Food sovereignty: 5 steps to cool the planet and feed its people
1. Take care of the soil
The food/climate equation is rooted in the earth. The expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices over the past century has led to the destruction of between 30-75% of the organic matter on arable lands, and 50% of the organic matter on pastures and prairies. This massive loss of organic matter is responsible for between 25% and 40% of the current excess CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. But the good news is that this CO2 that we have sent into the atmosphere can be put back into the soil, simply by restoring the practices that small farmers have been engaging in for generations. If the right policies and incentives were in place worldwide, soil organic matter contents could be restored to pre-industrial agriculture levels within a period of 50 years – which is roughly the same time frame that industrial agriculture took to reduce it. This would offset between 24-30% of all current global greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Natural farming, no chemicals
The use of chemicals on industrial farms is increasing all the time, as soils are further depleted and pests and weeds become immune to insecticides and herbicides. Small farmers around the world, however, still have the knowledge and the diversity of crops and animals to farm productively without the use of chemicals by diversifying cropping systems, integrating crop and animal production, and incorporating trees and wild vegetation. These practices enhance the productive potential of the land because they improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion. Every year more organic matter is built up in the soil, making it possible to produce more and more food.
3. Cut the food miles, and focus on fresh food
The corporate logic that results in the shipment of foods around the world and back again, makes no sense from an environmental perspective, or any other perspective for that matter. The global trade in food, from the opening of vast swaths of lands and forests to produce agricultural commodities to the frozen foods sold in supermarkets, is the chief culprit in the food system’s overweight contribution to GHG emissions. Much of the food system’s GHG emissions can be eliminated if food production is reoriented towards local markets and fresh foods, and away from cheap meat and processed foods. But achieving this is probably the toughest fight of all, as corporations and governments are deeply committed to expanding the trade in foods.
4. Give the land back to the farmers, and stop the mega plantations
Over the past 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares – the size of almost all the farmland in India – has been taken over by four crops grown predominantly on large plantations: soybeans, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. The global area under these and other industrial commodity crops, all of them notorious emitters of greenhouse gases, is set to further grow if policies don’t change. Today, small farmers are squeezed onto less than a quarter of the world’s farmlands, but they continue to produce most of the world’s food – 80% of the food in non-industrialised countries says the FAO. Small farmers produce this food far more efficiently than big plantations, and in ways that are better for the planet. A worldwide redistribution of lands to small farmers, combined with policies to help them rebuild soil fertility and policies to support local markers, can reduce GHG emissions by half within a few decades.
5. Forget the false solutions, focus on what works
There is growing recognition that food is central to climate change. The latest IPCC reports and international summits have recognised that food and agriculture are major drivers of GHG emissions and that climate change poses tremendous challenges to our capacity to feed a growing global population. Yet there has been zero political will to challenge the dominant model of industrial food production and distribution. Instead, governments and corporations are proposing a number of false solutions. There is the empty shell of Climate Smart Agriculture, which is essentially just a rebranding of the Green Revolution. There are new, risky technologies such as crops genetically engineered for drought resistance or large scale geo-engineering projects. There are mandates for biofuels, which are driving land grabs in the South. And there are carbon markets and REDD+ projects, that essentially allow the worst GHG offenders to avoid cuts in emissions by turning the forests and farmlands of peasants and indigenous peoples into conservation parks and plantations. None of these “solutions” can work because they all work against the only effective solution: a shift from a globalised, industrial food system governed by corporations to local food systems in the hands of small farmers.