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.
By Bridget Stuart
On April Fool’s Day 2020 it was announced that COP26 was being postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This vital climate conference, which was to bring 30,000 delegates from across the world to Glasgow on 9th – 19th November, has now been moved to an unspecified date in 2021. COP26 promised to be the most important climate conference since Paris 2015, so there has been much debate over what this means for climate action worldwide.
Obviously, the postponement of COP26 poses some major issues. It narrows the window in which nations can review and update their post-2020 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), delaying vital progress on emissions. This brings us ever-closer to the point of no return, beyond which there is no hope of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Also, the global economy is in ruins, and there is the very real threat that nations will use the pandemic to cut back on their environmental commitments. Donald Trump’s government has already begun to do this, revoking a number of environmental standards implemented by the Obama administration.
Postponing COP26 was necessary, and the right thing to do in the interests of public health and safety. But the situation highlights the strong and somewhat ironic parallels between COVID-19 and climate change. These are both global crises, putting every human life in danger. In both cases, global governments knew full-well what the potential impacts were, and yet failed, for the most part, to act with sufficient speed or intensity. Both crises also put the inequality inherent in our society into harsh perspective. In fact, COVID-19 has given us a glimpse into our future, one in which we face economic, societal and environmental collapse. But this could be the wake-up call we need and act as a catalyst for great change.
So, it is imperative that this extra time in the run-up to COP26 is put to use. The UK government, who many feared was not ready to lead the talks in November, now has the time to fully prepare. Globally, nations can increase their climate ambitions, ramp up their commitments and solidify their road-maps for the future. There is also time now for the world to recover slightly in the wake of COVID-19 and for all parties to fully refocus on climate breakdown.
A crucial benefit of the postponement is that COP26 will no longer be overshadowed by the US Presidential election or the USA’s recent departure from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is currently due to take legal effect on November 4th. In fact, there is now the opportunity for a new US President to re-establish climate leadership and re-enter the Paris agreement. This would be a major boost for the talks next year.
So, perhaps delaying COP26 is a blessing in disguise. The economic and societal collapse resulting from this global pandemic presents a unique opportunity. What is clear is that we can never go back to ‘business as usual’. We should regrow our economy and restructure our society in a way that is sustainable and resilient, and, crucially, that extends strong support to the developing world.
By Laura Watson
No one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group.
Before this global pandemic, we were seeing weekly climate protests, led by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement; now with mass gatherings of any kind banned, what has happened to the momentum for change?
What was happening before the pandemic?
6 million people took part in the September 2019 global climate strikes. In February 2020, students occupied Saint Johns’ college, Oxford for 5 days to call on the college to divest from fossil fuels. Momentum behind protests calling for action on climate change was showing no sign of slowing. For instance, there had been plans for mass climate protests from the 22nd-24th April, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But of course, these were cancelled, and moved online
What impact has the pandemic had?
The current global pandemic has put a stop to mass gatherings, with some governments taking steps to ban protest entirely. In Algeria, 2019 saw mass street protests against the former regime, resulting in a change in government. The protests continued into 2020, demanding a total restructuring of the Algerian political system. But now, under the pretext of stopping coronavirus, the new president has banned protest for more than a year. This pattern is true to a lesser extent across the world in countries in a state of lockdown, with mass gatherings banned and strict social distancing rules in place; indeed 111 countries currently have measures in place preventing assembly of any kind.
Despite these restrictions, young people are not giving up on climate protest. Fridays for the Future has called for digital strikes during the lockdown period. Online webinars organised by Fridays for the Future have allowed millions to attend online, even those who had not previously been able previously to protest in the streets. People have participated in this digital movement from gardens, balconies and bedrooms, through social media. Fridays for the Future Germany staged a large digital demonstration with 230,000 livestream viewers and 40,000 tweets for the planned Earth Day climate demonstration.
This shift shows the change in behaviour ushered in by the current crisis, as the climate movement adapts to the new circumstances. There are those who emphasise that digital activism is not as effective as street protest. Nevertheless, for the time being, physical protest is no longer an option, so this digital approach is the best alternative. Despite the potential downsides of online protest, it gives rise to an opportunity to rethink how people protest and engage in collective activism.
Where does this leave us?
The digital approach to activism suggests that young people at least will not forget what has happened; there is a potential for actions on an even larger scale once it is safe for all to do so, as the online movement has been able to reach new people who were previously unable or unwilling to participate in traditional street protests.
In terms of action on climate change, some positives may yet emerge at the end of the pandemic. For example, more than 60 British organisations (including Iceland Foods, The Body Shop, the RSPB, and the National Trust) have called for a green approach to economic recovery following the predicted recession. There have also been suggestions in the UK that restarting the economy should focus on low-carbon work programmes. Perhaps there is hope that recovery from the virus can enable a move towards solving climate change.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.