say, we need a systems change because climate change is already upon us and with increasing frequency and severity, particularly when you factor in extreme weather. We already have millions of people who have gone, 60 million actually have already found hunger facing them especially in southern Africa because of food shortages this year. They of course cite El Nino effect in climate change as the reason for this kind of hunger in southern Africa. Did that problem come up? Did they discuss the severity and the urgency of the problem?

CHANDRAESKARAN: They did discuss the severity of the problem. I think it’s difficult to ignore it. But I think it’s also important to remember that for decades now we have had a roundabout, every year about 800 million people in the world classified as hungry or malnourished. So there’s another thing, even without climate change we’re going hungry. A lot of these people are again affected by the industrial food system; don’t have access to food, and they’re unable to buy food. So climate change is just going to make it worse.

So we always start with huge numbers and we’re going to add more on top of those numbers. Again if you look at the justice element of this issue, it’s that climate change is going to affect developing countries so Sub-Saharan Africa or larger parts of Asia where there are huge populations of people. But also populations of people contributed the least to climate change are going to be the most effective in their food supplies while mostly on the whole Europe and North America will not be affected so badly.

So I think people recognize that there’s going to be a huge problem. We need very big governments to be a lot more courageous to take the steps that we need. Some of them are. We really need to stop tweaking the industrial system around the edges. But really if we want agroecology and sustainable ecology to take off in the way that we need it to take off, it actually needs a huge amount of government support. Not just financial support. We could do it with financial support but I think it’s like 2 million round about that. 22 to 20 million gets spent on research of sustainable farming while we have billions and billions spent on other types of industrial common research.

But they could also do other types of public policy support. We have some fantastic examples of that that have happened for example in Brazil. The national program support family farming which has several elements of discussing with small order farmers what their needs and wants are, then having climate change exchanges for knowledge sharing and then putting in place for example, public procurement. So they have a massive public procurement policy to source from small scale family farms and agriculture production and it’s had a huge impact on Brazil’s ability to produce sustainable food.

The same happened in Cuba for example where they have had to out of circumstances, farm in a much more sustainable way because they don’t have access to the kinds of fossil fuels and fertilizer and etc. in the global market. I think they actually increased their food production almost 40% year on year over the last decade. That’s huge. And tie it exactly in an agroecological way. So we have these examples. We just need governments to recognize it and get rid of the vested interests that don’t want it.

PERIES: Alright Kirtana, I thank you so much for giving us this window into the problem and how we may solve it. We would love to have you back to continue talking about potential solutions to this problem. Thank you for joining us.

CHANDRAESKARAN: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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