Military blockades, volatile weather patterns, and financial speculation are all contributing to an unprecedented food crisis. In a clear demonstration of our current state of polycrisis, a food system designed for a predictable world finds itself chaotically disrupted. The poor are the worst affected. To guarantee access to food while protecting the climate, Europe must waste no time in building a resilient food system based on agroecology.
Green European Journal: Food prices have been rising since at least 2020, and the war in Ukraine has pushed them up further still. Many analysts predict that the situation will last for the medium term. What is at the root of the global food crisis?
Priscilla Claeys: The war in Ukraine revealed the fragility of our globalised food system, just as the pandemic did previously. Price increases do not affect everyone in the same way. It is countries that are structurally dependent on food imports that will be the most affected, and, within these countries, the most marginalised populations. What we are seeing with this crisis is the failure of a globalised food system that has been gradually put in place since the 1990s.
Seventy per cent of the people who suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition live in conflict zones. Focusing on the situation in Ukraine should not make us forget all the other conflict zones: Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and so on. These conflicts are often linked to poor management of natural resources such as gas, water, and land. Some are actual resource conflicts. We need lasting solutions, particularly to secure lasting peace.
Benoît Biteau: I would agree that the war in Ukraine has exposed the global food system’s existing vulnerabilities. We had tremors at the time of Covid-19, but the crisis was less evident and less straightforward. With the war in Ukraine, one of the world’s most important exporters of basic foodstuffs is affected. Countries such as Egypt, but also states across the Middle East and northern Africa, that are excessively dependent on these imports are facing the consequences.
You hear a lot of talk about solidarity in the current crisis, but we also need to be talking about speculation. Because of the situation in Ukraine, some speculators are cynically and immorally causing food prices to soar. Certain countries will not be able to foot the bill for the food supplies that they need. These countries will need solidarity in terms of financial support to help them afford food imports.
How is it that the food security of so many countries depends on Ukraine and Russia?
Benoît Biteau: The creation of a globalised food market led to the specialisation of entire areas of the planet. Ukraine and Russia specialised in the production of wheat, cereals, and sunflower oil. A geopolitical problem in this region creates a seriously difficult global situation. In the past, there was diversified production across the globe, so these vulnerabilities did not exist to the same extent. We’ve created an awful situation through market-driven specialisation.
Priscilla Claeys: The current crisis derives from the logic of treating food as a commodity. The free trade agreements developed since the 1990s helped cement the specialisation of certain regions, which is also a dynamic with roots in the colonial era. The specialisation that we see in Ukraine is mirrored in African countries whose agricultural systems are geared towards the export of coffee, cotton, or cocoa. Food systems were previously more varied, but that diversity has been destroyed.
Around the world, movements are demanding that food be recognised as a common good or as a human right, which is already the case if we look at the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from 1966. The question now is how to translate this recognition, whether framed as food as a common good or as the right to food, into trade and investment policies that can build a different global food system.
In truth, there is sufficient food production to feed everyone.Benoit Biteau
This is not just a problem for other parts of the world. In 2021, 95 million people were at risk of poverty in the EU. How are prices affecting access to food in Europe?
Benoît Biteau: People with the least means are the worst affected. The issue is not the availability of food; rising prices are the result of speculation as well as certain choices that have been made. In truth, there is sufficient food production to feed everyone. Think about the fact that 57 per cent of wheat production is used to feed livestock. Another 20 per cent is used for bioethanol destined for our petrol tanks. Only 23 per cent ends up on the plates of citizens. It is artificial scarcity. With a little will and political determination, we could redirect all the food that we’re using for animals and agrofuels and end this situation where the most disadvantaged, even in Europe, struggle to feed themselves.
Priscilla Claeys: The energy crisis is an added burden. Anti-poverty networks on the ground are encountering situations of real hardship. Poor households are no longer buying potatoes because they take too long to cook. Certain households are having to make really difficult choices. Food, housing, education: we’re talking about human rights, but they all come out of the same squeezed budget!
Benoît Biteau: There is also a link to the energy crisis because of how we produce our food. The current model of intensive agriculture is extremely dependent on synthetic substances that are direct derivatives of fossil fuels, most importantly fertilisers. Producers will find themselves producing food at a loss because they are no longer sustainable. We are moving towards a situation that resembles that in the Global South where it is the farmers who struggle most to put food on the table.
In recent years, we’ve seen exceptionally long and harsh droughts in many world regions: Brazil, northern China, much of Europe, and large parts of India, for example. How is the ecological crisis interacting with our food systems?
Benoît Biteau: Geopolitics and climate change are two elements that can put food security under pressure. If tomorrow a given food-producing region suffers strong climate impacts then we run the risk of the same difficulties that we see with the war in Ukraine. What is truly alarming now is the recurrence of disasters. We used to talk about 100-year floods. Then we started to talk about 10-year floods. Now some regions are facing flooding and droughts every year. So agriculture is undoubtedly a victim of climate change. Yes, industrial agriculture is one of its causes, but sustainable agriculture based on agroecology is part of the solution.
Priscilla Claeys: The links between agriculture and climate are indeed numerous. Industrial agriculture is a huge contributor to emissions, the second sector after transport. At the same time, farmers will be the first affected by climate change. Faced with droughts, floods, and, some years, even a combination of the two, I think that the fact that we need to question how we farm is dawning on people.
Climate change is an argument for local, diversified agriculture. The solutions already exist. It has been demonstrated that native and local seeds are real tools to develop resistance against climate impacts and rebuild territorial systems. We have the methods, and these could be the source of good, well-paid jobs (which is not usually the case in agriculture), but the question is whether we can put in place the structural means to support them. There is real potential for economic and ecological development to go hand in hand in agriculture.
The fact that we need to question how we farm is dawning on people.Priscilla Claeys
Does the European Union, which controls the key lever through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), overlook the social benefits of sustainable agriculture?
Benoît Biteau: The agricultural sector could be a real job-creating sector if we changed our policies, but the Common Agricultural Policy is completely missing its date with history. There are plenty of people looking for work and indeed people who would like to return to the land. But the guidelines for how the European funds will be spent are not directed towards resilient agriculture that creates jobs and pays its workforce at the same time as developing agroecological solutions and the cultivation of local strains. As long as EU funding is committed to an entirely different model of agriculture, we’ll move further away from the real solutions.
The CAP should be dedicated to creating the conditions for these aspirations to materialise. It is a third of the EU budget and the EU’s largest programme and yet it’s completely off the mark on agricultural development and food sovereignty.
Priscilla Claeys: It’s a real mess. Farms are disappearing at an enormous rate each year. Yet many young people who want to start farming cannot access land due to speculation, soaring land prices, and difficult working conditions. I recently conducted a survey on the working conditions of young people employed in agriculture all over Europe, and the results were appalling: underpayment, terrible working hours, no insurance, and no prospects for setting up for oneself because the land is too expensive. EU policy is not addressing this question of how to encourage young people to enter the farming profession.
We’re still stuck in an imagined tension between food security and the climate objective when in reality these objectives are completely aligned. Storing carbon in resilient systems, preserving the environment while producing food, and creating jobs for young people go together. There is absolute consistency between climate, economic, and social resilience.
Food price hikes have prompted some lobbies to oppose EU plans for greening farming. In the Netherlands, livestock farms are being forced to shut down by the government because of high nitrogen emissions. The affected farmers are protesting and warning that the decision will make food more expensive. Does the cost of living risk becoming an argument against the green transition in agriculture?
Benoît Biteau: This has been the case since the beginning of the CAP. We are told that we need the CAP to produce low-cost foodstuffs accessible to all households. Low purchasing power is exploited to continue to justify a model of agriculture that should no longer exist. In reality, this form of agriculture comes with enormous costs. It is the public purse that will pay the price of repairing the damage done by pesticides and synthetic fertilisers on the environment and human health. One way or another, we’ll pay for it.
When we hear about price rises, we must remember that large multinational corporations are making unprecedented profits. I mentioned cynicism and immorality: [global food corporation] Cargill made record profits in 2021 [5 billion dollars] against a backdrop of food speculation. At some point, we need to adjust our regulatory mechanisms to these dynamics and set a certain ceiling on speculation after which the money returns to the public coffers. It’s why we need a windfall tax. As my grandfather used to say: “there is never worse off without better off.”
Still, European consumers spend a significantly lower share of their income on food than people in the rest of the world. Is this era of cheap food coming to an end?
Priscilla Claeys: The cost of food is artificially cheap. If we take the CAP subsidies on our access to food into account, then add on all the negative externalities of junk food and obesity, and then include environmental pollution and its effects on health, we start to get an idea of the real cost. A school canteen supplied with organic food produced by local farmers would not only improve educational conditions but also improve the health of future generations and support a locally embedded food system. That would be food that we can afford.
The number of people living in Europe using food banks continues to grow. Are there ways to support people facing food insecurity while transforming our food system?
Benoît Biteau: In France, there are con- versations about what food social security (sécurité-sociale de l’alimentation) could look like. The idea would be to use public money to help people access food whatever their income. It would necessarily be progressive and provide the greatest level of support to those who need it most.
Priscilla Claeys: How food social security would work is that you are entitled to a certain monthly sum that you can only use to buy food from contracted farmers or producers. There would be a democratic process organised at the local level to determine which producers would be eligible. People would therefore be involved in deciding how to embed changes in agricultural practices at the local level.
Food social security is an interesting proposal for implementing the right to food. It is a concrete answer to the question of what the right to food should mean. It should not just mean that you have the right to a salary or a minimum income that allows you to eat badly from food banks and supermarkets. The right to food could become a tool to improve nutrition among individuals and families and transform Europe’s food systems.