How to feed ourselves in a time of climate crisis

From saving seeds to curbing food waste Raj Patel and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz present 13 ideas for a fair and sustainable food system

Changing the food system is the most important thing humans can do to fix our broken carbon cycles. Meanwhile, food security is all about adaptation when you’re dealing with crazy weather and shifting growing zones. How can a world of 7 billion people – and growing – feed itself?


Land ownership

1. Indigenous land sovereignty

The world is watching as historic land reforms on the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu show how to return land sovereignty to indigenous people. The decade-long effort led by Ralph Regenvanu, leader of the Land and Justice Party, is returning control of lands to “customary owners.” More than 80 per cent of land in Vanuatu is considered customary: owned by extended families as custodians for future generations.

2. Agroecology, not chemicals

Instead of single crops and fossil fuel-based amendments, agroecology relies on complex natural systems to do a better job. Bean crops that help soil retain nitrogen are rotated with other crops. Farm animal waste is used as fertiliser. Flowers attract beneficial insects to manage pests. Intensive planting of diverse crops requires less water and helps keep weeds under control.

3. Carbon sequestration

A benefit of soil regeneration practices, which make soils more fertile and resilient to land degradation, is that carbon from the atmosphere is captured in soil and plant biomass. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says carbon sequestration accounts for 90 per cent of global agricultural mitigation potential by 2030.

4. Resilient polyculture

After hurricane Ike hit Cuba in 2008, researchers found polyculture plantain farms had fewer losses than monoculture farms. In general, strongly integrated agroecological farms sprang back to full production two months sooner than conventional farms.

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5. Open source seeds

The Open Source Seed Initiative was created by plant breeders, farmers, and seed companies as an alternative to patent-protected seeds sold by agricultural giants such as Monsanto. Its goal is to make seeds a common good again, equipping new crop varieties with an open source license. This allows farmers to save and trade seeds and develop their own hybrids for climate adaptation.

6. Genetic diversity

Traditional plant varieties are more adaptive than modern hybrids. In Peru, six Quechua communities form the ANDES Potato Park project, which holds about 1,500 varieties of cultivated potatoes. The project not only models seed diversity conservation, but also studies the traditional knowledge, practices, and spiritual beliefs that nurture those resources.

Some 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial agriculture

7. Better pay

Agroecology requires skilled labour, yet the worst-paying jobs in the US are in the food system. This makes food and farm labour a poverty issue. Food service jobs are held primarily by women and people of colour, making it a social justice issue. Policies addressing these issues would increase wages (which the Fight for $15 campaign wants), protect field workers from harmful chemicals and treat the migrant labour force fairly.

8. Valuing traditional knowledge

Scientists in Latin America are tapping traditional farmers for their expertise. “Campesino a Campesino” (translated as “peasant to peasant”) is the cultural model of knowledge dissemination throughout Latin America. Farmers sharing their results and ideas have helped to spread agroecological practices.



9. Regional food hubs

Will we stop flying out-of-season produce around the world? Australia’s Food Connect programme delivers ecologically and ethically produced fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and bakery items from local farmers to consumer hubs. In Brisbane, door-to-door travel must be no farther than 250 miles, and farmers are paid four times what they would get from big grocery chains.

10. Accessibility, affordability

Those on low-incomes are a large and ready market for farmers. Programmes like Double Up Food Bucks in the US mean farmers market shoppers get double the value on benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – nutrition assistance for low-income American individuals and families. In 2013, more than 10,000 first-time SNAP customers in Michigan used farmers markets.



11. Eat together

Considering the energy used in daily cooking for 7 billion people, collective cooking and eating should be a goal. Not only does it cost less carbon per plate, but research also shows that when eating is a social activity, it can influence people to make healthier choices.

Where eating is a social activity, people are healthier

12. A plate full of plants

Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill restaurant, author of The Third Plate and known for his work to use less carbon in the production and serving of his food, argues that our standard plate of dinner should shift from a slab of protein with a side of vegetables to a plate full of seasonal vegetables with perhaps meat in a seasoning or a sauce. Some 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial agriculture, including deforestation to support livestock.

13. Waste nothing

The total land needed to grow feed for Europe’s pork industry alone is the size of Ireland. The UK-based Pig Idea campaign encourages feeding leftover catering food to pigs because 40 per cent of what farms produce is wasted. Also, the Gleaning Network has rescued more than 288 tonnes of produce in the UK over the past four years.


First published by Yes!

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