At the press conference that marked the beginning of the climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheik, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reminded us that the fight against climate change is about avoiding a ‘raging food catastrophe’. Not in some distant future, but as early as this year.
Hunger will affect large parts of the world in 2023, from Madagascar to Afghanistan, Haiti to Ukraine. Climate change, COVID, war, and conflict, coupled with rising costs, have pushed 828 million people into critical food shortages. Swaddled in the safety of food security, it's easy to take for granted what these people know all too well: without food, everything comes to a halt.
International Food Systems
But the reality is, climate change is challenging food production in all countries. Torrential rain patterns, seasonal variations, and extreme weather make agricultural conditions increasingly unpredictable. A warmer and more acidic ocean also affects fishing and aquaculture. Climate change threatens everyone’s food security.
The Nordic food system, for example, crosses boundaries. We rely on imported food, fodder, and other resources. In fact, 50 percent of the land used for "Nordic food consumption" lies outside the Nordic countries. 90 percent of the water used for our food consumption stems from outside of the Nordics.
This, while major parts of the world face the acute threat of water scarcity due to rising temperatures. As much as 50 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food consumption occur outside of the Nordic region. This makes us Norwegians both vulnerable and responsible for climate change.
We have good reason to be concerned.
However, the outlook is not entirely bleak for Norwegian agriculture and aquaculture. A wetter and wilder climate is also getting increasingly warmer, which extends the season of growing produce. Some parts of the country already report of this season lengthened by a whole month.
Food security is about ensuring that everyone has physical and economic access to sufficient and safe food at all times. Fortunately, what's good for our food security is also good for the world. If we produce more food using Norwegian resources, following regenerative principles, we can secure food security in Norway while simultaneously placing less of a burden on others' limited food resources.
How do we achieve this in practice?
Well, the Norwegian food system is not stripped of challenges. The producer’s economy is substantially far from sustainable. Farms shut down in Norway every year. According to the Norwegian Agriculture Agency, a total of 283 farms ceased operations in 2021 alone. It’s a trend heading in the wrong direction.
So, we need more farmers to increase Norwegian food security, not fewer. For this to happen, farmers must achieve higher profits in producing food.
Despite much attention around the Farmer's Rebellion and this year's agricultural negotiations, many are under the impression of Norwegian farmers being expensive to operate, which explains why farmers often find themselves in the spotlight for receiving subsidies. This is an old myth that deserves a fresh perspective.
Agriculture finds itself "at the intersection of the remains of planned economy and market liberalism," to borrow the words of the Norwegian economist Erik Reinert. Farmers are forced to sell their products at artificially low prices, to then receive compensation from the government thereafter. You could say this presents an authority who takes farmers' profits, only to repay parts of it and call it support later down the line.
In other words: Norwegian food is not expensive because farmers charge high prices.
A cold and harsh climate partially explains why Norwegian food prices are higher than in its neighboring countries, for example. Yet, grocery store chains still end up with substantial profits because retailers use their market power to push down prices for producers, and then raise the price towards consumers.
How can we ensure that farmers get a larger share of our food budgets?
Some (economists) have gone as far as suggesting that we shut down Norwegian agriculture in favor of importing food from other countries better suited to agriculture than our current own.
This is a gross exaggeration of how resilient global value chains actually are. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a misunderstanding of the farmer's societal mission.
The societal mission that agriculture performs is not about producing as much food as possible at the lowest cost. It’s about preserving traditions, local knowledge, and a range of essential ecosystem services. Among other things, agriculture:
- Contributes to maintaining the cultural landscape
- Prevents land from overgrowing, thus maintaining biodiversity
- Allows for grazing in outlying areas which increases carbon storage in the soil
- If following regenerative practices, enhances soil health, increases carbon storage, absorbs water and reduces the risk of flooding
And to conduct such a mission, it must be profitable to act on behalf of our ecosystems, counteract greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to increased biodiversity.
This is where we find hope. It’s possible to increase both Norwegian and global food security while helping us achieve climate goals at a faster pace.
We first need to figure out how we can move towards a future where farmers, fishermen, and everyone else involved in food production are celebrated for the crucial work they do, not only ensuring that we have food on our table, but also helping solve our planetary climate and nature crises.
To find our way there, ÆRA and Rethink Food invite you to a third food-FLOKE, where we’ll seek to explore possible solutions to some of the most significant challenges of our time:
- How can diversity contribute to a more robust food system?
- How can land (agriculture) and sea (aquaculture) work together to utilize all our resources?