Feeding ourselves in a changing climate: from food security to food sovereignty

Not too long ago, a friend and a fellow activist asked me what I think is the most critical issue facing the world. I answered that although our most immediate crisis is the effect climate change is having on the melting of the Arctic sea ice, the industrial food system will be our silent killer. 

As an environmental researcher, writer, and campaigner, I have often lamented that the energy crisis gets more airtime than the food crisis. So I welcome the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th Assessment report  for shining a light on the threat the changing climate poses to our ability to feed ourselves. 

Charting the decreases in the yields of staple foods (e.g. wheat, maize, fish) already being experienced in the current climate and noting the vulnerability of our food system to climate hazards (e.g. heat waves, floods), the report argues that food yields will continue to fall (accompanied by price increases) and in the next 5-10 years the world will see wars break out over food shortages. This may sound alarmist but the riots and starvation in Asia and Africa that followed the 2008 food price shocks suggest that the panel is not scaremongering. 

Framing the issue as ‘food security’, the report’s message is that our production methods need to urgently change. The key reason given is the impact of climate trends on future yields. An equally important reason, not discussed by the report, is that current industrial production methods are, perversely, contributing to climate change and decreasing our mitigation and adaptation capacities. For example, in the UK, large scale maize production and misplaced government policy on soil conservation worsened our ability to cope with the winter 2013/14 floods. Organisations such as the International Institute for Environment and Development suggest that the famine and destitution experienced in recent times in the Horn of Africa is attributable to the disruptive impact the modern industrial system has had on age old farming systems’ capacity to adapt to cycles of drought. 

Thankfully, the IPCC report supports ecological production methods, both older wisdom and newer innovations, acknowledges that indigenous knowledge around the world has developed to cope with climate hazards and promotes methods such as minimum tillage, agroforestry, and so on. There are many success stories that lend weight to the IPCC’s assessment. For example, previously barren land in Western Australia and other dryland countries is now productive due to the no-till method. In India, small scale farmers are implementing an innovative ecological method called System of Rice Intensification which uses significantly less water and favours manure over artificial fertilisers. Farmers’ fortunes have dramatically improved and India is set to have a record rice yield in 2013/2014. 

System of rice intensification being practiced in Cambodia (Photo credit: Oxfam GB)

Implementing ecological production methods, however, is only one part of the solution. In the cash crop and export driven industrial food system, power is concentrated with Big Agribusiness resulting in hunger, poverty, and increased vulnerability of indigenous communities. More than enough food is currently being produced per capita to feed the global population, yet, about 870 million people went hungry and were malnourished in 2012

Unfortunately, the IPCC report is more or less silent on the subject of control and access and does not consider the impact unequal distributions of power will have on our future ability to feed ourselves. Many may think questions of power are not within the remit of scientific reports but it is pointless debating how to create a food system that is productive in a changing climate without considering the relationship between power structures and ecological and social resilience.

This is where I turn to the growing food sovereignty movement, which argues that an ecological and just food system has six pillars. These are:

  • Food should only be produced using methods that work with nature.
  • Everyone has the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food.
  • Small scale farmers have the right to work and live in dignity.
  • Food systems should be localised. Food is sustenance first and a good to trade second.
  • Food systems should be controlled locally. Privatization and multinational corporation control of resources is rejected. 
  • Local knowledge and skills should be invested in.

In line with the IPCC report, industrial methods of production are rejected. Going beyond the report, industrial structures of access and control are also rejected and the localisation of food systems is advocated.  

As the movement rightly implies, only localisation will simultaneously deliver ecological and socially beneficial outcomes. Local food systems that grow according to ecological methods are biodiverse - biodiversity is the bedrock of ecological resilience. Managing biodiverse farms demands sophisticated knowledge and skills. Investment in knowledge increases farmers’ ability to respond nimbly to climate hazards creating virtuous cycles. 

In local systems, a network of self governed small scale or scale appropriate farms is favoured. Food is grown for sustenance first and for trade second. This does not mean that there is no room for trade. Rather, the rules of trade and structures of control are changed to ensure communities do not go hungry. Farmers not agribusiness decide what is grown and traded and consequently are able to feed themselves, their families, and their communities. Crops are mainly imported during ‘hungry gaps’, that is, when there is a harvest shortfall. Localisation, thus, involves a regional, national, and potentially global network of many localised, small scale, ecological, and democratic food systems mutually supporting each other. Far from being reactionary and protectionist, localisation, if based on food sovereignty principles, is enlightened agriculture.

It is easy to conclude from the IPCC report, media reports, and government policy that climate change mitigation and adaptation is mainly a question of developing different production technologies. Unfortunately, when questions of access and control are omitted from the ‘food security’ debate, the crisis is exacerbated not alleviated. Under the guise of eradicating hunger, the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, for example, is facilitating the corporate takeover of Africa and will, over time, push more farmers into hunger and poverty. 

The IPCC report points in the right direction but we need to go one step further and recognise that the only food system that will feed the entire world and be resilient in a changing climate is one that is based on the principles of food sovereignty. 

Twitter: @jyotsna_ram 

A longer version of this blog first appeared on www.agreenerlifeagreenerworld

Get SCCS updates