Eating Away the Climate

Posted on 29 November 2011 by admin

By Stephen Leahy

Something like 50 steps are involved in making a bottle of tomato sauce. Credit: Nalisha Kalideen/IPS

Food production is one of the planet’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions producing global warming and will be the primary victim with yields falling as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift.

Those realities are not uppermost in the minds of most governments attending the international climate treaty meetings in Durban, South Africa this week according to the authors of new book addressing the challenges of climate, food, water and poverty.

“I’m astonished by how unaware policy makers are about the size of the carbon and ecological footprint of industrial agriculture,” said Michel Pimbert, a leading food and agriculture researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Pimbert co-authors a new book called “Virtuous Circles” published last week in London. (Available as a free e-book)

“We’re inviting disaster with the current food production system,” Pimbert told IPS.

Some 193 nations are in Durban for COP 17 – negotiations for a new climate change treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Industrialised food production wastes huge amounts of energy, water and other resources said Pimbert. Something like 50 steps are involved in making something as simple as a bottle of tomato sauce.

“The various bits that go into (tomato sauce) move huge distances. It makes no sense at all but agribusiness still makes money because they’ve rigged the system to work for them.”

Growing concerns about high food prices and rising numbers of hungry – more than one billion currently – has resulted in a number of high-profile “talking shops” – conferences and symposiums in the last two years said Pimbert. However, the small landholders or women who feed their families with small gardens that account for 85 percent of the world’s farms are rarely invited and their voices go unheard.

“A farmer in Mali told me that the leaders and experts in his own country are disdainful of village life and traditional knowledge. He said they have contempt for local farmers,” Pimbert said.

At big international conferences it is almost always elites talking to each other far removed from reality. Since these experts and professionals represent the status quo, they resist fundamental changes, he said.

“We need to hear other voices, the voices of local people.”

Without a major overhaul of the global food production system the multiple challenges humanity faces – climate change, food security, water shortages, loss of ecosystems and poverty – can never be addressed. That overhaul means a shift to locally-based productions systems that mimic natural cycles to produce food, energy, materials and clean water, writes Pimbert.

Natural systems are based on cycles like the water cycle. There is no “waste” in nature – waste is simply food for another species or converted into something that supports the cycle.

“Circular economy models that reintegrate food and energy production with water and waste management can also generate jobs and income in rural and urban areas,” said Pimbert. “This ensures that wealth created stays within the local and regional economy.”

“Virtuous Circles” arose out of a collaborative research effort with small landholders in Africa, China, Latin America and the Caribbean. The intent the book is to offer a vivid picture of a future that “spirals out” of the current ongoing crisis though sustainable and fair systems that provide food, energy, fibre housing and water, he said.

One example is a system that recycles food waste and chicken manure to feed a worm farm. The worms in turn feed the chickens and farmed fish whose bones are used as fertiliser in a market garden. Human waste via a compost toilet also enriches the garden, whose crops – together with the farmed fish and meat and eggs from the chickens – feed the people.

Havana, Cuba has a wide range of urban, ecological-based forms of agriculture that provides the city of two million people with half of its vegetables. Close to 70,000 hectares in and around the city are cultivated greatly reducing energy use for transport, storage and packaging. It is also a significant source of employment, helps reduce air pollution and improves the quality of life for residents the authors write.

Most sustainable food, water, energy and waste systems have been implemented in isolation. However, greater synergy can be obtained when ecological agriculture, renewable energy systems and sustainable water and waste management systems are all integrated. “This can contribute to food, water and energy security and also to financial security and poverty reduction through localised supply chains and fair trade initiatives,” the authors write.

This is not about going back in time. It is in fact a new, sophisticated approach that integrates traditional knowledge with the latest science. The purpose is to design climate- and planet-friendly systems that provide a better life for people, Pimbert said.

During the two weeks of climate talks in Durban there will be lots of talk about energy, food and water but only in a fragmented way. About 40 to 50 percent of greenhouse gases come from the food and agriculture system especially from industrial he said. Most studies only look at emissions from growing food but fail to include land use changes and deforestation, as well as emissions from food transport and processing. Addressing the food and agriculture carbon footprint can only be done by seeing food production, carbon emissions, water use, and livelihoods as an integrated system.

Existing policies have created the multiple crisis humanity faces largely because they are grounded on false assumptions that there are limitless sources of cheap energy and resources and endless capacity to dump wastes.

Among the needed changes the book recommends is an end to current policies encouraging the “mining of soils” to maximise yields and switch to those favouring the management of nutrient cycles.

Seed patent and intellectual property laws need reform to allow farmers to save seeds and have access to genetic resources. Global uniform standards for food safety that have all but eliminated small and local food processing need to shift to local standards for health and safety. Policies and practices in financial investment that favour land grabs need to change to policies that support local control and use over land.

“We can’t significantly reduce carbon emissions without addressing our food production systems in an integrated way,” Pimbert concluded. (END)


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