Climate and food inequality: The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign response

While many of these indiscriminately affect entire communities or regions, the consequences are not distributed uniformly in communities. Individual and social factors such as gender, age, education, ethnicity, geography and language lead to differential vulnerability and capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The most vulnerable are typically poor people who live in the least developed countries that are prone to more than one type of weather disaster, i.e. floods, drought and storms as well as gradual environmental degradation such as sea-level rise or desertification.

Inequality is further evident when looking at responsibility for climate change. The climate crisis is one of neoliberal capitalism, a system which allows climate criminals to run rampant in a globalised world, pursuing profit at any cost, degrading the environment and spewing out increasing pollution and fossil fuels with no consequence. Large corporations which have been profiting from historical carbon extraction are not held responsible for their role in the climate crisis. The consequence is instead borne by those least responsible for climate change.

The global picture of climate inequality is also reflected at a national level.

In South Africa, vulnerability to climate change and variability is intrinsically linked with social and economic development. When looking at the farming sectors, farmers in the Western Cape will be confronted with high exposure to extreme events and climate change/variability; however, their adaptive capacity (particularly of commercial farmers) is high due to its greater wealth, infrastructure development and good access to resources.

According to researchers, in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape it will only take moderate climate changes to disrupt the livelihoods and well-being of the rural inhabitants, who are largely subsistence farmers. Thus climate change will increase the burden of those who are already poor and vulnerable.

The link between climate and food inequality

Alongside but linked to the climate crisis is a growing global food crisis. This is a systemic crisis built on a profit-driven, globalised and carbon-based food regime which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, undermines the food needs of a billion hungry people, has contributed to widespread food inequality and has caught at least two billion people in a transition to diets that are based on cheap and fast food, resulting in obesity and a host of attendant diseases such as sugar diabetes and heart disease. These crises are set to get worse.

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report is explicit in the trajectories that it maps out. A planet heating at 1.5°C and increasing to 2°C will experience major stresses, risks and even the collapse of most food sources. Climate shocks will exacerbate inequalities, particularly food inequality.

This has been evident in South Africa’s recent El Niño-induced drought which affected the national economy, led to increased unemployment and rising food prices. In particular, it was the low-income houses which were hardest hit by this climate/food shock as staple food prices increased by 25% between September 2015 and September 2016, while maize alone increased by 32% year on year.

The food sovereignty alternative

In response to the multiple crises facing societies, including climate and food inequality, there has been a surge in alternatives.

One notable movement of resistance originating from Latin America, and now an international peasant organisation, is La Via Campesina (The way of the peasants). Via Campesina promotes food sovereignty and defends small-scale farmers and agroecology. The organisation is made up of more than 200 million family farmers, peasants, landless people, rural workers, indigenous people, rural youth and rural women. In 1996 they declared the need for an alternative to food security approaches to end hunger.

Food sovereignty is this alternative. It affirms the importance of a political economy critique of current approaches to food systems; it highlights the importance of transformative alternatives that are controlled by small-scale producers and consumers to ensure healthy and culturally appropriate food, such as agroecology (a farming practice that works with nature to feed people and cool the planet); and it is about aggregating power from below to build movements.

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