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OPINION / Environment

Climate change and the right to food

Food security should not be based on charity. The right to food gives a legal entitlement to people.

by Hilal Elver

Two weeks after the Paris agreement on the global climate change, the time for celebratory pictures and self-congratulatory speeches by leading diplomats is over.

Now we must pause and ask what exactly did the Paris outcome bring to the silent 800 million chronically hungry and two billion food-insecure people living in our world. The disappointing answer "not much really". It leaves us with much work to do.

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seemed satisfied that "food security and hunger" found its way into the preamble of the agreement (although not its legally binding part), and that "food production" was mentioned in Article II, a way of ensuring that climate policies adopted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not curtail food supply.

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However, this is not something new. It repeats what was declared back in 1992 when the Framework Convention of the Climate Change was adopted.

If food security and hunger were highlighted in the operational part of the text, and if joined to the "right to food", or if it was identified like other human rights in the preamble, then we could say with pride: "Yes, the Paris Agreement did give a voice to the vulnerable billions who are hungry and food insecure." We could have added to the applause, despite some other difficulties embedded in the agreement.

What's wrong?

At first glance, the text did not mention "agriculture" or "small-holder farmers", just as it failed to mention "fossil fuels".

But this doesn't mean that such issues were not relevant. Even if those words did not make their way into the negotiated words of the text, they were discussed in many side events, reflecting the priorities of the developing countries, home to 95 percent of the hungry and food insecure, and also of developed countries that have a huge stake in the future of agribusinesses.

Extreme weather events, and rising sea levels will have catastrophic impacts on food security in coastal regions, low lying countries, and small island states. People living in these areas are already food insecure, and global warming will make their situation much worse.

Small-holder farmers constitute 80 percent of the food insecure, although they produce around 70 percent of the food that the world consumes.

In most developing countries, agriculture is a major sector of the economy. It has become crucial to understand that the interests of the small-holder farmers and agribusinesses are not easily reconcilable.

If we ask how to produce enough food for all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this dilemma gets even more difficult to resolve.

Several reports emphasised agricultural pessimism due to increased population and unsustainable consumption patterns - such as a meat-based diet. Additionally, climate change has a major negative impact on food security.

The new UN Sustainable Development Goals target is to eliminate hunger by 2030. This seems unrealistic: A recent UN Development Programme report concludes that 600 million additional people could be at risk of hunger by 2080. There are over 200,000 more people to feed every day, and the world population eats more food per person than ever before.

Agriculture and food systems produce approximately 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions - from crops, livestock, transportation, and chemical use - almost competing with the energy sector.

This makes it obvious that it is not sensible to exclude the agricultural sector from the climate change agreement.

It should also be understood that not all the agricultural sector is devoted to food. Significant parts go to cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, soy for animal feed, palm oil and biofuels, including sugar cane and corn.

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Ironically, biofuel is good for the climate and is supported by the developed countries as an alternative fuel, but it diminishes food security as the prices of corn has skyrocketed globally, and created a land rush in Africa and other developing countries.

Should we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using biofuels to replace fossil fuels while developing countries are losing their agricultural land, and rising corn prices make vulnerable people suffer? Certainly not and the European Union is in the process of revising its biofuel mandate to take account of this issue.

Dilemmas ahead

The Paris agreement lowered the heat reduction goal from 2 degrees Celsius to 1.5C. This is extremely important as the rise in temperature and agricultural yield are closely connected.

Conservative calculations tell us that roughly that a rise of 1C leads to a 10 percent drop in yield. Even half a degree Celsius is going to harm some staple crops, including wheat, corn, and rice.

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Global warming will hit countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America hardest. Nicaragua tried to explain, to no avail, that this was why the Paris agreement was not acceptable.

Further, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels will have catastrophic impacts on food security in coastal regions, low lying countries, and small island states. People living in these areas are already food insecure, and global warming will make their situation much worse.

Glimmer of hope

The good news is that there is an alternative way to produce food for all, by shifting from fossil-fuel-based industrial agriculture to agroecology. Even better news is carbon sequestration (restoring carbon to the soil) could provide a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions if carefully designed and implemented so as to respect local people's right to food.

Agroecology is an approach endorsed by scientists and the FAO that supports small-holder farmers and local food systems, encourages less chemical use and more natural techniques, and combines traditional farming methods with new technology, while respecting cultural norms.

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Agroecology is not about continuing to produce massive amounts of food that globally is being wasted at an alarming 40 percent rate, thereby producing even more greenhouse gas emissions. There is now a consensus that hunger is not about a lack of food. We now produce enough food for nine billion people. Hunger results from poverty. Thus increasing "food production" is not helpful.

The real solution is to empower small-holder farmers, especially women farmers and indigenous communities. They already are the producers of most what we consume.

A first step in this direction is to disseminate knowledge that the right to access adequate and healthy food is one of the fundamental human rights that is pledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became a legal entitlement when the Covenant of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was ratified by 164 countries.

Food security should not be based on charity. The right to food gives a legal entitlement to people. When development projects of extractive industries, agribusinesses or biofuel conversion cause food insecurity, there should be legal remedies that protect the livelihood of people and conserves their natural resources.

Unless future climate change agreements respect, protect and fulfil the right to food for the 800 million hungry and two billion food-insecure people, they will be morally, legally, and materially deprived.

Hilal Elver is the UN Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food, and Global Distinguished Fellow of the Resnick Food Law Center at the UCLA Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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