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Cooling the Earth with Food Sovereignty

December 2009


Agriculture proved to be a controversial topic in the U.S. House of Representatives negotiations on climate change policy this past summer, just as it will likely be a pivotal issue when the world’s leaders meet in Copenhagen this December to finish negotiating a global climate treaty. Grassroots International and our partners and allies are working hard to show that sustainable agriculture can play a big role in stopping climate change. As our ally Equal Exchange likes to say: Small Farmers, Big Change.   The Copenhagen conference—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) —caps a multi-year diplomatic process to craft a successor to the UN’s first climate treaty, signed in Kyoto in 1997. In contrast to the ineffectiveness of the Clinton Administration and the outright obstructionism of the Bush White House, President Obama has pledged to support substantive measures to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to channel investment so that we can successfully adapt to whatever degrees of global warming we can’t avoid.   In many ways, the diplomats’ success rests upon the degree to which they are able to resolve the urgent questions of equity and justice embedded in the climate crisis. The industrialized nations have for the last century treated our atmosphere as an open sewer. We are realizing the legacy of that era with rising global temperatures and sea levels and catastrophic changes in our normal weather systems. Chronic drought threatens food production in increasing swaths of the world, while the growing severity of rainfall causes crop destruction elsewhere. Poorer people are not only the most vulnerable to climate impacts, but they’ve also contributed least to the problem.   Developed nations represent less than one-fifth of the world’s population but have emitted three-quarters of all historical carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Now the industrialized powers want every country to curtail fossil fuel use, with the consequence that developing nations that lack the capital to tap sources of alternative energy will risk being literally left in the dark for another century.   Nicola Bullard of Focus on the Global South, a Grassroots ally and grantee based in Thailand and leading activist within the Climate Justice Now! network, sums up the situation succinctly: “At stake in the negotiations is the division among rich and poor of the Earth’s limited remaining atmospheric space as well as the technology and finance required to live well within it and adapt to the rising effects of climate change.”   Martin Khor of the South Centre, calculates the environmental debt owed to developing nations in his essay “Toward a Global Climate Deal.” Highlighting the need to cut carbon emissions in the global north so that the global south gets equal access to energy, he argues that the historic high carbon emitters owe a debt to the rest of the world’s population of $23 trillion, only slightly higher than the recent global bailout for financial markets. As Khor notes, “Though saving the banks may be important, saving the world from climate catastrophe is even more necessary.”   Without a global technology transfer capitalizing non-fossil fuel energy development, the less industrialized nations have little to gain by signing a rigorous replacement for Kyoto. Unfortunately, as Bullard notes, “Industrialized countries are more interested in protecting their trade ‘competitiveness’ and current standards of consumption than working for a global solution.”   As Grassroots partner Via Campesina has noted, “Carbon has become a new privatized commodity in the hands of speculators who use it as a new product in the non-real economy that has lead to the current economic crisis.” So-called “solutions” to the climate crisis offered by the industrial nations, such as increasing agrofuels and trading carbon permits, create problems for sustainable farming communities and do little to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The agrofuel investment boom has monopolized the use of land traditionally used for food by subsistence farmers, pushing them and farm workers into shantytowns where they can’t afford the steeply rising prices of food commodities.   According to our colleagues at the Center for Food Safety and Navdanya International, conversion of U.S. agricultural acreage to organic farming methods could mitigate almost one-third of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. “Small-scale farming not only improves food security but also combats climate change by attacking two principal sources of greenhouse gas emissions: food transportation over large distances and industrialized agriculture,” write Luis Hernández Navarro and Annette Aurélie Desmarais. Sustainable farms maintain more carbon in the soil than industrial agriculture does and, to the degree that widespread small farms are well integrated into local food economies, transportation of farm products can be dramatically reduced from the average 1,500 miles Americans’ food now travels.  

This article originally appeared in Insights (Vol. 23, #2, Fall 2009), a newsletter of Grassroots International.

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