Food sovereignty can stop climate change and feed us all

by GRAIN | 5 Feb 2016


A GRAIN opinion piece for the Korean International Strategy Centre.

Food is one of the key drivers of climate change: how our food is produced and arrives at our tables accounts for about half of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). To understand the role of our current food system in climate change, we must examine it as a whole and not just simply as agricultural production. From chopping down trees in the Amazon for soy-based animal feed to sending refrigerated cargo across the planet, our highly industrialized and corporatized food system spews large quantities of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide while bringing hardship, death and destruction to too many families and communities.

  • Waste generated by the food system is also a huge problem (food that never reaches people’s tables in “developing countries” and excess consumption in industrialized ones). It accounts for 3-4% of GHGs.
  • Transport of agricultural commodities (like Thai cassava to feed European hogs) and finished products (such as Brazilian chickens sold in Saudi supermarkets) is the fourth largest polluter representing 5-6% of GHGs.
  • Food processing and packaging takes a serious toll on our climate, mostly through the use of fossil fuels. They account for 8-10% of GHGs.
  • Farming comes next, accounting for 11-15% of all GHGs. The rearing and slaughter of industrial livestock to produce meat and dairy products is the biggest culprit.
  • Deforestation to produce agricultural commodities like maize and soybean (mostly fed to livestock) or palm oil and sugar (for processed foods) accounts for 15-18% of GHGs.
  • Refrigeration and freezing of food products for trade and retail represent 2-4% of GHGs.

The global food system is not only extremely inefficient and environmentally costly; it is also profoundly unjust. Despite the technological prowess and corporate and geopolitical pressure undergirding this system, 850 million people go hungry every day. To make matters worse, governments look at the problem through a very narrow lens. Figures from the COP 21 negotiations in Paris place the impact of agriculture on climate change at 24% attributing 65% of this to livestock. 1 Our data reveal that they are missing the bigger picture. Not surprisingly, their solutions are narrow techno-fixes such as carbon markets, sophisticated animal feeds, genetically modified seeds, and top-down agro-ecology that won’t fix the problem: Carbon markets failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; sophisticated animal feeds and genetically modified seeds rely on greenhouse intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides; 2 and top down agro-ecology undermines small scale farmers while strengthening the large scale industrial agriculture driving monoculture and deforestation. By failing to take a broad systems view and address the deep political and social inequities underpinning our global food economies, this approach produces “more of the same” that led us to this problem.

The good news is that we can do something about this and in the process not only have a real impact in reversing climate change but help feed the world in a more just and healthy way. For many years, social movements and civil society organizations like La Vía Campesina and GRAIN have been debunking the myths promoted by corporations and governments and exposing the industrial food system as the biggest part of the problem. We analyze the scientific data available to provide a more accurate picture of who is responsible for what in food production and the climate. We have also shown that worldwide redistribution of land to small farmers and indigenous communities, combined with policies to support local markets and ecological agriculture, can cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half within a few decades, significantly curb deforestation, and meet the food needs of the world’s growing population. 3

As we realized on the road to the Paris COP 21 Conference, and which we concretized during the two weeks of intense mobilization there, it is more critical than ever for people to take matters into their own hands. If we want to have a real impact on climate change, we must attack the industrial food system along with the fossil fuel industry. Climate activists are doing an amazing job raising awareness and mobilizing citizens, workers, and social movements to attack the energy sector on multiple fronts. One of the key challenges of their movement right now is to keep oil, gas and carbon in the soil. International campaigns are underway to financially choke the fossil fuel industry through divestment and disengagement. Direct actions to physically block mega-extraction projects is another powerful branch of work, with the next coordinated round of major mobilization planned for May 2016. 4

We need to do the same with food and agriculture – and we have started! While in Paris for COP 21, peasant and indigenous farmers from La Vía Campesina led a symbolic direct action against Danone, one of the world’s biggest food and water companies. 5 We took over the public space in front of their headquarters in Paris and painted a red line symbolizing the boundaries that cannot be crossed for a healthy and just food system – boundaries that Danone has already crossed and must be held accountable for. 6 We also held trainings and workshops, engaging thousands of people with the idea that the food system is at the heart of climate change and that people-led food sovereignty, based on local markets and peasant agroecology, can turn all of this around. 7

We must move faster to close in on the corporate drivers that are not only leaving millions of people poor and hungry but also killing the environment. We must denounce misleading government programs that only produce more of the same. But most importantly, we must deepen our engagement with the climate movement – which, after all the work organizing around the COP21, has truly become “a movement of movements” – to spread and develop peasant-led food systems. This will require creative direct action, a lot more conversations and movement building, and increasing active support to the peasants, fisherfolk, and indigenous people who produce our food. But that’s what’s so exciting: we can change course and save the planet – our success depends on all of us joining the movement!

written by GRAIN 8

Suggested Reading


  1. See UNFCCC, “Global agricultural transition under way to boost resilience to climate change and reduce emissions”, press release, 1 December 2015:
  2. For a more detailed explanation: The Exxons of Agriculture.
  3. For more a detailed explanation: Food Sovereignty: 5 steps to cool the planet and feed its people
  4. Learn more and join the action here:
  5. Watch the video at
  6. Telesur, “Via Campesina defies ban, holds protest in Paris against Danone”, 9 December 2015:
  7. See TNI, “Frontline communities lead the struggle”, December 2015:
  8. GRAIN is an international non-profit organization that supports small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. They have just published “The great climate robbery: How the food system drives climate change and what we can do about it.” For more information:


Author: GRAIN
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