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March 26, 2024
Climate Justice

The time of nature is no longer our time: why we must start from food and our relationship with the Earth

Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

Perhaps, the great ugliness of our time stems precisely from food and what we nourish ourselves with. From the earth, from plants, from animals, transformed into products, commodities, and goods, standardized to exploit, homogenize, and subjugate. They become true bolts, patented and owned by a small group of oligarchs. Just think about seeds, pesticides, and technology, whose market is controlled by giants like Bayer-Monsanto, DowDupont-Corteva, Chechina-Syngenta, and Basf, accounting for over 60%. Or consider other essential raw materials - wheat, rice, soy, sugar, cocoa, coffee - produced and marketed by a few billionaires and giants like Cargill, Archer Daniel Mitland, Bunge, Dreyfus, Cofco. Moreover, think about who controls the meat, beverage, milk, or fruit market. Across the globe, we are witnessing a concentration of power in the hands of a few agro-techno-industrial groups over one of the most important things: the food we eat. From seed to sold product, everything is controlled by a handful of food barons who extract natural resources, exploit people, communities, and ecosystems, shifting environmental and social costs onto the Earth and citizens.

"Behind your food are my tears”, said a peon, a worker in the Chiquita banana industry interviewed in Costa Rica as part of an investigation supported by the Journalism Fund, on agrochemicals exported from the European Union to the Central American country, the third-largest banana exporter in the world, with almost half - about 1,650,000 tons - destined for Europe alone.

How can we blame her? Bananas, like other food products, must be perfect. Because consumers demand perfection, say the supermarkets. To achieve this perfection, they are sprayed with mixtures of all kinds of chemically synthesized pesticides, so that fungi, insects, larvae, and birds do not damage the fruit. Thus, the fruit is standardized, without blemishes or holes, mass-produced in large quantities. It is harvested when it is not yet ripe, stored for long periods, and transported on huge cargo ships or planes from one part of the world to another, so that it is always available on the shelves of a few large supermarkets, at any time of the year.

To be perfect and preservable over time, every day, morning and evening, agricultural planes fly over banana plantations to spray a mixture of pesticides, some of which are prohibited or limited in the European Union, including chlorothalonyl, terbuphos, or mancozeb, a substance that can "damage the fetus, is very toxic to aquatic organisms with long-lasting effects, is suspected of causing cancer, can cause organ damage with prolonged or repeated exposure, and can cause an allergic skin reaction," according to theEuropean Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

This fungicide - along with other pesticides and chemical synthesis products - is an essential part of producing a crop like bananas, which, ironically, are then sold in countries where such pesticides are prohibited.

In short, in Europe, some pesticides are prohibited - thanks to decades of research and studies, advocacy campaigns, and civil society mobilization - yet they are still exported by European companies and multinationals to other countries to produce fruit that is then imported into Europe. A system full of contradictions - and injustices - but absolutely legal, always responding to the same logics: serial production, massive growth aimed at infinite growth, and above all, profit accumulation, for a few, with immense environmental, health, and social costs, dumped on all.

A 2021 study by Le Basic, the Office for Social Impact Assessment to inform citizens based in France, concluded that the costs associated with the impact of pesticide use in Europe on human health, water quality, soil, and ultimately on food production - costs that must be borne by society through public expenditure - are much higher than the net profits made by the pesticide sector. 

There are also hundreds of reports, articles, academic research, and reports from authoritative bodies such as the IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - which highlight how this agro-industrial system based on monoculture and high use of synthetic pesticides is one of the most responsible sectors for greenhouse gas emissions - one of the causes of the climate crisis - and the reduction of biodiversity globally. 

In short, the economy that drives the world and the way we produce food kills the soil, animals, insects, crustaceans, birds, and dozens of other animal and plant species. Someone might argue, "Yes, but industrial agricultural production is necessary to feed nearly 8 billion people." In reality, the mechanism of low-cost standardized food built on long supply chains causes great food waste. In 2023, only in the European Union,158 tons of food were thrown away, equivalent to 131 kg per person. At the same time, over 37 million people cannot afford a quality meal every two days (Eurostat, 2023).

So, what can be done?

As long as profit, hyper-productivity, and infinite growth drive choices, we can only expect a planet that becomes increasingly warmer, extreme weather events, reduced food availability, disasters, viruses, and zoonoses that will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people in the global south and the most fragile social classes. It is the extractivist and profit-driven logic as the sole value that must change. To do this, we need to develop a mindset and an imagination that helps shape a holistic, ecological, intersectional culture with the well-being of the ecosystem and human health at its core. It is not acceptable that choices are guided solely by economic logic. It is not acceptable that GDP - gross domestic product - is the only reference value. Infinite growth cannot exist because resources, especially natural ones, are finite. The extractivist and anthropocentric thought, intrinsically linked to the capitalist economic system of infinite profit accumulation, must begin to be replaced by healing, circular, and ecological thought based on another economy: local, regenerative, redistributive, and horizontal. The concept of development and security must be rethought and recoded, not understood as infinite growth, public security, but as care for the common home.

And to do this, perhaps we should start from the relationship between human beings, food, and nature. Not mere objects to be subjugated but a central part of our existence and survival. Technology enthusiasts may argue that it will address all the challenges that the present and the future will present to us. Partly true, technology can address some food - and not only - challenges, but it cannot be the only solution. It is the mindset that must change, the sense of emptiness that surrounds us must be replaced by real ecological and community practices and by new fabric-values: sobriety, reciprocity, kindness, compassion, nature, solidarity, gratitude, suffering, intersectionality of struggles and values, such as feminism, antispeciesism, antiracism, overcoming nationalism, and class struggle.

To create this mindset, however, we must regain the time of nature that we have lost. We must live an integral ecology and sow the seeds of a spiritual renaissance, returning to feeling like a passing being, one of the billions of living species on this planet. One of the most invasive species that has completely lost its relationship with its mother home, the Earth. Nature's time is no longer our time because it is a very slow time that does not adapt to the times of the economy but in the long run, nature teaches us that care brings years of abundant fruit. And perhaps, it is precisely from the Earth and the food we eat that we must start to generate other forms of civil, solidarity, fair, and caring economies.

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