By Olivia Oldham
The Agriculture Bill
Earlier this month, the UK’s new Agriculture Bill, an important piece of legislation that sets out post-Brexit law for the food system, passed its 3rd reading in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, despite advocacy from sustainable farming organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Soil Association, an amendment requiring imported food to meet the same standards as British producers was dropped.
So what does this mean? For British farmers, it means they will be more easily undercut by imported products, which have not had to adhere to the same standards of production, and which will therefore be less expensive. For those who want to farm in ways that exceed the minimum legal requirements--who want to actively contribute to the regeneration of the land and the wellbeing of animals and consumers, this effect will be even more stark.
The Bill, if passed, will also likely contribute to nutritional inequality amongst eaters here in the UK. As mentioned in a previous blog, a 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee report found that between 1.97 and 3 million people in the UK are undernourished. Unsurprisingly, poverty is described as a major cause of malnutrition and food insecurity. What is not mentioned by the report, though, is the relationship between race and socioeconomic deprivation--according to government statistics, Black people and Asian people are the most likely to live in the most socioeconomically deprived areas of the country, while White people are the least likely to do so. In the United States, the situation of food injustice is so severe that it is referred to as ‘food apartheid’.
In this context, it is predominantly wealthy and, correlatedly, white, people who are able to afford to support farmers and producers trying to do the right thing by nature and by their workers, and whose produce is often more expensive due to the increased costs of producing food this way. With the passage of the Bill, these producers may be forced to put their prices up to survive, thanks to competition from lower quality exports. The result? Fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to buy food produced in this way, and more and more eaters will be driven to consume cheaper, lower quality imports in a vicious cycle which segregates society into two nutritional classes: those fortunate few able to buy sourdough from their local bakery and fresh vegetables from their farmers market, and everyone else.
Thirdly, for non-British farmers, this Bill effectively signals the outsourcing of ecological destruction. It allows Britain to stand up on the international stage and announce its adherence to the strong environmental and welfare standards in farming, while at the same time permitting and encouraging damaging and harmful practices to continue abroad. In this way, the UK benefits from improved soil quality and higher animal welfare at home, while continuing to allow and perpetuate their degradation abroad.
The Wuhan wild animal ban
Meanwhile, soon after the third reading of the Agriculture Bill, the local administration in Wuhan announced a ban on eating and hunting wild animals within its sphere of influence. Breeders of wild animals are being offered a pay-out as an incentive to cease their activities. But while this ban recognises and attempts to address the likely direct source of the virus (that is, a wild animal such as a bat or pangolin sold at a wet market), it completely fails to address the more remote factors that led to the growth of wild animal farming in the first place. According to Spinney, the increase in industrial food production in China in the 1990s as part of the country’s rapid transition to a market economy pushed small-scale farmers out, both economically and geographically. For many, the alternative that enabled them to survive was to begin farming wild animals. Their farms were located closer and closer to forested areas inhabited by bats, increasing the likelihood that viruses might be transmitted from these wild populations to the newly farmed ‘wild’ animals.
There are those who contest that the virus even originated at the infamous wet market, including the authors of a paper published in Nature Medicine in March. They claim it is possible that the virus evolved in an animal host living in circumstances of high population density, such as pangolins or civets, but also sheep, goats and pigs, among others. Hubei Province is one of the five largest producers of pigs in China; and as described above, small scale farms have been replaced in recent years by large-scale industrial operations containing thousands of genetically uniform pigs, confined in high-density, enclosed environments--perfect conditions for the rapid mutation and evolution of a zoonotic virus (that is, that jumps from a non-human to a human) such as Covid-19.
What this means is that it is possible that the source of Covid is not the much-vilified wet markets or the survival strategies of smallholders, but rather the expansion of industrial agriculture. And this expansion has been driven not only by internal changes to the Chinese economy, but by foreign investment; for example, after the great recession in the late 2000s, Goldman Sachs invested heavily in Chinese poultry farms.
What does any of this have to do with the UK’s failure to maintain high import standards in its Agriculture Bill? In a nutshell, they are two examples of how the global North is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the environmental and welfare standards of agriculture. Increasingly, Western consumers push for regulatory protections of the environment in agriculture, such as through laws enshrining high welfare standards for livestock, or promoting on-farm biodiversity through measures such as the banning of glyphosate (the main chemical in the common herbicide Round-Up). But at the same time, we fail to address and indeed encourage the perpetuation of these self-same problems in the majority world through measures such as uneven import standards (as in the Agriculture Bill) or investment (as with the investment in Chinese pig farms), or both. The end result is both domestic and global food and environmental inequality and injustice.
What, then, shall we do?
Alternatives do exist, though. The UK Agriculture Bill still needs to go through the House of Lords before it can become law. There is still the chance, then, to achieve a positive end-result. This is critically important: we need, where we are able, to engage as food citizens--that is, as people who have the interdependent power to shape and participate in the food system as more than just passive consumers in a “linear supply chain”.
Beyond lobbying Parliament, those of us who are fortunate enough to have the means can also support local producers who are trying to make food in ways that are good for the environment, socially just and nutritionally sound. Numerous initiatives have sprung up in response to Covid-19 and the weaknesses it has exposed in the industrial food model and the supermarket supply chains that support it. For example, Farms to Feed Us is a project that has created a database of regenerative producers who have started (and many who already were) selling food directly to their communities during this crisis. Where we can, we should support these initiatives and the farmers and producers they are lifting up; and we should do this not only now, but we should keep doing it once the moment of crisis has passed.
Thinking more broadly, we can also stand in solidarity with food sovereignty movements around the world. La Via Campesina, for example, is an international organisation fighting for the rights of people across the globe to produce their own food in an environmentally sustainable and culturally appropriate way. It fights giant industrial agriculture projects like those which likely contributed to the Covid-19 outbreak, and which are creating misery for people and animals around the world. The Landworkers Alliance are members of LVC in the UK--supporting their work is incredibly important, now more than ever.
Food is political, and to pretend that it isn’t directly contributes to the injustice of the status quo. To this end, if we care about a fair and regenerative food system, we need to accept that it’s about more than only food: it’s about social justice more broadly. Only when all people live with dignity--and this includes being able to afford good, nutritious food for their families--can we consider the goal of fixing the food system to have been achieved.
Event summary by Celine Barclay
“The least responsible are disproportionately affected by climate change”. It’s taken a while, but the phrase is finally taking a hold in our consciousness and our conversations. Fittingly, OCS’s flagship event tackled the issue of climate justice with two truly inspiring speakers; Mary Robinson and Dr Vandana Shiva. They illuminated the various forms of injustice that have made the climate crisis a legacy of colonial and patriarchal structures. Crucially, the two speakers highlighted the need for a paradigmatic shift in our conception of “development” in order to confront the climate crisis fairly and effectively.
The first speaker, Mary Robinson, served as the first female president of Ireland. She went on to become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, before setting up her own foundation ‘Climate Justice’ and publishing a book of the same name.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a leading human rights activist who founded Navdanya International (an organisation helping farmers protect seeds from the genetic patents of large corporations) and is the leader of the International Forum on Globalisation. She has authored over 20 books in which she defends traditional practices, helping to shift our idea of development in favour of acknowledging the value of small-scale farmers.
Mary Robinson took a structured approach by identifying 5 layers of climate injustice:
1) Responsibility: the first layer related to the phrase at the beginning of this post, that climate change disproportionately affects those least responsible for creating the problem, such as indigenous people and the inhabitants of small island states;
2) Gender: women are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their different social roles, and because they often don’t have access to land rights or insurance. As with all intersecting levels of inequality, women in poorer countries are doubly vulnerable where these factors are concerned;
3) Intergenerational injustice: the injustice that future generations will suffer the consequences of inaction by the generation currently in leadership positions;
4) Pathways to development: industrialised countries historically built their wealth on fossil fuels. Poorer nations are currently attempting to follow the same path of development while also under pressure to transition to renewable energy. Richer countries have failed to provide the financial support for such a transition, leaving industrialising countries caught between fighting poverty on a national scale and fighting climate change on a global scale;
5) Nature: As a firm advocate for the nature-based approach, Mary signalled the injustice against nature that climate change has wrought, threatening as it does the survival of millions of species. It is interesting to note that she personified nature as a female, not only emphasising that the earth is living, as Dr Vadana would do, but also identifying the injustice to the earth in association with the gender dimension she mentioned above. She stressed the need to conserve at least 30% of land and oceans under the Convention on Biodiversity.
Mary then gave her assessment of the current state of global action on climate change. She managed to find hope in response to the current Covid-19 crisis, which she credits with teaching us various lessons that can be carried forward in our future approach. Compliance with the lock-down has shown us the collective power of simultaneous changes in our behaviour. Just as we have stayed at home to protect the most vulnerable to the virus, we must shift our behaviour to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. It has also demonstrated the importance of good government, science and compassion.
Mary finished by expressing hope that we will take the opportunity to create a new beginning. Covid-19 has taught us to learn what we can do without and to make radical changes to our lifestyle, two lessons that are essential if we are to throw away our ‘throw away culture’ and embrace nature-based solutions.
Yes, this will require large scale investment, borrowing from future generations, but only in order to safeguard their future. So Mary is less worried now than she was at the beginning of the year: “Covid has broken the system that wasn’t working anyway”.
The unanimity between the two speakers was clear the moment Dr Vadana took her turn to speak. Chuckling warmly, she noted that she had also identified 5 layers of injustice:
1) Picking up where Mary left off, she raised the injustice against nature as part of a history of colonialism and exploitation. The glorification of conquest in colonial times is a model for our relationship with the earth as dead matter to be possessed and exploited. She passionately insisted that we must revoke this mentality and recognise not only that the earth is alive, but that it regulates its own systems.
Her speech was incredibly powerful, drawing an analogy between the fossil age and the fossilisation of our minds and hearts that has resulted from extracting fossil fuels. Dr Vadana sees a comparison between mechanisation and industrialisation and the development of a mechanical mind, closed off to human empathy and capable of wreaking such destruction on human communities. Yet we have erroneously believed developing the technologies for extraction demonstrated our intellectual superiority;
2) This led Dr Vandana to speak of the injustice against those who lead ecological ways of living. Vandana grew up in India and related how India was called barbaric in colonial times within a discourse of ‘development that propped up the colonial regime. In the 80s she observed that behind every ecological disaster there seemed to be a loan from the World Bank financing some project in the name of “development”’. When she investigated the loans, she found that ‘under-development’ meant not using plastic or pesticides, and adhering to the hydrological cycle. But it is the promotion of these rationalised “developed” techniques of agriculture which have caused the ecological destruction we see today;
3) This damaging approach to agriculture is itself linked to a third layer of injustice: that the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Vandana said drought “is the single biggest crisis” and a result of a false definition of development that, for instance, promotes the use of fertilisers and neglects to replenish organic matter in the soil;
4) Her fourth injustice was the injustice of false solutions. She denounced the ‘voluntary’ approach to emissions reduction commitments characteristic of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
She identified 3 unjust false solutions: geo-engineering, genetic engineering, and the “disease” of offsetting. Geo-engineering falls short because it fails to take into account how the earth functions as a system. Genetic engineering fails to recognise that resilient traits are in the plants and not in the gene that is extracted.
Vandana then railed against offsetting which she compared to the Roman Catholic sales of indulgences. Like unrepentant sinners who bribe the church to keep on sinning, rich countries can continue emitting by “offsetting”, a solution that in no way tackles the root of the problem. In fact, after the Kyoto protocol, emissions increased by 15% and the economic inequality between countries increased.
Vandana concluded by emphasising that the injustices framing the climate crisis can only be resolved by removing the colonisation paradigm and the concomitant definitions of “productivity” “efficiency” and “development”. Her research shows that when we work with nature and biodiversity, we can produce more food by healing broken carbon and nitrogen cycles. Doing so will end the injustice of labelling ecological ways of living as primitive and be part of a shift from an economy that measures GDP to one that measures happiness. Returning to the repeated theme of earth and life cycles, Vandana identified this as a “shift from the circulation of money to circulation of life.”
This was truly a highlight of the term card; it was inspiring to hear from such passionate and experienced speakers. Their long history of collaboration was testament to the central theme of the discussion: the intersectionality of the injustices within the climate crisis which must be addressed.
Event summary by Emily Passmore
Although Covid-19 has affected everyone, it has not affected everyone equally. Those living in crowded, precarious housing don’t have the capacity to social distance, and many are struggling more than ever to make a living. Those who are struggling are often people of colour, especially in the Global South, and people on very low incomes. In short, they are the same people most affected by the climate crisis. Both Covid-19 and the climate crisis stand to further inflame these existing inequalities.
Sunita Narain has been working on these issues of development and the environment since the 1980s, and OCS was delighted to host a talk with her on race and class in a time of crisis. Ms Narain is an Indian environmentalist and activist, currently serving as Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, using science to campaign for legislative change. She has spent her career advocating for equitable climate agreements, allowing for development without compromising the future. She has also been heavily involved in campaigning for air pollution controls and better water management in India.
Global inequality and the Covid-19 crisis
Ms Narain began by reflecting on the unprecedented nature of the current crisis, causing a scale of disruption not seen since the Second World War. We should expect to be changed by this. And although it’s easy to view planning for the future as an academic issue, we need to learn from the present and plan accordingly to prevent a repeat of this crisis.
One important feature of the crisis is how much worse it is for the poor. Migrant labourers in the global South live in overcrowded housing with little sanitation or water. The WHO has issued advice to wash your hands for twenty seconds in running water, but for millions of people, this is impossible. Furthermore, these labourers will be most affected by an economic collapse; they are often daily wage labourers, without savings to fall back on.
The cost to the poorest in society is too devastating for the environmental benefits of the Covid shut-down to be celebrated by environmentalists. The crisis has revealed the scale of intervention needed to protect the climate, but we need to pursue an inclusive route towards this goal.
What can we learn from the pandemic?
1. We live in an interconnected world.
Globalisation has deeply linked our economies, whilst air travel has made us more mobile than ever. There are no longer distinct boundaries between countries that can be completely locked down. This is reflected in the issue of air pollution – we share one atmospheric air space that can’t be partitioned.
2. We live in an interdependent world
We are only as strong as our weakest link, so to get rid of the virus, we need to eliminate it everywhere. If the virus survives in the poorest households, it will continue to spread within and between countries due to migration. Thus, while the poor are the worst affected, the virus is an equaliser in the sense that nobody can independently make themselves safe. Thus, only inclusive solutions can end the crisis, just as is the case with climate change. If a solution only helps the rich, the issue, be it Covid-19 or carbon emissions, will just continue to grow among the poor, and thus become ever more severe.
3. We have a dystopian relationship with nature
The virus was able to mutate between species and get stronger in part due to our industrial agriculture systems. If this isn’t changed in the future, our food and our societies will remain susceptible to disease.
How can we take these lessons and build a better future?
The future of work
Millions of labourers have returned home, having initially moved away to find work. These workers will be the most affected by climate change as our agriculture systems begin to collapse. Thus, immigration will remain a pressing issue. The virus gives us a chance to think differently about globalisation. By investing in self-reliant local economies, people could get work without being forced to leave their homes.
The future of production
We live in a consumption driven economy. Increasing consumption means breaching planetary boundaries. We now have the chance to shift to a system where the value of labour and the environment are not discounted, particularly as the pandemic drives the cost of labour higher.
The future of democracy
Democracy underpins every solution. One of the best ways to change behaviour is for the poor to be able to say, ‘Not in my back yard’. For example, waste disposal sites are usually located near the homes of the poor. Democracy allows the poor to push back, and force more sustainable solutions to be developed. Giving the poor their right to decide will also reinvent global cooperation, allowing us to work towards more just climate solutions for all.
Tipping points and change over time
What concrete steps can be taken towards a just and sustainable future? The UK government has announced huge investment in cycling and walking – could the crisis prove to be a tipping point, leading us to a new reality?
In Ms Narain’s 1991 report, Global Warming in an Unequal World (co-authored with Anil Agarwal), she explored the issue of environmental colonialism. The report responded to a World Resources Institute (WRI) report attributing half of all emissions to developing countries. Narain and Agarwal found that the WRI report often ignored the science to play a political blame game. By recognising historical emissions and adjusting the assumptions made, only one fifth of emissions could be attributed to developing countries. Has this dynamic changed since then?
How does the environmentalism of the poor differ from the environmentalism of the rich?
Democracy needs to be strengthened – how do we show people tackling climate change is within their own interests despite all the other issues at play?
How can we ensure a just transition to decarbonisation in developing countries, and what role can technology play in this process?
Can we get Western powers to see climate change as an issue of equity, or are corporate agendas simply too strong for them to admit this?
How important is climate justice within climate education?
How can we further connect with other movements for racial and class-based equity?
How can we balance scientific reality and political feasibility?
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.