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We Can’t Change the Climate, But We Can Change the System

December 2009

Last Saturday, along with nearly 1,000 others I attended New York Citys Food and Climate Summit at New York University. Our colleagues from Just Food, World Hunger Year, Small Planet Institute and others hosted this summit with the goal of creating a food and climate policy platform for the city.

New York receives 1.5 million people everyday for work and tourism. Currently the city relies on tons of processed food delivered by hundreds of trucks carrying frozen, pre-cooked and canned food to fast food chains and restaurants in order to feed visitors and residents every day.

How will New York City will be able to improve its oil-dependent food system? This was the main challenge presented at the summit. Building a new food system is a huge task, but as the oil reserves dry up people in NYC and elsewhere need to start developing new options. Even if petroleum were to keep flowing for the next 25 years, can humanity and the Earth afford the escalation of climate change?

New York City is an example of the complex task we have ahead of us. The rebuilding of local food economies here in the United States will require a new policy mind set. Let me start by mentioning the issues of infra-structure and food access. The way the food system was set up in New York City required the construction of highways through many low-income neighborhoods to deliver food across its five boroughs. Separated by highways and with limited access to other areas, many of these neighborhoods have become food deserts with residents forced to either rely on pricey and under-stocked corner stores or to take taxis long distances to larger cheaper super markets.

What I heard in both plenary and workshops at the NYC Food and Climate Summit resonates a lot with the discussions taking place at the KlimaForum09, the Peoples Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Participants at the  KlimaForum09, including many of Grassroots Internationals partner organizations such as Via Campesina International, point out that the only way to solve this situation is to change the system by replacing the predominant set of values (greed, consumption, waste, etc) that brought us to this critical moment with new priorities (sustainability, local wisdom, food justice and energy sovereignty).

As Karen Washington, a local activist and panelist at the NYC summit pointed out, we in wealthy nations need to roll up our sleeves and contribute some sweat equity to solve this problem. The power is in our hands. As a matter of a fact, it never left, she said.

Karen’s determination is shared by others in this global movement for climate justice. People like Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, have long insisted that urgent action is necessary. In a recent interview, he was asked if President Obama should be given more time to make a final decision about the climate. He responded saying: We just don’t have time to wait any longer.   We really don’t have any time to waste. If you dont know where to start, here is a list of tasks from the final declaration of KlimaForum09 (with my comments on each):

Food sovereignty and ecological agriculture: Defend access to healthy foods as a basic human right. Grassroots International and allies in the United States and abroad have stressed in the final declaration of the 2007 Food Sovereignty Conference in Mali that we have to stop the commoditization of food. Food should not be reduced to a commodity but rather be seen as a basic human right. Here in the United States, we need to support community gardens and small scale farmers that grow our food, and we should seek to reduce dependence on food being produced in other countries which require lots of energy to transport.

Democratic ownership and control of the economy: The growing privatization of resources has led to an increased concentration of land and water ownership in few hands, and the control over the means of food production is also highly concentrated. As our friends of Via Campesina and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) affirm, land and water should be controlled by those who work the land, not outside investors who have little connection to the land and local farming communities.

Energy sovereignty: Our future depends on our capacity to reduce energy consumption and waste and still guarantee the rights of communities that produce our energy but are prevented from enjoying its benefits.We have denounced here on our Grassroots Internationals blog that farmers in Brazil and Guatemala are being displaced by large agro-fuels plantations and those who stay receive little benefit from the energy produced.

Ecological planning of urban and rural zones: Our cities will have to curb energy spending through public transportation and more energy efficient housing. Instead of transforming abandoned lots into parking spaces, those areas should be used to grow food.The need to increase access to food to all families can help to create new jobs in food-based local economies and improve the healthy of communities.  

An end to militarism and wars: The global economy of war has to come to an end which would free funds and other resources to guarantee the human right to food, among others human rights for all.  

The main directive expressed in title of the final peoples declaration from the KlimaForum09 is clear:   “It is time to change the system, not the climate.”

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