Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Reflections on progress in Paris

Kristin Schafer's picture
Climate activists

Hats off to climate justice activists around the world. The credit for whatever progress we can point to coming out of the recent climate talks in Paris lies squarely at the feet of this smart, creative and persistent global movement.

Overall, it's clear that the Paris climate agreement is a watershed, shifting international policy in a direction that gives some cause for hope. It's also clear that policymakers didn't go nearly far enough, and that it will take tremendous, sustained public pressure to hold leaders around the world to what they promised. And still more pressure will be needed to achieve the significant changes needed to avoid climate chaos in the decades to come.

Others more deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of the climate talks have provided in-depth analysis of what was achieved in Paris, and where and how the agreement falls short. What I'd like to share here are some key takeaways from my perspective as a longtime advocate for just, sustainable food and farming systems across the globe.

Agriculture as victim, problem — or solution?

Back in 2009, global experts assessed the connections between climate change, agriculture, poverty and hunger. Their findings were clear: chemical and energy-intensive industrialized agriculture is a major driver of climate change, and must be transformed. PAN's Senior Scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, one of the 400 experts contributing to this UN analysis, was disappointed that these findings were so completely ignored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its recent report providing input to the Paris talks.

USDA's report did take the "important first step" of acknowledging that climate change is causing very real problems for farmers across the country — from volatile, extreme weather events to extended drought, floods, wildfires and increased pest pressures.

But, as Marcia explains, the agency report is missing the other half of the story:

Failing to acknowledge that the U.S. industrialized agricultural system is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is an enormous omission that is hard to explain. And this failure may be why the report inevitably falls terribly short of providing meaningful analysis of — let alone solutions to — the biggest challenge that our planet has ever faced.

Neither the contributions of industrial agriculture to climate change, nor the promise of agroecology as a key piece of the solution, made it into the final text of the Paris agreement. Yet thanks to many of our PAN International partners and colleagues from the global food and farming movement, these issues were front and center in events surrounding the Paris talks. And a coalition of 25 countries — the U.S. not among them — launched an ambitious initiative to combat climate change by protecting and promoting healthy, carbon-rich soil around the world.

The growing attention to how sustainable farming can help combat climate change marks an important shift in the public conversation, and creates openings to press for real investments in agroecology going forward. Stay tuned for more on this from Marcia in future blogs.

Overcoming "manufactured doubt"

As leader Bill McKibben laments in a New York Times op ed, the Paris agreements would have been timely years ago:

  In the hot, sodden mess that is our planet as 2015 drags to a close, the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995... 

So why the heck did it take so long to get here, when climate scientists were ringing alarm bells loud and clear decades ago? In a playbook lifted straight from the tobacco industry, the corporate fossil fuel giants invested in an aggressive campaign to create just enough "debate" and confusion on the issue to delay action — and keep the profits rolling in.

Naomi Oreske calls this insidious strategy "manufacturing doubt," and it works. As many observers have noted, it delayed global action on climate change for decades.

Similar dynamics are at play in the world of food and farming today. As both scientific evidence and public concern about the impacts of chemical-intensive agriculture grow, the "Big 6" pesticide/biotech corporations have spent many millions building doubt where there is none. We can't let them keep doing this.

The power of persistence

Sadly, making any progress at all in Paris was an uphill battle. Even in the face of dramatic on-the-ground evidence that climate change is well underway — think drought, extreme heat, floods, melting ice — too many decisionmakers (mostly the U.S. variety) are still burying their heads in the proverbial sand.

As these policymakers clung to the tired industry-sponsored "debate," activists from around the world showed up in Paris with a passion that could not be ignored.

The creative actions on the streets of Paris last week were built on years of strategic advocacy by the global climate justice movement. And calls for necessary change continue to be rooted in the critical work of independent, increasingly vocal scientists. Powerful, persistent community action grounded in strong science. This is exactly the kind of collaborative perseverance it takes to overcome billions of dollars of self-interested industry spin.

In the end, it's truly shameful that corporations have delayed progress on climate change for so many years. On behalf of my kids, I want to thank the advocates who have continued to draw back the veil, and are giving the next generation a fighting chance.

Photo: Takver | Flickr

Kristin Schafer
Share this post: 

is PAN's Program & Policy Director. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin oversees PAN’s program work. She has been lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children’s health. She serves on the Policy Committee of the Children’s Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN