Climate justice: Can foodies and farm workers unite?

Aissat Abduljub and Habiba Wellba show Baaba Maal their failed crops. The maize has gone dry so it is inedible. (Credit: Oxfam)

By Rebecca Randall, special to Humanosphere

Urban-garden planting, Monsanto-hating foodies have something in common with displaced Central American farmers: A disdain for the current food and climate regime, according to Eric Holt-Giménez, director of Food First. Bringing the two groups together, he said, would create a movement capable of upsetting the powers that be.

Holt-Giménez made his case last week at an event in Seattle marking Food First’s 40th anniversary. (A video is available here.)

There is much work to be done by both groups before that can happen. It’s time to name the racism within the food movement – not just the food system it opposes, he said.

Eric Holt-Giménez, director of Food First

Eric Holt-Giménez, director of Food First

“We have racism so embedded within the structure of our food movement … that if we don’t address racism we’re not going to be able to build a powerful movement; we’re not going to be able to bring about the change that we need,” he said.

In his view, a food movement, which includes foodie activists who buy farm shares through CSAs and reject meat raised on factory farms, that partners with fast food workers and elevates people of color to leadership can gain the momentum to bring down the current climate and food regime.

On the part of foodie activists (mostly white) that will take some work to understand white privilege, and for climate refugees (mostly people of color), it means overcoming trauma to step into leadership within the food movement, said Holt-Giménez.

Climate refugees face the damaging effects of climate change within a world that has likely already left them ill-equipped to deal with the consequences – often these are low-income communities and people of color.

Holt-Giménez said that the first of the climate refugees began migrating north after Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central American agriculture in 1998.

Their ranks are only growing: While headlines show refugees leaving home due to the Syrian war, drought is exacerbating the problem – a fact that often goes unmentioned. In the U.S., we can think of the thousands left homeless after Hurricane Katrina.

The problem in his view is the lack of inclusion of these communities in determining climate policy and action.

After Hurricane Mitch, Campesino A Campesino, an agroecological Latin American farmers’ organization, attempted to make a case for agroecology in food policy. The timing seemed right: The hurricane had stripped through the land, leaving a stark comparison between the small farms using agroecology and larger modern industrial farms, which proved the small farms were more resilient.

The prevailing policy had previously pushed the Green Revolution, modernizing agriculture in Latin America and Asia through monoculture cropping, improved seeds and fertilizer. But despite the deforestation and soil erosion caused by the policies, global leaders rejected the farmers’ input, opting instead to rebuild the economy through manufacturing. Abandoned, farmers eventually began migrating north.

Holt-Giménez sees this disrespect for the rights of peasant farmers in the Global South replicated around the world. Agroecology is the way to go in Africa, too, he said, rather than mimicking the Green Revolution.

“The Gates Foundation hasn’t shown any indication that they are willing to listen to farmers. … They’ve been told over and over by farmers that they don’t want GMOs or that they want agroecology, and they still insist on doing things their way,” he said in an interview.

Agroecology deals with the whole farm system. Because of the complexity of practices and diversity of crops in agroecology, one dry year or one hot year won’t bankrupt the farmer.

Holt-Giménez criticized one of the Gates Foundation’s main strategies, which is supporting the development of drought-resistant maize seeds. “If there’s too much water they don’t work. If there’s a heat wave it doesn’t work that well,” he said.

It ignores other crops or practices that would build resilience. It’s also what he called, a “commodity-based strategy.”

“These are things you have to buy … they want people to buy their resilience when people can get that resilience by redesigning their farm system. They don’t have to buy it from anyone,” he said.

During his presentation, Holt-Giménez expressed concern that the voices of farmers from the Global South will also be stifled during the upcoming United Nation climate talks taking place in Paris in December. Solutions include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it also includes “what no one wants to talk about in Paris”: Remediation for those most affected by climate disasters.

“This capitalist economy that favors profits over people are not going to create the solutions we need,” said Jill Mangaliman, who leads the Seattle-based group Got Green! and also spoke last week. “Community solutions … those are the solutions that are going to get us out of this mess.” Got Green! is sending delegates from Seattle’s communities of color to Paris.

While it all sounds rather depressing, Holt-Giménez said he sees hope in creating a transformational movement that would topple the current food regime. And it begins by creating a food movement that is “as concerned about food as we are about people.”

Rebecca RandallRebecca Randall has worked as a journalist in the Portland, Ore., area for 10 years and is also a contributor to the Seattle Globalist. She has an M.A. from the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @beccawrites.

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