What has the climate got to do with soil cultivation of the land and the food we eat every day? Let’s start to answer the question with a few figures. On a world scale, agriculture and livestock are the major users of fresh water, consuming 70% of available resources, and nitrogen-based fertilizers account for 38% of agrifood emissions. Increasingly large factory farms produce huge quantities of dung, thus creating problems of pollution and disposal, and animal feed, which may come from intensive monocultures often hundreds or thousands of miles way, is one of the culprits of deforestation. As a consequence, animal husbandry is responsible for 14% of greenhouse gases.
Yet in the world climate debate, to be resumed at the Paris summit, where all world governments will gather to attempt an agreement after more than 20 years of failed talks and mediations and forums, agriculture is relegated to the sidelines. In the 54-page draft agreement for the Paris negotiations, the words ‘agriculture,’ ‘biodiversity’ and ‘cultivation’ never appear once, the focus being reserved to the sectors of energy, heavy industry and transport. The document does mention soil and food safety, but it fails to recognize the central role of the climate-soil cultivation-food nexus explicitly.
Food is actually one of the main causes and prime victims of climate change. Increasingly frequent droughts, floods and high temperatures affect all foodstuffs, be they vegetable or animal. A 1°C increase in the average temperature is equivalent to the shifting of crops 150 kilometers further north and 150 meters higher. Biodiversity is being eroded at an unprecedented rate. According to FAO, over the last 70 years we have lost three quarters of the agrobiodiversity selected by farmers in the previous 10,000.
Every day millions of people lose land, water sources and food, and thus risk becoming veritable climate refugees. According to a World Bank report, the consequences of climate change could plunge more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030, members of communities that live in the most disadvantaged regions of the planet. So social justice is at stake, too.
The balance between humankind and nature was upset when we began to run farms like factories. Without seasons and without patience, industry is allergic to the rhythms of nature. It has to produce a lot, always, as quickly, as efficiently and as cheaply as possible.
Factory farming sprang up after World War II to reconvert the munitions industry. Ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient of explosives, was also an excellent raw material for the production of fertilizers to supplement mineral phosphates, introduced into agriculture 150 years ago (before that soils had been enriched by the rotation of leguminous crops, such as beans, fava beans and peas, and animal manure). From that moment on, we began to buy first chemical fertilizers, then pesticides, weed killers and fuel to power the mechanization of virtually every stage in the agricultural supply chain—all by-products of oil. We have increasingly pinned our faith on monocultures and mass products to the detriment of the soil, water, forests and oceans, seen as being tantamount to raw materials for consumption.
This model’s impact on the environment affects not only the production but also the transport and distribution of food. Now that we are accustomed to having any foodstuff at our disposal in any season of the year, food travels thousands of miles, crossing oceans and consuming huge quantities of fossil fuel. This model is based on an idea of growth ad infinitum that takes no heed of environmental protection: our plant’s resources, however, are finite.
Not that producing more and more, faster and faster has solved the problem of hunger. On the contrary, the most glaring paradox of this insane system is that, on the one hand, more food than we actually need is produced in the world (enough to feed 12.5 billion people as opposed to the present 7 billion) but, on the other, 800 million people continue to go hungry. The flip side of this hyperproductivist system is waste. Every year we throw away about 1.3 billion tons of food, a third of the total produced. Waste occurs all along the supply chain, beginning in fields and livestock farms, continuing through processing and sales, and ultimately ending up in our kitchens. In Europe alone, about 120 mega-tons of CO2 can be attributed to food waste, the equivalent of the total emissions recorded in Romania, say, or in the Netherlands in 2008. Food produced but unconsumed exploits about 3.5 billion acres of farmland, almost 30% of the world total.
To address the problem of global warming concretely, it will be necessary to make a cultural, social and economic paradigm shift, promoting agriculture based on agro-ecological practices and a different system of producing, distributing and accessing food.
Civil society has been committed to these questions for years, and producer, consumer and environmental associations from all over the world are mobilizing for the Paris conference.
We at Slow Food would like to ask the representatives of countries and international institutions meeting in Paris to put agriculture at the center of the debate. This is why we have circulated our “Let’s Not Eat Up Our Planet! Fight Climate Change” manifesto, which has already been endorsed by hundreds of organizations and associations, and which you too can sign.