It is not personal, it is political
A focus on personal efforts by common people is too often a distraction from the systemic changes needed to deal with the climate crisis
The diet recommended by the Lancet EAT report would be unaffordable for large chunks of the population [image by: denisbin]
In Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings there is a scene where Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, is shown indulging in a feast as the armed forces of the city led by his self-sacrificing son engage in a hopeless battle. As juice spurts from a grape that Denethor bites upon, his son falls, wounded.
There is no such scene in the books, and while it makes for good cinema, it obscures Tolkien’s far more sophisticated point. In the books Denethor is not a self-indulgent glutton, and is in many ways a moral character overthrown not by a failure of character – except pride, maybe – so much as his inability to overcome old ways of thinking in the face of an existential threat. A product of an ossified system, he cannot adapt his thinking, and reliant on old systems that are not up to dealing with the scale of the crisis he is overcome and overthrown by his own despair.
Similarly, commentary on the climate crisis and the environment is often framed through a moral framework, where those fighting for a sustainable future are portrayed as pure, ascetic figures asking us to sacrifice for a better world. While the fight for a more habitable world is certainly a fight for justice, and thus has moral force, the personalisation of the political – in making those at the certain of the struggle uniquely moral figures has a set of problems, both in how the problem is imagined and how it is to be addressed.
As with the film, personalising the issue has emotive appeal. When Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg sparred on Twitter on climate policy and other issues it made for great theatre, and framed of the issue as that of a deeply problematic world leader versus a young activist. For many young people Thunberg is the far more appealing figure as she avoids carbon-intensive forms of travel, promoting more sustainable systems such as public transport.
While Thunberg herself has focussed on policy changes, far too many people focus on personal ‘moral’ choices as a way to deal with the environmental crisis. People are advised to stop using plastic bags, to give up personal transport, to shift to electric vehicles, to use biodegradable sanitary napkins, and – as discussed in the interview below – to adopt ‘the perfect diet’. Many of these choices might be good in and of itself, but they are unlikely to be enough to deal with our problems.
According to this excellent graphic representation by the World Resources Institute, the top five sectors when it comes to emissions, the single largest sector when it comes to emissions is the “energy sector — including electricity, transport, manufacturing, buildings, fugitive and other fossil fuels… representing 73% of global emissions in 2017.” Agriculture is the second, land-use change and forestry is the third, industrial emissions (which registered an 180% increase since 1990) is the fourth, and waste is the fifth.
While personal choices can impact all of these, they can only do so marginally. The change required is systemic, not merely personal.
More importantly, as the criticism of the Lancet EAT report noted, the diet was unaffordable for at least 1.58 billion people – possibly many more once they had to factor in the costs of managing other basic needs such as shelter and transport. To be saintly often comes with a cost, and if the very poor cannot afford it, such “solutions” only lead to greater demonisation of the poor for the choices they cannot afford to make. What is being offered is a way forward where those making extraordinary profits in the current status quo to remain as they are, while the effort of changing falls upon communities, many of whom cannot afford to do so. For example, reliable, safe – especially for women - and comfortable public transport is a rarity in much of South Asia but is a normal feature in the European Union. Can we judge the choice of a woman in rural Bihar choosing personal transport over public transport in the same way as we can a man in Berlin?
My previous office was located five kilometres from my house, and had a shower and a bathroom, and thus I could afford to cycle to work. The vast majority of people in India work in the informal sector, and even those that work in the formal sector do not live necessarily close to their work, rarely have such amenities at office. Is it wise to expect people to adopt cycling to work as an option, especially when temperatures exceed 45 degrees C in Delhi, while rarely breaching 20 C in a city like Amsterdam? That many do nevertheless is largely because economic constraints mean they do not have an option, not because they it is what they have chosen.
As Radha Gopalan argues in the interview below, we must look beyond the merely personal to the systemic. If the success of the industrial processes has brought us to our current crisis, we must find new processes if we are to move forward successfully, otherwise – as with Denethor – our personal moral character will not be enough to save us from disaster.
Radha Gopalan, is an environmental scientist by training, with a deep interest in exploring and practicing transformative education to sustain and regenerate life systems. After close to two decades as an environmental consultant, Radha decided to use her field experience to make Sustainability and Natural History learning more practical and meaningful for school students. She taught for several years at the Rishi Valley Education Centre, Andhra Pradesh, and is a Visiting Faculty at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She engages actively in education efforts around the idea and practice of sustainability, with a particular focus on food and food systems. Radha is a member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.
Q. What do we speak about when we speak about diet and food?
A. Both diet and food are very culture specific, reflecting not only the socio-economic conditions of the people, but also their very specific geographies. Nutrition is only one aspect of this, albeit an important one. There is also tradition, local ecosystems (land, soils, water, biodiversity), access to seeds, and the use of plants for medicinal purposes. Food regimes also reflect power dynamics.
For example, historically caste played an important part in what you ate based on livelihood and what was available. A lot has been written about the origin of beef consumption among Dalit communities: their caste-compelled “job” to remove dead cows from upper caste settlements, skinning dead cattle and easy availability because others didn’t “want it”. Cattle slaughtered at the end of their agriculturally productive life cycle provide an accessible and cheap source of protein for communities marginalised from access to resources to produce food. Geography and seed availability played another role: e.g., there are different varieties of oil seeds native to different places, and their nutritional value, before being refined, differs widely. So they became a part of traditional cuisines of those areas. For instance, mustard oil in West Bengal, coconut oil on the coast etc.
The diet of people, and the foods that are part of that diet, are the outcome of a complex regional, socio-economic, cultural ecological and – most importantly – “messy”, interaction. From this emerges diversity.
Q. How did industrialisation impact this?
A. Industrial systems are scale systems, and thus there is a tendency to homogenise, to make things simpler and more uniform. They also have implications for land, with ownership of resources that were often common property – forests, pastoral lands, and water bodies – being taken over to support this homogenisation process.
As the forms of production of food were homogenised the science of nutrition entered and dominated the understanding of food. As staples and ideas of what is “nutritious” became the same across vast regions, you could ask the question of what was most nutritious because – unlike before – you were largely considering the same small basket of consumables or rather commodities.
Q. But isn’t the science important? How do we usefully critique this without further fuelling anti-scientific trends?
A. We have to develop an understanding of whole foods. They cannot merely be seen as individual categories of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and minerals. For example, whole rice or millets, which are unpolished or hand pounded, processed enough for them to be digestible, are very different from highly processed foods. Polished white rice loses its fibre, Vitamin B12 and micronutrients, and helps drive up diabetes because of its high glycaemic index, which means it can cause a sudden spike in blood sugar levels.
We have the odd situation where we are fortifying polished rice with vitamins to improve nutrition, when the polishing itself helped removed those vitamins. Added to that chemical fortification processes mean that these vitamins or micronutrients aren’t absorbed as naturally as they are when they are part of the process of the plant’s cultivation.
We have to understand foods as being produced from a specific environment, nurtured by it, and thus we have to think not only of carbohydrates and proteins, but the quality of the soil and water where the food is grown, because these supply the foods with their nutritious value. If we continue to promote – as we do with industrialised farming – mono-cropping, we strip the land of the same nutrients over and over again, while providing little in the way of different nutrients back. Traditional and agroecological systems of mixed cropping (many crops grown together) would lead to a kind of symbiosis - one crop absorbing some nutrients, while another crop absorbed different nutrients, while they also nurtured the soil in different ways. For instance, pulses and groundnuts are nitrogen fixers that build soil nitrogen which can be used by other crops that need more nitrogen. Pest infestation are also reduced when you have diverse plants growing together.
Q. There is also the industrial production of meat.
A. Yes, and there is almost no conversation on the diverse production systems of animal-based foods: meat, eggs, milk. Animals in high stress states – as they will be if they are caged in limited spaces and force fed – secrete different chemicals in their body than animals that are allowed to graze, or what we know as “free range”, and which are slaughtered near the end of their agricultural cycle. There is both the absence of dignity for the animal during its life, as well as the production of meat that may be far from healthy. Apart from of course the vast stretches of land used for industrial production of feed (e.g., soya, corn) to support the industrial meat production.
Raising of animals in traditional food production systems in many African or Asian countries is very different from the industrial scale meat production in most developed countries. It provides livelihoods and financial security to marginalised communities. This also has implications for land “ownership”. Because of the reliance on grazing, there is a need for pastures and other commons like forests which are the basis for rural livelihoods and food security. These relationships between people, animals and the commons evolved over time often helps protect forest land, unlike the large deforestation undertaken for ranching of cattle on an industrial scale for agribusiness.
Q. Some people advocate just going vegetarian.
A. Here there is a confusion between individual choice and public policy. Consider this: as an individual choice for ethical, ecological, health or other reasons you may make the choice. But as a policy even if you were to consider it purely for nutritious or ecological reasons then the assumption is that food will be equitably distributed, all diets were somewhat similar, and we could all access all the needs from a plant diet, but it flies in the face of everything we know. We just do not have that type of equitable distribution of food. Meat often provides the only cheap access to nutrition, especially proteins and micronutrients essential particularly for pregnant women, and children in marginalised communities. Early brain development of children requires access to nutritious food. It becomes a right to a normal life issue in the current circumstances.
Q. Are there examples of locally produced food that work?
A. Due to the embargo on Cuba by the United States, and the fall of the Soviet Union, Cubans had to figure out their own form of locally sourced food in the 1990s. They managed an agroecological food system (without fossil fuels) that could comfortably feed their population, which needed to pay attention on maintaining the ecological balance while providing sustenance. It was a massive project, with political decentralisation playing a key role.
Q. Cuba might not be regarded as a “success” that everybody wants to emulate, especially given its one-party system.
A. We have movements here in India as well working towards food sovereignty: taking control of our food systems. Peoples' collectives in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana who are part of the Food Sovereignty Alliance are working towards food sovereignty. There are many other efforts across the country of people asserting their rights to seed sovereignty by saving and regenerating native seeds. At a state level, Kerala is an interesting example: over the last decade Kerala has led on this, partially because of its urbanisation. As concerns over pesticide use and pollution have grown, people have started focussing on urban food production, to grow their own vegetables and basic foods. It does not cover everything, of course, but it has created a way for people to get food less laden with chemicals, eggs that are not factory farmed.
During the early stages of the pandemic, Kerala had a problem being a net importer of food, when borders were closed. The state incentivised use of fallow land and empty lots in urban areas for cultivation of food. The owners did not lose their rights to the land but the state helped turn these lots into productive land. Kudumbasree which had been engaging in homestead farming on leased land and other groups expanded their efforts with state support.
Q. How does all this relate to climate change? Are these steps of adaptation or mitigation?
A. Some of this is adaptation, in the sense that climate change leads to extreme weather events, impacts the fertility of soil, availability of water resources and mixed food production systems which are based on diversity, unlike monocropping, help preserve soil health, retain moisture and even rejuvenate soils. Diversity in production systems also afford resilient livelihoods because even if one crop fails you have others that may survive. With the focus on conserving and nurturing native seeds from the region (an integral part of agroecological food production processes), it preserves crop varieties that may be more resilient to the vagaries of climate changes.
Other steps help mitigate emissions. For example, agro-forestry helps in carbon sequestration, while maximising local production of food reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture by lowering transport, and its attendant emissions.
Q. What did you think about the Lancet EAT report, which recommended a diet for a healthy planet?
A. The report has already come under a lot of criticism for the simple fact that some of its recommendations – say eating nuts and seeds – are just not affordable for many people not just in developing countries but also marginalised communities anywhere in the world. But the main issues are this idea that we can just have a uniform homogenous diet, and the fact that it does not engage with where the food comes from: cultural, ecological, socio-economic and all the complexities we just discussed. Food serves multiple purposes, not just in terms of physical health, but also as a factor in our emotional well-being, as a social marker. You cannot just homogenise it all.
More importantly, without looking at agricultural patterns and how they support or diminish socio-ecological resilience, the report has made the mistake of looking – as the study of nutrition often has – at parts of the problem, not the whole thing. Socio- ecological resilience has to be at the heart of any adaptive strategy, and given how much food production impacts that, ignoring the way we produce food is a big lapse. Diversity and not uniformity builds resilience and this is where the idea of food sovereignty is so important.
Q. How did you get into this field?
A. I started off as an environmental scientist at IIT-Bombay. At that time while I was physically active and fit, was a runner etc., I suffered from seasonal chest congestion, and what I thought was a pollen allergy. With huge support from Dr Vijaya Venkat, the nutritionist, who started the Health Awareness Centre in Mumbai I began to understand food in a very different way: what is whole or 'real' food. The Centre supplied my meals for years, and it made a significant difference to my quality of life, so I became more interested in food, and its relationship to ecology and the environment. This understanding led to a paper for EPW in 2000 on sustainable food production and consumption, but I was still working largely abroad for the next few years as an environmental consultant.
In 2008 we returned to India, and to Rishi Valley, which is located very much in a rural area. It is here that I became involved with the rural community of pastoralists and small farmers who live in the semi-arid resource fragile area. Much of my learning on food security and the balance between livelihoods and the environment comes from that experience, and one which led me to the path of food sovereignty.
Critical reading on the environment of India, 29.04.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan
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