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The F Word
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
Obviously I’m talking about food here. Fossil fuels too. So perhaps on second thought, I should have titled this issue “The F Words”. Never mind. I feel it’s more striking to use the singular. Also, I think you get my drift.
Over the past week, as Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities unfolded before our eyes and the horrific images of people fleeing and taking shelter filled our screen, stories of what this military aggression could do to our food supplies proliferated.
As I reported for The New Humanitarian last week, the impact could be long-lasting and felt across continents, but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, a region already struggling with hunger and malnutrition. That doesn’t mean other parts of the world won’t feel the heat - our current food systems are so reliant on global supply chains that it’s inevitable and many of us will be affected.
Some countries, including Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, have already announced temporary bans on food exports, fearing shortages. Others worry about what higher prices of basic food staples, like pasta, would do to poor households, who already spend a large proportion of their income on food. This issue is at least cut and dried - governments need to do whatever they can to blunt the impacts for the most vulnerable among us.
What is less clear is when the decision involves two seemingly impossible choices - feed the people or save the planet. Can we do one without the other? Sure, we can choose to feed the people but if the planet becomes uninhabitable, we’d be kaput too, right? Then again, what if we manage to save the planet but there’s no one to live in it anymore because we’ve all died of hunger?
Yes, I’m giving you extreme scenarios, but that’s because there seems to be increasingly frenzied warnings coming out of some quarters of food shortages in the near future in… Europe! You read that right.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine over two weeks ago, “Big Ag” lobbies have been hard at work trying to water down Farm-to-Fork (F2F) Strategy, the European Union’s first attempt to green its food systems in a variety of ways including encouraging local food production, reducing use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and setting aside some land for “non-productive uses” to support biodiversity and protect nature.
Big farming groups, who never liked F2F but couldn’t derail it last year, are now saying the implementation of some aspects must be scrapped or delayed. Words like ‘food sovereignty’, ‘the risk of protein shortage’ and ‘empty plates in Europe’ are being bandied about.
But guess what? Europe is largely self-sufficient! Don’t just take my word for it - look at this index from The Economist. This doesn’t mean Europeans don’t need help. Or that Europe can live in a little green bubble of its own and not be affected by emissions elsewhere. Or that it is always advisable or feasible to grow everything locally - for example, if you’re burning fossil fuels to run a greenhouse to grow unseasonal produce.
It’s just that the arguments being advanced to push aside environmental considerations are a bit… thin. Lighthouse Reports did an informative thread and explained why this lobbying could actually harm longer-term food security.
Yesterday (Mar 10), representatives from 90 non-governmental organisations released a letter asking the EU “to not derail” these strategies.
“Watering down the Farm to Fork strategy and its policies will maintain Europe’s dependence on non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels, and will go against what is needed right now to secure food for all,” they said.
“Ploughing more farmland, as is currently being put forward, to grow crops for biofuels and intensive animal farming by using even more synthetic pesticides and fertilisers would be absurd and dangerously increase ecosystem collapses, the most severe threat to social-ecological stability and food security.”
BirdLife Europe, a signatory to the letter, was scathing of the lobbying in a blog and suggested turning millions of hectares of cereal crops currently being converted into biofuels should go towards people instead of cars.
There are big meetings coming up - including a virtual meeting of G7 agri ministers today and a meeting of 27 EU Ministers on Mar 21 to discuss this issue. The French minister seems to have the ear of the lobby, according to BirdLife Europe, and even the German minister, who has been advocating for sticking to the green goals, may be giving in. Sigh.
Interestingly, this debate is coming days after the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a doorstopper of a “summary” (3,675 pages) saying we need to act urgently so as not to miss “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.
And yet, here we are, with policy makers and interest groups saying we should shelve green agriculture ambitions for now.
So many stories have been written about the IPCC report, although it didn’t get the attention it deserved because of Russia’s war in Ukraine and I’m still working my way through it, but here are two of the best write-ups I’ve seen on the report.
The team behind Carbon Brief has a detailed Q&A on the key findings. It’s a hefty piece but hey, they were trying to summarise a tome of 3,000+ pages.
This piece in Time looked specifically at what the report said about climate impacts on our food systems and has links to good original source materials like factsheets.
There are also good pieces linking what’s happening to Ukraine and the IPCC report’s dire warnings of what’s happening to our planet. Here we come to the other ‘F’ word - Fossil Fuels.
This Rolling Stone piece from Jeff Goodell calls Putin a “Fossil-Fuel Gangster” and “carbon mafia” and wrote the war has opened “a new front in the climate fight”.
“When the Russian army rolled into Ukraine, climate science and geopolitics fused. As Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovka put it in remarks during an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forum held (coincidentally) as Russian soldiers marched over the border: “Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots: fossil fuels.”
This Q&A between François Gemenne, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, and Carnegie Europe’s visiting scholar Olivia Lazard is thought-provoking and eye-opening and you can watch the whole conversation too.
“We must realize that the question of full independence or sovereignty is a myth, even in the era of renewable energy. Rather, the question is: who do we want to depend on?”
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 email@example.com.