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Leslie Hatfield Headshot

Who's at the Table, Talking Food and Climate?

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Last week, when a few news organizations ran away with the (non)-story of a "Danish text" supposedly leaked last week in Copenhagen that gave excess leniency to rich nations and too little support to poor ones, it was met with anguish by many, but not so much with surprise.

Events at the Copenhagen Summit have been even less open to participation and even observation than at previous climate talks. The city has, according to firsthand accounts, fallen under martial law, and many of those who would never have been allowed to voice their concerns within the walls of the Bella Center have also been barred from voicing them on the streets.

Yet inside, there is cause for hope, however small. In previous climate talks, key causes of climate change like industrial agriculture were largely ignored. Even Al Gore has only recently given agriculture any notice, most recently using Sir Paul McCartney to carry his message (that reducing meat consumption is key to mitigating climate change) to the European Parliament.

However, climate change and hunger disproportionately affect poor communities and people of color. So while it's exciting to see agriculture on the agenda at Copenhagen, if these conversations are only had by fat cats (or friends of fat cats) with vested interests in maintaining the status quo or worse yet, benefiting from highly questionable "solutions," not only do we abuse the rights of those hardest hit by climate change, we put their lives on the line. In the end, we all suffer.

Case in point: Monsanto and other industrial food producers, as usual, are seizing the opportunity of a world that is by and large, deeply worried about feeding itself and maintaining a livable climate, to promote opening up new markets in the Global South to American-style industrial agriculture. Of course, their implied motivation is humanitarian aid, but a lot of people aren't buying what they're selling -- for their efforts, Monsanto was recently awarded the Angry Mermaid Award.

This is problematic on many levels. Most of the technologies they've proposed do not as yet exist. Those that do have not been adequately tested and, I would argue, are unlikely to work in complex ecosystems and areas where weather is changing rapidly. Another obvious problem is that theire entire industrial agriculture system also rests atop our rapidly shrinking pool of petroleum. Not the most sustainable idea.

Unlike Americans, Europeans have been highly skeptical of genetically modified crop technology, opting to exercise the precautionary principle. The same is true in many parts of Africa and perhaps most notably, the 400 expert contributors to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. This comprehensive look at the effects of decades of industrial agriculture, issued last year, recommended that developing countries employ local and regionally-developed sustainable strategies to grow food, not high-impact, high-input yield-centered approaches championed by Monsanto and its ilk.

Sustainable food advocates and others who would see GMO technology at least slowed down and tested thoroughly have been lambasted in the past (subtly by Bill Gates, in October, and not-so-subtedly by Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe in November) for holding up progress -- i.e., the exportation of Big-Ag technology to the Global South. But when you look at who sits at the table during policy negotiations and who is relegated to side events and protests, it's highly unlikely that sustainable food advocates have the influence implied by Gates' and Brabeck-Letmathe's criciticisms.

Heck, even the IAASTD report, which has scientific credibility to spare, has been all but ignored by industry and world leaders alike.

Last Saturday, back in the States, an organization called Just Food joined forces with the Manhattan Borough President's office to put on the Big Apple's answer to Copenhagen, the New York City Food & Climate Summit. At a session on structural racism in the food system, local advocates for the city's disenfranchised spoke to 1) the dirty secrets of NYC's food system, like the terrible air quality and high asthma rates in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, through which nearly every morsel of food that enters the city passes in diesel-powered trucks and 2) rising rates of obesity and diabetes resulting from lack of access to healthy food in low-income communities. Together advocates and attendees brainstormed solutions to those problems.

If this seems unrelated to the previous paragraphs on climate and GMO crops, bear in mind that obesity and hunger are flip sides of the same coin -- malnutrition -- and that both of these maladies spring from domestic and international policies that, one could easily argue, are mere echoes of archaic and racist policies (think slavery) and, at the very least, that are inarguably stacked in the favor of multinational corporations.

While the inclination, when faced with radically high rates of obesitiy and diabetes, may be to educate, there remain questions of time and money and access, not only to good food, but to decent kitchens. One NYC panelist pointed out that locally grown, sustainably produced and most importantly, healthful food, painted by industry as "precious" and "elitist," is neither, when one compares the proportion of income the average American spends on food (less than 10%) to what we used to spend (around 20%) just 50 years ago. All at once, questions about livable wages, access to adequate housing and tax policies become part of the food and climate debate.

Last week, I was in Washington, DC, at a gathering hosted by the WK Kellogg Foundation, which has quietly been working on racial equity for decades in concert with its work on food and fitness. Kellogg brings people of color to the proverbial table to discuss issues that affect their communities, instead of prancing into said communities to teach people how to eat more healthfully. Last spring, when WKKF announced an official stance against racism, I was excited -- I thought it upped the ante for other groups working on food issues, but perhaps what needs to happen -- sooner rather than later -- is for this pressure to extend to our world leaders.

And I would argue that people in Africa have no more need to be taught how to farm than people in Harlem no more need to be taught what to eat. On the contrary, people all over the world need to have a fair shake -- access to local markets to sell and buy, jobs that pay a livable wage and don't devastate them physically and most of all, to be relieved of the endless burden of paying for past mistakes they didn't make.

It's time for local and global leaders alike to make some pragmatic decisions that benefit real people, protect them from further disasters that they did not cause, put real money into real pockets and real food into real mouths. In the end, this is the only way out of this mess. Otherwise, we're cooked.

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