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Thin Ink Turns 1!
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
Exactly one year ago today (Jan 21, 2021), I set up Thin Ink.
I started it because I’m passionate about food and realised, after over a decade writing about humanitarian issues, particularly food security and climate change, that the way we are currently producing and consuming food is not sustainable.
I was also embarking on a new chapter of my professional life - becoming a freelancer after nearly 13 years as a staff correspondent. I had no very clear idea of where the newsletter would take me, other than a desire to share interesting things I discover, stay informed and keep my writing chops intact.
Well, 10 days later, there was a coup back home, which upended my food/climate plans, at least for a few months.
During those days, when I was neck deep in covering the terrible developments in Myanmar and doom scrolling 24/7, writing Thin Ink kept me focused and reminded me that my country is not the only one facing what seems like insurmountable challenges. Widening the agony circle allowed me to see the bigger picture.
So I kept working on Thin Ink, and I’m glad I did because the last half a dozen or so issues has averaged around 1,000 views which is very cool for a nerdy little newsletter. So thank you so much for all your support throughout the year and sharing interesting links and stories with me. Do keep them coming!
Anyway, for this anniversary issue, I thought I’d do a quick run-down of three broad themes I’m watching out for in 2022 when it comes to the intersection of food systems and climate change.
The Debate over Food Systems Transformation
Last year, we had the first ever Food Systems Summit, bringing the term “food systems” into the mainstream. While the Summit and its outcomes were controversial, there is broad consensus over the need to tackle these systems in a holistic manner and not just tinkering at the edges, like focusing just on farming or nutrition or retail.
But debate continues on exactly how this is going to happen. Linked to that are questions about who gets to have a say and what kind of future food systems we want.
Some believe high tech innovations are necessary to grow more food intensively but sustainably to feed a growing population. Think gene editing to create crops that are resilient to changes in climate, sensor-strapped machines to ensure every square inch of land is farmed precisely, plant-based, cell-based & fermentation-based proteins, big data, artificial intelligence and blockchain to track behaviours and supply chains, etc.
Then there are those who want smaller-scale, localised, eco-friendly practices to become the norm and to dismantle the current hierarchy of food systems, where businesses that have devastated the environment are at the top and smallholder farmers who actually produce the food we eat are at the bottom. Think large-scale adoption of concepts such as agroecology, food sovereignty, etc.
The transatlantic food fight is an example. Here’s a great Politico Europe piece on the schism between the U.S. and EU over the latter’s Farm to Fork Policy, which aims to slash food-related emissions and includes targets reducing fertiliser and pesticide use, which the U.S. is concerned will reduce crop yields, push up food prices and threaten food security. c
Personally, I think we need pretty much everything on the table. In places where we cannot grow food otherwise, we will need CRISPR-aided seeds. When short supply chains are not sustainable or have high carbon footprint, we should consider imports.
At the same time, I am all in for ensuring farmers and workers in the food industry can make a decent living. I also don’t think a handful of companies should have outsize power over our dietary choices.
Rising Food Prices & Supply Chain Woes
The UN food agency FAO, which tracks monthly changes in commonly traded foods and commodities, said its index for 2021 was nearly 30% higher than for 2020. The agency’s senior economist dampened any hopes things would improve this year.
“While normally high prices are expected to give way to increased production, the high cost of inputs, ongoing global pandemic and ever more uncertain climatic conditions leave little room for optimism about a return to more stable market conditions even in 2022.”
Some of us may be fortunate enough not to feel the pinch too much but for millions of people around the world, this could mean the difference between going hungry vs having sufficient food. Already, we had about 1 in 10 people going hungry in 2020 as a result of climate, conflict and COVID-19.
We’re not yet at 2007-2008 global food price crisis levels which led to to a spike in hunger and civil unrest but World Food Program USA said because this present crisis is driven by both supply and demand issues, it could still be devastating.
But consumers’ loss is a gain for “the giant firms that source, store and ship foodstuffs on behalf of state buyers and multinational companies”, said this Economist piece (you’ll need to register). The four biggest firms are ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, known as the ABCDs, according to the article.
Unfortunately, the problems with getting foods from producers and manufacturers to consumers, one reason why food prices have risen, is likely to continue this year even if the pandemic eases, judging by what experts are saying. Supply chain problems in the UK and US are well documented but this is happening all over the world.
Reasons vary from pandemic and Brexit (in the UK’s case) to spiking energy prices and changes in immigration rules but there is one big reason for rising food prices - climate change.
Overlapping Issues of Climate, Politics, Food & Migration
Which brings us to the last issue. Experts always say climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ because it exacerbates existing tensions. We are seeing all these issues overlap in ways that could make bad situations worse. Just take three examples.
In Myanmar, floods and lower rainfall added to the suffering from the global pandemic and a military coup. They destroyed crops, reduced incomes and led to rising hunger. Then armed conflicts worsened. Many have left or fled.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover coincided with one of the worst droughts in decades, leaving 55% of Afghans experiencing high levels of food shortages. Nearly 700,000 people have been displaced this year, adding to the 3.5 million who have already fled their homes.
In Haiti, the assassination of the president, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and a tropical storm all occurred in the span of 45 days. Tens of thousands have fled the devastation, many to other parts within the country and some to the US.
Now contrary to popular belief, most migration that results from political crises, food shortages and weather disasters is within the same country. Ignore the scare stories about poor climate refugees storming American and European shores. Reality is many end up moving to another town instead of jumping on a boat to cross continents.
But that doesn’t mean the world should ignore what’s happening elsewhere and considering how feeding the world population causes about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, I really hope the next climate meet - COP27 in Egypt - addresses these overlapping issues.
What Do Others Think?
The World Resources Institute (WRI) also identified half a dozen issues to watch in 2022, which include -
Ensuring net zero commitments from governments and businesses are credible
Whether climate justice will take root and power and finance shift to local communities
If the world takes action now to stop the next global pandemic
See for yourself below. Slides here.
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.