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Sovereignty, But For Whom?
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
It’s been a very hectic week - a combination of work commitments and travels (I’m in London to catch up with close friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, including those who are unwittingly exiled from home like myself) - so this will have to be super short.
Also, apologies if you’re wanting a different topic from what’s happening in Ukraine because we’re going to be talking about it again this week. This is for two main reasons.
1. Ukraine is known as the ‘bread basket’ of Europe. So anything that affects their ability to produce food and export to countries near and far (not just within Europe) is likely to reverberate around the world.
2. The response by some agricultural lobbies and political actors to this tragedy has been symptomatic of how our food systems are broken and need urgent repair. I spoke about this in last week’s issue, particularly about the efforts to water down policies that are supposed to make European farming greener.
The lobbying is happening under the pretext of achieving “food sovereignty”, a concept that was first championed by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina in 1996 and is rooted in local and regional food production through sustainable practices.
However, the big agri lobbies are pushing for the continuation of intensive agriculture, despite well-documented evidence that the way we produce, process, transport, consume and discard food is a leading cause of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change.
Anyway, here are some interesting reports and papers on this continuing fight.
The FAO Information Note
Last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the technical agency that works with agricultural ministries around the world, published a 41-page “Information Note” on the importance of Ukraine and Russia for global agricultural markets and the possible impacts of the latter’s invasion of the former (although they did not call it that).
The comprehensive analysis includes market shares, trade profiles, and risks associated with trade, prices, logistics, production, energy and humanitarian issues. It also has some eye-popping charts and stats on just how crucial these two countries are when it comes to the supply of certain food items, especially to developing nations.
The impact will be felt mostly by poor households, regardless of whether they’re in a developed or developing nation but the global numbers of people going hungry will rise, the note said.
“Under the moderate shock scenario, the number of undernourished people would increase by 7.6 million people, while this level would rise to 13.1 million people under the more severe shock setting.”
“From a regional perspective and with respect to the projected baseline levels in 2022, the most pronounced increase in the number of people undernourished would take place in the Asia-Pacific region (up 4.2 to 6.4 million), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (up 2.6 to 5.1 million) and the Near East and North Africa (up 0.4 to 0.96 million).”
In terms of energy, EU imports 46% of coal, 25% of oil and 31% of gas from Russia but this isn’t just about heating our homes. Agriculture also absorbs “high amounts of energy either directly through fuel, gas and electricity use or, indirectly, using agri-chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and lubricant,” the analysis added.
Less animal products, less waste, and more legumes
Which brings us to the intense lobbying going in the power corridors of Brussels and the responses to it.
I received a statement this morning signed by 190 experts - so far - from around the world urging agricultural policy-makers, including the EU ministers who are meeting on Monday, to “not abandon sustainable farming practices just to increase grain production”.
“Contrary to what ongoing discussions might imply, European food security is not under threat from the Ukraine crisis. Rather, Europe is threatened by a long-standing crisis of unhealthy diets with consumption of refined grains and animal products markedly above the recommendations of national dietary guidelines and those for healthy and sustainable diets.”
The experts, hailing mostly from Europe but also including those from the U.S., India, Taiwan and Australia, suggest three levers to cope with short-term shocks to the food system from the Ukraine crisis.
Shift to healthier diets by eating less animal products in Europe and other high-income countries, which will in turn reduce the amount of grains needed for animal feed.
Produce more legumes and further green EU agricultural policies, also to reduce the dependency on nitrogen fertilizers or natural gas from Russia.
Slash food waste. Apparently, the amount of wheat wasted in the EU alone is roughly equivalent to half the amount of Ukraine’s wheat exports.
This old-ish blog from Paris-based research institute IDDRI also suggested that what is needed in the short-term is support for countries and sectors most dependent on these two countries, not increased production.
It took issue with calls to turn areas set aside for biodiversity into farmland. But the potential yields from these areas are low as they are on marginal lands, the authors said.
They added that yields in Europe have been stagnating for many years, and “it is not environmental regulations that are limiting yields, but rather climate shocks, loss of pollinators, and soil degradation.”
So cultivating more, by using more fertilisers and water, will destroy ecosystems and not necessarily improve productivity, they said.
And yesterday, Brussels-based lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) published a report about how the pesticide industry is lobbying to derail binding targets to reduce its use. Plans on achieving these targets are supposed to be announced next week. It’s a fascinating, if horrifying, read.
“Global food insecurity is not caused by a shortage of food supply. It is caused by unequal distribution. There is more than enough food to feed the world, also now during this war. However, grains are fed to animals, used as biofuels, or wasted rather than filling the stomachs of hungry people.”
- Sabine Gabrysch, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and one of the co-authors of the statement by 190 experts
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.