LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION – PART 2

The second part of Mike Downham’s four part series in which he looks at the extent to which local food production features in different versions of the Green New Deal. You can read the introduction here.

Green New Deals

One of the demand formulations now gathering widespread support is for a Green New Deal. There are many versions of GNDs, but they have in common huge expenditure by states, decarbonisation, new jobs and, to a greater or lesser extent, urgency. Until recently GND movements tended to focus tightly on renewable energy. Proposals then began to embrace additional approaches to decarbonising energy, particularly through improved heat efficiency of buildings and public transport initiatives.

But now something new has come into sight – the idea that a GND should not be focussed exclusively on energy but should cover every sector of society. The International Panel on Climate Change, in its October 2018 Report responding to the Paris Agreement’s readiness to settle for a 2.0⁰C rise in global temperature, said that “rapid, far-reaching , and unprecedented change in all aspects of society” were necessary to limit warming to a 1.5⁰C rise. But their definition of ‘all aspects of society’ included only “land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, cities” – a limited definition of society inevitable given the political influence the IPCC is subject to.

A few months later, in February 2019, Senator Markey and Representative Ocasio-Cortez proposed a more radical GND for the US, which includes job security for all, along with “providing high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”. But the way this was presented exposed them to dismissive right-wing attacks that these non-energy proposals were just ‘socialist add-ons’.  

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Later last year, in November, A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal by Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen and Riofrancos was published in response to the Markey / Ocasio-Cortez initiative. I was among those who had an opportunity to meet with three of the authors at a ScotE3 zoom meeting on 15th May (see report on this website). They have developed the idea of a trans-sector GND extensively. Just as the root causes of global warming go beyond energy policy to the whole capitalist system steered by the market, they argue for a GND which addresses energy, jobs, housing, transport, recreation, nature conservation, education, and health and social care services. They explain that these aren’t just add-ons, but practically essential to reduce emissions, in three ways. 

By shifting more people from carbon-emitting jobs into carbon neutral jobs, which include education, health and social care services, overall emissions will be reduced. 

Secondly, as a GND can only be effective with intervention and massive investment by the state, market control over what is produced will necessarily be replaced by regulation. Without the distortion of profit, the ‘good life’ will be more closely aligned with the rationales of low resource use, low carbon emissions and well-being, rather than with status based on consumption of what the market tells us to buy.  As the authors of Planet to Win give as an example, people will prefer to spend their money on dancing classes than on another ipad. This shift will leave large numbers of workers without jobs – those who are currently employed by companies selling products which emit carbon, either in their manufacture or their use. In the context of a cross-sectoral GND these workers can readily be offered carbon-saving or carbon neutral jobs, accompanied by whatever training they need.

Thirdly, a just transition from fossil fuels can only be achieved through public ownership under local  democratic control. Local control cannot be truly democratic and effective without removing inequality and poverty. Job guarantees for all workers are a pre-requisite for reduction of poverty and inequality, so we will need a flexible and responsive employment sector. Any job whose purpose is to improve the quality of life, and which does not emit carbon, will be understood as a climate job.

A Planet to Win came out just one month before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The book’s recommendations are extraordinarily timely. They might have looked far-fetched at the point of publication, but now here they are – proposals which we can immediately move forward with and  develop. That they are available at this point is a bonus for the climate movement, which has no time to lose.

The pandemic has not only ripped off the protective blanket from the capitalist system, revealing the bankruptcy of its ideology for all to see. It has also presented us with new opportunities for organising. But before I move on to discuss those opportunities, what is it that at this moment is so important about local food production?

Local food production as part of a Green New Deal

Few would disagree with the importance of local food production, the benefits of which I summarised at the start of this piece.  In contrast, few of the GNDs which have been tabled have dealt with it in any detail. But, if for no other reason, the fact that food production and distribution are estimated to account for at least 30% of global carbon emissions, food has to be given a prominent position in the articulation of any GND.  Furthermore, as agreement grows that GNDs should be trans-sectoral, the argument for putting food at the heart of a GND becomes stronger, given the big but less easy to measure impacts of food on the physical and mental health, security and biodiversity of communities. 

The authors of A Planet to Win acknowledge that food is an important omission from their book, implying that it’s too big a subject to cover in a short book. This perhaps says something about the extent to which American people have become habituated to the commodification of their food. 

The IPCC did not include food in its list of societal factors which we need to address (though it did list land, without saying anything more about it). 

The US Green New Deal recommends access for all to “healthy and affordable food” but is silent on how that might be achieved. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that the EU GND, trotted out again last week by the European Commission in the context of a Just Recovery from the pandemic, does better by giving a whole section to food in its proposals, headed From Farm to Fork. But that section reads, along with its heading, as if written 20 years ago, with nothing more radical than improved labelling.

The Labour Party’s Green New Deal, agreed at its conference in September last year, is broad and radical and has urgency. But the word ‘food’ appears only once in the large document, at the bottom of the list of Universal Basic Services the Party intends to introduce, without any detail about what that ‘service’ would consist of.

All GNDs need to some extent to be country or region specific, while learning from each other about how best to articulate their demands. In Scotland the Green Party’s GND proposals, announced in April 2019, are limited to investing in low carbon industries, restoring our natural environment, giving everyone a warm home, and providing access to cheap, reliable and green transport. Food is not mentioned. 

In contrast the Commonweal GND proposals for Scotland, put out in November last year (the same month as the publication of a Planet to Win) include a wordy 17-page paper on food. This, along with all the Commonweal GND proposals, is about long-term strategy. The proposals do not articulate the urgent demands which we need to make at this moment if we are to limit global warming effectively. They also do not address the imbalance of power which confronts us. Notably, the paper on food says “It’s easy for food to become a class battleground, and we need better ways to talk about it”. But we don’t – a class battleground is precisely where we need to muster if we are to change food policy in Scotland, because the current confused policy is a reflexion of the class struggle, as is global warming. Once we’ve won that battle the Commonweal proposals will come into their own as contributions to the public debate about our collective strategy. To give them the respect they deserve, the Commonweal proposals were put together before the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed everything. 

The climate movement in Scotland needs to make urgent demands, addressing them not only to the Scottish Government but also to workers, including the many who have lost their jobs, or will soon loose them as a result of the coronavirus epidemic and  the simultaneous collapse of the North Sea oil and gas industry. Rapid change will only be achieved through the combined agency of the state and of workers. But we have to be clear first about what changes we are going to demand as part of a radical GND. As there’s been little discussion so far about demands in relation to food, here are some suggestions for starting that discussion. The suggestions are all about the production of food locally. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change. 

In Part 3 to be published on 12th June Mike looks in more detail at different forms of local food production. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.

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