Discussions of climate change keep running head-long into a barrier: China, India, Brazil and the other countries of the global South need to develop.
No leader of an underdeveloped country will ever agree to a climate change proposal that will take away that country’s right to develop. This isn’t so odd. Try explaining to the Chinese government that because the United States and Western Europe flooded the atmosphere with CO2 by burning readily accessible cheap fossil fuel for 150 years, their citizens will have to live without a decent standard of living, while we imperiously assert that we won’t divert more than a smidgen of our government budget to clean energy development and will keep occupying the country’s freeways and streets with gas-guzzlers. It won’t work.
Meanwhile, first-world leaders, mired in economic crisis, can’t make the long-run infrastructural investments that would enable them to take the technological lead in a low-carbon transformation — let alone make the technology transfers or capital grants that are a moral and political imperative.
But there’s a partial way out of the crisis, or what the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has christened the “triple crunch,” the intertwined crisis of climate crisis, systemic economic malaise, and oil depletion.
The NEF argues that we need a new Green New Deal, culminating in a “great transition” to a new way of structuring production and consumption so as to re-create an ecology in homeostasis — a sustainable economy, one that doesn’t draw down impossible-to-renew natural resources. Food and agriculture will be central to such a transition:
"With peak oil imminent and climate change already upon us, the Great Transition will involve a major shift away from the energy-intensive production processes involved in getting food on to our plates," NEF writes.
This means re-localizing food systems in industrialized, developed countries, and strengthening subsistence sectors in developing countries. This won’t condemn them to low-tech, labor-intensive, under-developed purgatory. Indeed, it can represent a convergence of living standards between the first and third world. The NEF advocates for people in industrialized countries to spend more time in agricultural activities, pointing out that new urban planning patterns and less time spent working will free up time for other things: “People will have more time to grow their own food with the reduced working week and less time spent traveling to and from work.”
Most think tanks, NGOs, and governmental organization are not quite where the NEF is. At least not yet. But they are increasingly recognizing the centrality of agriculture to the “triple crunch” and incorporating it in sensible ways into their development reports.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2009/2010 Trade and Environment Review is the latest evidence of this trend, with its focus on “the crucial nexus between trade, development and climate change.”
One focus of the report is a transition to a different sort of food production system. As Urs Niggli, a Swedish researcher, writes, the climate crisis is the “ideal platform for fostering a shift towards more sustainable agricultural production.” The focus would be on local cycling of nutrients, and pest-control methods mimicking natural ones.
Furthermore, these agricultural systems would use native seeds and would be bio-diverse—in juxtaposition to pest-prone monocultures. Bio-diverse organic farms are more resilient than farms filled with fields planted with single crops, which are vulnerable to precisely the sort of pest and pathogen outbreaks that will proliferate as the world’s climate warms.
Such a system would also employ traditional knowledge-based-systems of crop growing. In the case of corn, for example, the traditional knowledge maintained by indigenous cultivators—now under “serious threat” from NAFTA, according to Alejandro Nadal, an economist at the Colegio de México, as it forces Mexican traditional corn producers to compete with subsidized American monocultures, which rely extensively on fossil-fuel based inputs. This corn, is, then, doubly subsidized, because the conglomerates that grow it don’t pay the costs of the carbon their production methods dump into the atmosphere, either.
As Nadal adds, traditional knowledge-based agriculture creates a biological vault that future generations may draw on, so long as those creating the current and future institutional architecture carefully protect that vault:
"Mexican corn’s genetic variability will have an important role to play in improving production, and combinations of Mexican corn germplasm with that of other racial complexes in South America and Africa may provide an unusual asset in meeting growing food needs."
And although the UNCTAD’s report is welcome for its focus on agriculture, its solutions veer far too far in a direction that could lead away from the biological outcomes towards which it claims to be striving.
This is because part of the UNCTAD’s framework revolves around the Doha axis, and its axiom that “All countries, developed and developing alike, have a common interest in food security, removing impediments to trade…Trade will become increasingly important for food security, as prices will fall when food can flow freely across borders.”
Other proponents of agro-ecology see things differently. They orient their efforts toward a horizon of food sovereignty, defined as:
“The right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food.”
And they see the Doha negotiations as incipient disaster, well aware of what trade liberalization through NAFTA has done to Mexico’s agricultural sector, and more generally to the agricultural economies of Africa, for example, which used to export food and now due to trade liberalization, is a net food importer. The focus on organic agriculture is a good first step.
But trade, for many, isn’t and hasn’t been the answer. Food sovereignty is.