Sustainable Agriculture? Climate Crisis and the Politics of ‘Food Security’

Since the Ukraine invasion, Western media have once again been discussing “world hunger” – unsurprisingly, in a distorted form – claiming that Vladimir Putin, rather than capitalism, has caused it. Thus, tackling the ecological-economic complex, we need to rethink the politics of “food security,” as Jovana Dikovic argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


In the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in winter 2022 a special thematic part was dedicated to anticipation of future on earth. The visitors had the opportunity to vote for the topic they find important and want to learn more about in the future. The three following knowledge choices were offered: 1) how development of energy potentials may influence climate change; 2) how improving conditions of the environment, forests, parks, and waters may reduce CO2; 3) how improving conditions of agriculture, land, and farmers may contribute to “food security” and affordable food. The visitors voted by throwing a bottle cork in one of the three knowledge cylinders, and the option that wins the most votes will be promoted in the museum through popular science content.

My idea to conduct a short observation and secret counting of votes for half an hour generated, apart from amusement, surprising results. Out of 18 visitors, only 4 decided to vote for the third cylinder on agriculture. The preferences were almost equally shared between cylinders for the energy and the environment. The third cylinder, that attracted the least attention, got filled by children which can be interpreted as their moral sensitivity on hunger and poverty in the world from which adults grow numb over time, and women, whose moral sensibility is conditionally speaking compatible with the topic.

Food security” and environmentalism decoupled

In my fifteen-year long career in research and teaching about agriculture and farmers, I was always surprised by the arrogance with which students, colleagues, and others blame farmers for the global warming, pollution, high prices of agricultural produce, or disrespect of ecological standards. Their critiques are not constructive most of the time, because, as this spontaneous voting showed, the majority does not have genuine interest in how to improve the agriculture and made food accessible for those who do not have enough of it. Instead, they tend to blame agriculture as the greatest cause of the pollution. Their suggestions are usually radical: the only way to improve the fragile environmental condition is either to curtail significantly agricultural and meat production and replace it with less soil-invasive tilling and breeding techniques. Likewise, some people think that there is nothing new to say about agriculture, and that the reduction of effluent and toxic materials should be an ultimate priority.

The ad hoc experiment I conducted revealed several important issues. How is it possible that the question of “food security” and sustainable agriculture has attracted so weak attention? On the other hand, focusing on the energy and environment potentials for CO2 reduction, although of high relevance, cannot feed the world, but it nevertheless attracts ecological concerns and mobilizes solidarity sentiments more than hunger in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where a significant part of the population has only one or half a meal per day.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Making food affordable and accessible to them, doing anything possible so that the scenes of hunger and dying children in Yemen and Ethiopia (where the war is going on since 2020) finally belong to the past, cannot obviously engage sentiments as the information that the Earth got warmer for 1.5 Celsius than hundred years ago, that glaciers are melting in an enormous vastness of ice, or that polar bears are withdrawing toward the inner continent. Because of the polar bears and glaciers, the international meetings of the highest importance regularly convene in Davos; compulsory climate agreement in Paris was signed; Greta Thunberg shouted at the United Nations General Assembly urging radical changes for saving the planet:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2.”

Aren’t existing power structures the cause of world hunger?

Environmentalists associate the resolution of environmental problems with a larger transformative endeavor. The reduction of carbon emissions is inseparable from a series of seemingly unrelated political projects: ending capitalism and existing power structures, and complete restructuring of transportation systems and industries (Hochman 2020, 30). It is thus not surprising why places such as Yemen and Ethiopia and their particularistic problems of hunger inspire fewer public statements, and sporadically invoke expression of concerns at international conferences. Even in the Carnegie Museum, the knowledge cylinder that suggested improvement of agricultural condition and “food security” was offered as the last option that attracted a few curious minds.

In the current era, the role attributed to agriculture is to mitigate environmental and pollution risks first, whereas dealing with “food security” and feeding the world population has a secondary importance. The European Green Deal indicates the trend, while its two core strategies Farm to fork (F2F) and Biodiversity practically reveal the whole environmental hypocrisy. Both strategies have been driven by the noble intention to increase sustainable food production and to restore biodiversity, but the unintended consequences of the shift are largely unknown and thus far have never been discussed in a holistic way.

What is the cost of conservation, afforestation, halving use of pesticides, regulations, and expanding bureaucracy that has to supervise the path to an environmentally sustainable future? Similar questions and accompanying resentments get silenced along the way or are ignored in the public debates as if these represent blasphemic attempts that endanger common sustainability goals. Environmental calls and movements share one chronic feature: they are rather concerned with the “imagined state of environmental purity and harmony,” because of which local and regional demands for greater access to resource extraction, or improving social and economic infrastructure, or support for industrial development get abandoned by the wayside (Rangan 2000, 182).

What are the costs of the European Green Deal?

Since the late 1980s, with growing environmental concerns “food security” has been sidelined in the EU policy agenda (Wesseler 2020). The EU visions for the agricultural sector by 2030 are now more occupied with reduction of net greenhouse gas emission for at least 55%; reduction of chemical plant protection by 50%; increase the area under organic farming for at least 25%; reduction of the sales of antimicrobials by 50%; establishing at least 10% of non-productive areas to name a few objectives.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The scientific and market assessments of the European Green Deal F2F and Biodiversity strategies already indicate some alarming consequences (see Wesseler 2020; Henning et al. 2021; Barreiro-Hurle et al. 2021). The full implementation of the two strategies will need to face the challenges of the inevitable shrinking of domestic food supply and the endangerment of local farmers. Such a scenario also should anticipate how the EU and the world in general will cope with higher prices for agricultural raw materials and food.

The strategies will inevitably lead to a decrease in export of the key agricultural produce in the EU, and will make it a net importer in the markets where it used to be an exporter. Reduction in chemical plant protection and an increasing shift to organic farming, including hobby urban farming and permaculture, will lead to reduced yields (see Aerni 2022). The conservation of designed non-productive areas will inevitably increase the price of land, which will create substantial pressure on land resources outside the EU.

The politics of priority

Two major consequences of the EU agri-environmental strategies are to be foreseen already now. The costs of the higher food prices will be borne by the consumers all over the world, and it will affect economic well-being of the whole supply and trade chain. New environmental norms imposed by agri-environmental policies on production and consumption, mainly practiced in the West, will seriously estrange developing countries from participation in markets because of new ecological standards they are unable to meet. In this scenario, it is likely that developing countries will continue to lag and further sink into pauperization.

Likewise, environmental externalities that spring from food demand will likely be offshored outside the EU, to poor countries where ordinary people chronically lack private access to land and still live on three dollars a day – which was a common condition of US American citizens in the beginning of the 19th century (McCloskey 2019). They will not only remain poor and hungry, but they will be fed by the European CO2. It is an environmental win-win.

Marry Douglas and Arron Wildavsky prophetically asked “why is social conscience concerned with environment and not with the education of the poor or relief of the indigent?” (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983, 13). Four decades later the pattern remains the same, and clearly shows that some environmental issues have priority over others. Concerns about countries’ CO2 emissions overshadow the interests about whether the countries can feed their own people. The inhumane dimension of these concerns is especially important in the context of the growing world population that will impose a great demand for food production. And perhaps civilization will not be ready to cope with the problem given that the top priority questions are asked and resolved last.

Note from the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. The references of this text are listed here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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