Town Hall Forum on Food Security and Climate Change

On Oct. 24th, 2009 – UN Day and the International Day of Action on Climate Change – speakers from Puget Sound Millennium Goals, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UW Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences participated in a public Town Hall forum called “Food Security and Climate Change: The Agenda at Copenhagen.” The promotional materials for the event touted the  “investments in adaptation, innovations to improve the heat resistance of crops and agricultural productivity, and the political challenges confronting a new climate change agreement to be negotiated at Copenhagen in December that includes technical and financial aid to developing nations.” Thus, AGRA Watch was concerned that the framing of this event would exclude the role of sustainable, agroecological agricultural systems in mitigating climate change, and a few of us attended the event, criticisms and questions in hand.

The following is our impression of the disappointingly vague and boring forum:

The first speaker, from UW Atmospheric Sciences, was interesting and informative.  He had a lot of data about the dual roles of precipitation and temperature changes in severely impacting agricultural performance, in Europe and the US as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America,  and Asia. His data was sobering, and he presented several different scenarios for where we’d like to be, carbon emissions wise: from “utopia” to where we’re headed now, and an in-between option, which is what he thinks is possible. But even that would require taking some very serious measures to cut back our emissions. One of the most depressing things he mentioned was that in the Sahel, the odds in 2100 of having an average temperature higher than ever recorded in that region are 100%. Overall, the prognosis seems pretty dire, and we wanted to ask what the chances are of getting the amount of CO2 back down to 350 ppm.

The second speaker, the expert from the Gates Foundation was contradictory, not clear or definite about anything. She mostly talked about her experience with the IPCC and FAO, and hardly mentioned anything about the Gates Foundation, their funding, or their priorities. She talked about how to respond to global climate change but not much about agriculture. She said a number of things that seemed ridiculous:  She used hurricane Katrina and how people were wiped out in New Orleans to give an example of how the poor had no resources to deal with climate change!   No history, no politics or economics. One of the other idiotic things she said is that in the past couple centuries, people have increasingly moved to the coastal regions in the Global South, thereby increasing pressure on already fragile ecosystems. “Look at Lagos,” she said. Oh. My. Gosh. Does she really not understand how the slave trade, colonialism, and export reliance totally created those geographies? Does she really think that indigenous peoples and other marginalized peoples just decide to move up on a mountain, rather than being pushed there by settler societies or seeking some refuge from persecution?

She said that in Africa, farmers grow over 7 crop staples and many are more drought tolerant than wheat, rice and corn but that research was going on to make these more drought resistant. She listed several things that had to be happening to get ready for the changes in temperature and rainfall: Adapting and mitgating the effects of climate change, Infrastructure improvements, getting climate and weather information out to people broadly, risk insurance, and coming up with livelihood strategies.  Well, this list is both obvious and in part silly – risk insurance?  Are they in cahoots with the insurance company bigwigs?  What is meant by livelyhood strategies?

She called for “More Global public goods,” under which she listed the need to improve global data collection, dissemination, and analysis, and expansion of international agricultural research. She talked a lot about the role of the Global North–sorry, “developed countries”–to provide agricultural aid and increase emergency food response time. And also, needing to complete the Doha Round, and needing to reinvigorate national agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa. Wait, anyone asking why that funding fell by the wayside to begin with? Of course she didn’t mention structural adjustment…

The charts and graphs she presented as she talked were sophomoric. It is difficult to believe that this expert from the Gates Fnd. is so “fluffy”. It seemed like they just presented what they throught the audience would accept.  There were things to object to and to question but it was so cloudy that there was not much to grab hold of.

Dick Nelson’s presentation was rambling and the main point was that rich countries do not give what they should to support less developed countries to reach the Millenium Development Goals. No argument there, but he didn’t make this very forceful or challenging. He talked about adaptation vs. mitigation and the variable costs associated with these strategies. He also stated that people need electricity, lights, machines, and fans if they are to develop, and how are we to help that happen while also trying to reduce emissions? Because the point is, we are responsible for helping them reduce their emissions, and helping them adapt their agricultural systems. We have a “moral imperative,” because we created the problem. And I quote, “The poor need help, and the rich have resources.” So we have to help them “move up the ladder” by providing the “technology that people need to develop ‘green.'” And if anyone needs an example of how we can help poor countries like, say, Bangladesh, Nelson has one suggestion of something Bangladeshis have asked for that we have the know-how to provide: food banks. Because we are so excellent at creating a highly commdified food system, at overproducing food and still managing to have alarming rates of hunger and food insecurity in our country, and at creating a emergency food system to act as a band-aid. And now we can share this vast knowledge with other countries.

Some of the questions made very clear how intentionally vague the panelists were being. One person asked about migration. Dick Nelson responded in a way that was actually more offensive once you realized he was actually trying to give an answer. He cited the necessity of adaptation, once again. So the answer to migration and climate refugees is… we need to help them adapt better. (How exactly is completing Doha going to help with that?) And then once the audience member asked, “Are you going to answer the question?,” the BMGF speaker said that the EU and US both have very tight immigration restrictions, and we’re already seeing people drowning on boats for Europe, and that’s something we are facing because policies aren’t going to change. “We”? How many of her family members have had to make that decision? Honestly this remark, and her certainty that all we can do is just provide assistance and aid, was the most devastating, depressing thing I heard all evening.

What about the World Bank’s ill-informed water projects that threaten environment and agriculture? Answer: The World Bank could be better informed by science, but “a lot has changed.”

Why can’t we reach the “utopia” level? Is it really out of reach? The BMGF speaker said that it’s really not, and we have the technical abilities, it’s just that political will is lacking to do what we need to do. She didn’t specify what these things might be… legalize GMOs in every country? or make radical changes in how we consume, and how we do business?

And finally, someone addressed the gigantic elephant in the room: Do you think that we can accomplish all these goals without challenging corporate power? Uh-oh. Corporate power? Ummm… The best we can do is support community-based development, provide some “helping hands from the North, and push for the completion of the Doha Round because the WTO provides opportunities for everyone to come to the table and negotiate. (I’m assuming this is keeping agriculture under free trade rules, not addressing IPRs, and keeping US and EU ag subsidies in place, while enforcing free trade on the Global South… otherwise the US will throw a fit and refuse to negotiate at all.) Moving along…

Then questions were cut off, and the host ran in to conclude but mentioned that he noticed one of the things he wanted to address was population. Groan… Fortunately there was no time left, so he just concluded with a spiel about the UN and their organization in Puget Sound, and left us to look at the 3 books at the tabling area: Jeffrey Sachs, Jeffrey Sachs + Bono, and Paul Collier.

Overall, the talk was very vague, very frustrating, very depressing without any real solutions, and sort of boring at times. However, Sarah (moderator, from Yes! Magazine) made one comment that stuck with me, and I conclude with it: If there was an asteroid heading toward Earth right now, what wouldn’t we do to stop it? We would mobilize to do anything to stop it from destroying us. We have control over climate change, we have choices, so why can’t we mobilize around climate change in that same way?

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