Beyond Paris: the global food system, a driving force behind the climate crisis

soilThe global food system is one of the main drivers of climate change. By our calculations, it is responsible for around half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the issue is hardly being talked about at the climate summits that governments hold every year. How is that?

Agriculture is supposed to be about turning the energy provided by the sun into something that people can eat. But the corporate driven global food system mostly relies on fossil energy: the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the mechanisation of the farm, the pumping up of water for irrigation, etc. All of them emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Add to this the deforestation driven by the ever expanding industrial plantations, the soil erosion driven by unsustainable practices, the transport, processing and freezing of food produced in far away places, and the tremendous energy waste in the increasingly centralised corporate retail and supermarket systems. Our research allowed us to conclude that the global food system, not just agriculture, is responsible for between 44% and 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of them coming from the industrial system.

It doesn’t need to be this way. A radical and global shift towards more ecological forms of farming would go a long way in solving the climate crisis as it would help to massively build back organic matter (carbon) into the soils and largely eliminate the need for chemical fertilisers. Prioritising local markets and fresh produce would reduce the need for long distance transport, freezing and processing. An agrarian reform aimed at supporting small scale food producers rather than promoting plantation economies would give back the land to those who produce food rather than those who produce commodities and help stop deforestation in the process. Our findings showed that a global shift over the next 50 years to healthy ecological farming practices focusing just on returning organic matter to the soil, could capture around 24-30% of current global greenhouse gas emissions while creating a more productive and sustainable food system providing enough food for a growing population.

December 2015: pushing the food agenda in Paris

Despite the obvious connection between the industrial food system and the climate crisis, and the obvious potential that a re-haul of that system offers to turn the tide, this issue is nowhere to be seen in any of the governmental climate negotiations. Governments officials seem to content themselves betting on financial carbon markets and other corporate driven ‘solutions’ that only get us in deeper trouble. In the official negotiations and seminars at the Paris Summit last December, the only visible actors on agriculture were members of the “Climate Smart Agriculture” Aliance, led by the chemical fertilizer industry, who were very active pushing the agenda in the wrong direction. In the meanwhile, in the streets of Paris, social movements and small scale farmers organisations rallied with the slogan “we can feed and cool the planet”.

Three GRAIN staffers participated in the mobilisations around the COP21 in December. Initially, we thought it would be difficult to do anything in the streets due to the terrorist attacks that occurred just weeks before. But the global climate movement would not be stopped; the turnout in Paris was massive and GRAIN was a part of this. Our most important objective was to make the link between food and climate, and to agree on “post-Paris” strategies. Over two weeks we held training, seminars and discussions with many groups and movements, we organised the of our “Great climate robbery” book and distributed many other GRAIN materials on the topic, including:

– A poster explaining how the industrial food system is responsible for around half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and offering a five-step food sovereignty plan to get out of the climate crisis.
– A 15-minute animated video “Together we can cool the planet”, produced together with La Vía Campesina, in which farmers explain the problem and what they see as the solution. It was launched simultaneously in various cities around the world, including at the FAO´s World Food Day activities in Rome.
“The Exxons of agriculture” highlights the role of chemical fertilisers in causing climate change, and the fertilizer industry’s push for false solutions like “climate smart” agriculture.
“Trade deals boosting climate change” shows how free trade agreements will exacerbate emissions from food and agriculture.
– Together with the World Rainforest Movement, we produced a booklet showing how REDD+ projects harm not only forests people, but also farmers,
– Finally, our book “The Great Climate Robbery” was released just in time for the Paris mobilisations, and launched there with participation of social movements and farmers organisations present.

The governmental ‘Paris agreement’ did not bring us much closer to any solution to the climate crisis, but the popular movements in the street articulated convincingly for system change. This includes the need of a total re-haul of the global food system.

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