Mass starvation is humanity’s fate if we keep flogging the land to death

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before it’s too late

lustration: Thomas Pullin

George MonbiotBrexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%. 

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with fewer than five hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the UK has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global sea grab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. About 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

…There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal- to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

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The road to reconciliation starts with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

And yet it remains the only international human rights standard in Canada still up for debate

Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in
Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in was elected in a 2018 landslide victory and is continuing the band’s decades-long fight against Taseko Mines’ proposed New Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded its work almost four years ago, it provided a road map for Canadians to follow. That road map, the 94 Calls to Action, aims to “revitalize the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and Canadian society” after more than 100 years of the traumatic and systemic removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Call No. 43 underpinned all others, according to the commission. The commission urged federal, provincial and territorial governments to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They called it “the framework” for all reconciliation measures “at all levels and across all sectors of society.”

It’s extremely rare for international human rights standards to even be mentioned in the Canadian policy debate. However, when Canada voted against the declaration in 2007 at the United Nations, it was the first time that Canada had ever stood in opposition to an international human rights standard.

It remains today the only international human rights standard in Canada up for debate.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology for residential schools in 2008. However, my ongoing study on state apologies to Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that apologies without clear policy shift are typically rejected as “empty gestures.”

International standards of justice require that those responsible for human rights violations must do more than acknowledge and apologize for the harm that has been done. They must go further. They must take every reasonable measure to set things right and to prevent any recurrence of harms.

A closer look at the history of the declaration and its unique framework for human rights protection underscores the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s wisdom in highlighting its indispensable role in reconciliation.

…With the adoption of the declaration, the famous words “We the peoples of the United Nations” at long last became inclusive of the realities of Indigenous Peoples. It made way for Indigenous Peoples who seek a multiplicity of new relationships with UN member states within whose boundaries our territories and nations have been divided and subsumed.

The declaration reinvigorates the themes of self-determination, decolonization and anti-discrimination that are the foundations of the United Nations.

In its preamble, the declaration refutes the doctrines of racial superiority that have been used to justify the dispossession of Indigenous peoples around the world. In its provisions, the declaration calls for concrete remedies for the harms that have resulted from this dispossession. MORE

One climate crisis disaster happening every week, UN warns

Developing countries must prepare now for profound impact, disaster representative says


 Aftermath of the damage left by Cyclone Kenneth in a village north of Pemba, Mozambique in May. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Climate crisis disasters are happening at the rate of one a week, though most draw little international attention and work is urgently needed to prepare developing countries for the profound impacts, the UN has warned.

Catastrophes such as cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique and the drought afflicting India make headlines around the world. But large numbers of “lower impact events” that are causing death, displacement and suffering are occurring much faster than predicted, said Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary-general’s special representative on disaster risk reduction. “This is not about the future, this is about today.”

This means that adapting to the climate crisis could no longer be seen as a long-term problem, but one that needed investment now, she said. “People need to talk more about adaptation and resilience.”

Estimates put the cost of climate-related disasters at $520bn a year, while the additional cost of building infrastructure that is resistant to the effects of global heating is only about 3%, or $2.7tn in total over the next 20 years.

Mizutori said: “This is not a lot of money [in the context of infrastructure spending], but investors have not been doing enough. Resilience needs to become a commodity that people will pay for.” That would mean normalising the standards for new infrastructure, such as housing, road and rail networks, factories, power and water supply networks, so that they were less vulnerable to the effects of floods, droughts, storms and extreme weather. MORE

It’s time we took a seat ‘at your table’: Guterres calls on world youth to keep leading climate emergency response

Older generations have “failed to respond properly” to the climate emergency said the UN chief on Sunday, while the young are “stepping up to the challenge” and taking the lead to slow the destructive pace of global warming.

Lisboa +21 The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, at the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth 2019 and Youth Forum Lisboa+21, in Lisbon, Portugal

António Guterres was making the closing address at the UN-backed World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, and Youth Forum, in the Portuguese capital Lisbon, Lisboa+21.
António Guterres was making the closing address at the UN-backed World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, and Youth Forum, in the Portuguese capital Lisbon, Lisboa+21.

The summit comes 21 years after the adoption of the Lisbon Declaration on Youth Policies and Programmes, and provides a place for national governments to talk about progress made with young people directly, and well as introducing new approaches to empowering youth in politics and decision-making.

Building on an argument he has been making for some months now in the face of the existential threat posed by climate change, enshrined in the Paris Agreement of 2015 to keep warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Secretary-General said that it’s “not enough to listen to young people and provide a seat at the table – we need to take a seat at your table”.

The summit comes 21 years after the adoption of the Lisbon Declaration on Youth Policies and Programmes, and provides a place for national governments to talk about progress made with young people directly, and well as introducing new approaches to empowering youth in politics and decision-making.

Building on an argument he has been making for some months now in the face of the existential threat posed by climate change, enshrined in the Paris Agreement of 2015 to keep warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Secretary-General said that it’s “not enough to listen to young people and provide a seat at the table – we need to take a seat at your table”.

The summit comes 21 years after the adoption of the Lisbon Declaration on Youth Policies and Programmes, and provides a place for national governments to talk about progress made with young people directly, and well as introducing new approaches to empowering youth in politics and decision-making.

Building on an argument he has been making for some months now in the face of the existential threat posed by climate change, enshrined in the Paris Agreement of 2015 to keep warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Secretary-General said that it’s “not enough to listen to young people and provide a seat at the table – we need to take a seat at your table”. MORE

The Green New Deal Isn’t Global Enough

The resources Democrats want Washington to appropriate and use domestically instead need to flow elsewhere in the world.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has led the charge. 

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has led the charge.  Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

At the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya this past week, experts and officials from around the world debated how to come up with the investment and innovation needed for countries to grow without dooming the planet. National leaders, NGOs and others discussed, among other things, how to create more “sustainable patterns of consumption and production.” What really struck me in Nairobi, though, was what wasn’t discussed: the Green New Deal being pushed by Democratic Party politicians in the U.S.

This is surprising, in a way: It was the United Nations Environment Programme that first called for a “Global Green New Deal” in 2009, hoping to revive the world economy through investment in climate change-related sectors

That extra word, “global,” suggests why international players today aren’t terribly enthused by the Democrats’ plan. The program — or what little of it can be adduced from what’s now largely a slogan — is focused entirely on green investment in the U.S. The basic notion that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution seems to have been forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong: De-carbonizing the U.S. economy would be a big deal. A lot of good work can be and is being done. The Beyond Coal campaign supported by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News) has already helped shut down 285 of the country’s 500-plus coal-fired power plants and is aiming to close the rest by 2030. And getting climate change back onto the political agenda is important in and of itself. Nor should Republicans be allowed to use concerns about the growth of emissions in the developing world to stymie work on carbon mitigation at home.

Yet, fawning coverage of the Green New Deal rubs many in the developing world the wrong way. We’ve long known that an economy transitioning to a low-carbon growth path will both require investment and create jobs. But, the New Deal of the 1930s is simply not the right analogy. Then, economies across the world had enormous amounts of unused capacity that just needed to be put to work.

By contrast, a global low-carbon transition will require laying claim to resources that are productively employed in carbon-intensive sectors of the economy. It will be expensive. It will require sacrifice. And resources will need to flow more freely across national borders. MORE

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The Climate Benefits of the Green New Deal

Youth-led climate protests sweep across Europe

Thousands of youth strikers gather in Parliament Square in central London to protest the government's lack of action on climate change.
Thousands of youth strikers gather in Parliament Square in central London to protest the government’s lack of action on climate change. Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Thousands of young people in the U.K. are up in arms — not about Brexit, or the latest royal family gossip, but about climate change.

Students walked out of schools today in cities across the U.K., and other parts of Europe — the latest demonstration in what has become a global youth climate strike. This movement started six months ago when Swedish teen Greta Thunberg began leaving school every Friday to protest on the steps of her country’s parliament. Thunberg’s environmental activism is still going strong, and she has delivered powerful speeches to both the U.N.and the World Economic Forum on the urgency of climate change.

They want leaders in government to:

  • Declare a climate emergency and take “active steps to achieve climate justice”
  • Adjust curriculum to make the ecological crisis a priority in public education
  • Do more to communicate the severity of the problem to the general public
  • Lower the voting age to 16, so that young people can have a voice in determining their future

Judy Wilson’s Message for Canadians: ‘The Land Defenders Are Doing This for Everybody’

RCMP raids in Wet’suwet’en territory can’t bring justice, reconciliation or a better future, Neskonlith chief says.

judy-wilson.jpeg
Chief Judy Wilson: ‘We have to change to ensure that our young people have a future. That’s what the Indigenous land defenders are talking about when they say we need to protect the land and the water.’ Photo by Zoë Ducklow.

What are your thoughts on how governments are responding to the RCMP action in the Wet’suwet’en territory?

I was just reading Premier [John] Horgan’s response to the Unist’ot’en, and I think he was trying to stay on the middle ground. He mentioned the bands who signed these agreements [to allow the pipeline], but to me, the issue is clearly about the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs. They are the proper titleholders to their unceded territory, and they already made a decision. They said no pipelines in their territory.