Food-Fuel Dilemma: A Just Transition Solution
By Raakhee Suryaprakash
A woman cooks food at a camp for internally displaced people in Syria, where cooking oil prices have soared 440 percent versus a year ago, according to the UN [File: Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters]
In the new year, as the sun hovers over the Tropic of Capricorn and winter starts peaking in the northern hemisphere, across the Indian subcontinent we celebrate the winter harvest with many names. Even as the sun wreaks havoc in the southern hemisphere, it is sorely missed in the densely populated north. The food-fuel dilemma is a recurring one in winters beyond the tropics. Blasted by the Arctic polar vortex the temperate zone does not live up to the promise of its name. Winters are never temperate and things are never temperate for the poor there. Go hungry or freeze are the choices as overstretched budget is tested by winter’s sub-zero records. Soaring fuel prices and geopolitical wrangling with gas supplier Russia, the pandemic, the economy and deteriorating social security makes for the perfect storm in Europe and Britain especially. A BBC story reveals the stark choice leading many to food banks as social security is cut in a pandemic-shaken floundering economy.
“Let them eat cake”–esque statements from British energy suppliers to its freezing consumers who can’t afford the fuel – cuddle your pet to stay warm being the low in a particularly offensive list instead of making life-sustaining heat affordable may lead to an “off with their heads” response from citizens already frustrated and impoverished by the pandemic even as the government partied. Case in point, Kazakhstan. The food-fuel dilemma morphs into a Gordian knot that can only be untangled by violence. RT takes the best digs on the west. The RT reporter cuddled a pet rat (mouse, cue: plague) while talking about the Ovo Energy’s list and the British government’s lockdown parties gaffes and apathetic response to their people’s freezing-starving conditions.
Of course the crisis is not limited to Britain or Kazakhstan. There were “raucous demonstrations against high energy bills in Spain. Demands for social protection in Greece as coal mines close. Fresh protests in French rural areas and small towns over spiking petrol price” reminiscent of the 2018 Yellow Vest rallies in response to a fuel tax. Situated in the context of climate action, the only solution that is logical is the just transition promised in the Paris Agreement. There is an urgent need to offset the risks involved in decarbonizing the planet and avoid populist backlash by ensuring redistribution of wealth.
For as Paris-based World Inequality Lab’s study showed “the world’s richest 10 percent emitted nearly half of global emissions in 2019, while the poorest half of the global population was responsible for 12 percent.” There can be no green transition without large scale redistribution of wealth.
The other side of the coin is the food security question. And this insecurity extends across the planet in all seasons. The same market-forces driven systems that prioritize profits over warmth also allow hunger, food adulteration, and malnutrition in the blind quest to maximize profits and commodify food. The production, processing (especially ultra-processed foods, UPFs), transportation, consumption and waste of food is a huge component of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe).
There really can’t be Climate Action (SDG 13) without Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12) of food. The food-fuel dilemma and the just transition makes the case for sustainable development. Just ensuring equitable access to healthy food (and clean water) and clean and affordable fuel enables all aspects of the Global Goals. Food, energy, and water are the three pillars of sustainable development.
To expand, a climate just food system will also enable Gender Equality (SDG 5) in a sector that employs a billion but discriminates against women farmers and women food entrepreneurs and small business owners in food processing and food SMEs headed and run by women, cooperatives and Self Help Groups. It will ensure Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) in the agricultural, agribusinesses and food sector and enable Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10) by empowering women, indigenous and smallholding farmers.
But as the system stands, as Food Tank president, Danielle Nierenberg, puts it “Women, key contributors to agriculture production, are missing at the decision table, with alarming consequences. … lot of white men in suits talking on behalf of the rest of the world.”
There are already solutions to the food insecurity and energy insecurity in place. Some are award-winning systems that can be easily scaled-up to address the inequities and insecurities with funding and policies. Two Earthshot Prize 2021 that won 1 million pounds and mentorship to scale-up offer sustainable options. The Milan city food hubs winning won the prize in the Build a Waste-Free World category. In a world where millions of hungry people coexist with enough food to feed them all being thrown away Milan’s food hubs show that with a little food management both hunger and GHGe can be lowered. Each of Milan’s three food hubs recover about “130 tonnes of food per year or 350 kg per day, estimated as the equivalent to around 260,000 meals.”
The Earthshot Prize winner in the Clear Our Air category is from India’s smog-smothered capital Delhi. Necessity being the mother of invention, this agri-waste recycling project tackles air pollution and creates income sources for farmers incentivizing moving away from stubble burning. “Takachar aims to develop small-scale, low-cost, portable reactor units that turn small pockets of biomass in remote areas into commercially viable products, such as solid fuel, fertilizer, or other chemical precursors. The Takachar reactor can be towed by tractors, hauled in trailers or within shipping containers.”
Another Indian enterprise (this headed by a woman), Strawcture makes biopanels from stubble and generates income for farmers – mainstay of our food security – incentivizing minimizing waste and creating a product – heat, fire and termite resistant biopanels that helps build shelter and insulate from the elements. Energy efficiency, super insulation, and passive solar heating of homes or heat pumps allow for low-cost and low-carbon heating even in the coldest winters.
How can we stop the climate crisis and deal with the overwhelming climate anxiety, take a breath and take personal action putting your privilege and power as a citizen and consumer by being responsible. As Benny Davis’ catchy tik-tok Food Waste song says stop putting food in the bin, feed the starving. The economy system that causes so much waste propelled by a throwaway culture is not great. Instead of paved over soil – community composting and community fruit and vegetable gardens. Biogas plants fed by kitchen scraps produce fuel as well as organic fertilizer, which in a closed loop (circular economy) can produce nutrient rich foods while the biogas can be an affordable alternative to LPG and piped gas that could be used for cooking and heating needs.
The solutions themselves show how the problems are interconnected and need to be addressed intersectionally to be solved inclusively. This means just transition.
Heal the Food System to Heal the World
As Vandana Shiva puts it, “The planet’s well-being, people’s health, and societies’ stability are severely threatened by an industrial, globalised agriculture primarily driven by profit-making.” Yet the current system commoditises foods and makes inert the living system essential to make nutritious and safe food. The promotion of petrochemicals as fertilizers and pesticides slowly kills the soil even as it adds to the water stress. As award-winning author Amitav Ghosh put it, while talking about his latest book The Nutmeg’s Curse, there is deep connection between the soil, the people, and the botanical object. Yet the industrial revolutions fuelled by a philosophy that man dominates nature to tame it in his service ruptures primal connections between things, people and space leaving it inert. And this process serving an elite European ideology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries needed continuous violence in the colonies (genocide and enslavement) and persecution of the poor within Europe, especially poor but powerful women who had a voice and a connection to the living world. They labelled witches and persecuted (witch trials).
This European colonialism characterized by greed, consumption and extraction, and alienation of indigenous communities, now mimicked by governments, has left the planet in crisis to date.
There needs to be an end to mass consumption and waste – the resource curse of today’s globalized world is everywhere. The freegans who dumpster dive demonstrate by their lifestyle in economies overflowing with hypermarkets, how much food is wasted to fuel the market. The Observer Research Foundation’s researchers are spot on, and echo Dr Shiva’s book Who Really Feeds the World, when they label the global syndemic an existential threat, “defined as a pandemic that appears to interact with climate change, undernutrition, and obesity. Together, they pose a monumental threat to human and planetary health, affecting all regions of the globe.” Tackling the syndemic by modifying diet to include healthy, plant based, local, organic foods & most importantly reduce food waste while maximising composting (no food in bins and landfills) adds up to lower food-fuelled personal carbon footprint and if followed by consumer action can lead to modification of the food system’s carbon footprint itself by reducing the large GHGe that is the norm in the current food system.
Food security is based on four dimensions—availability of food, physical and economic accessibility, utilisation and bioavailability, and sustenance of these three dimensions. More than a billion people rely on the current food system for their livelihoods. To meet growing nutritional needs, food production per capita has increased by over 30 percent since 1961, accompanied by an 800 percent rise in utilising nitrogen fertilizers and a 100 percent rise in using water resources for irrigation. Nonetheless, 821 million people are currently undernourished, 151 million children under five are stunted, 613 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are iron deficient, and 2 billion adults are overweight or obese.
Sustainable eating involves consuming foods that have little environmental impact or low carbon footprint but are, at the same time, enriched in essential nutrients to fulfil nutritional needs. Sustainable eating is accessible, economic, diverse, nutritionally adequate, safe, healthy, and culturally acceptable.
(ORF Health Express, January 2022)
Thus the food system needs a just transition. Women, indigenous and smallholding farmers need access, funds and decision making autonomy. This is needed especially of offset the feminization of poverty, environmental and health crises. According the FAO, “women produce more than 50 percent of the food in the world and make up over 40 percent of the agricultural labour force but are disadvantaged when it comes to access to resources such as land and financial services.” Hence, when really agro-ecology, living soil, biodiversity, localisation and women have been successfully feeding the world while industrial agriculture and fossil-fuel using supply-chains have created more carbon emissions, pollution and disease, we need the real feeders of the world to be empowered.
The pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness of our food systems and hence there is a need to foster regional and localized food systems that include women and young people through investment and just transition. Solving this is real climate action and healing the food system will solve other related problems and lead to sustainable development and inclusive growth for all.
Vandana Shiva, Who Really Feeds the World? (Women Unlimited, 2017).
Catherine Evans, September 11, 2021, “Universal Credit: Families must choose food or fuel in benefits cut,” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-58501219
Busani Bafana, September 27, 2021, “If Women Farmers were Politicians, the World Would be Fed, says Danielle Nierenberg,” https://www.gendersecurityproject.com/post/if-women-farmers-were-politicians-the-world-would-be-fed-says-danielle-nierenberg
Chicago Humanities Festival, November 1, 2021, “Amitav Ghosh: The Nutmeg’s Curse” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3lZ7EmChWo
Liz Alderman, November 3, 2021, “The Costs of Climate Action,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/01/business/energy-environment/europe-climate-action-cost.html
Benny Davis, November 30, 2021, “Food Waste Song,” https://www.facebook.com/bennythejukebox/videos/1234612273726714/
Hannah-Ellis Petersen, January 14, 2022, “Amitav Ghosh: European colonialism helped create a planet in crisis,” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/jan/14/amitav-ghosh-european-colonialism-helped-create-a-planet-in-crisis
Subhasree Ray and Shoba Suri, January 13, 2022, ORF Health Express, “Combating Climate Change with a Sustainable Food System,” https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/combating-climate-change-with-a-sustainable-food-system/
Dr Elizabeth Sawin, January 15, 2022, Power of passive solar heated super-insulated homes, https://twitter.com/bethsawin/status/1482384575795974146