A cause to freeze for.

By Oliver Moore.

Berlin in January is a very cold time to have a demo. Yet 50,000 people – about the same number as attended Dublin’s biggest water protest, the zenith of Ireland’s opposition to long and oppressive austerity – marched the frosty streets that month not for a high profile march against cuts or Islam, but rather to march against food. The Wir Haben Es Satt, or “We are Fed Up” protest attracted 80 tractors and 120 organisations to demonstrate against the globalised, industrialised extremes of the food system.

Germany is not known for its protests, and 50,000 is 20,000 more than the previous year’s event. This was one of the biggest protests in Germany in decades.

The 80-tractor bit is interesting too, especially for an Irish person: these events are often, especially when held in very urban countries like Germany, seen as for naïve city types who don’t know farming. There may of course be an element of truth in this. However, as one of the organisers, organic farmer Jochen Fritz pointed out, when 75% of the pig farmers who were in business in 2000 are now gone, something has to give. Farmers for business as usual is a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas: even the organic ones get slaughtered in the end.

A recent high-profile publication in one of the world’s leading journals Science gives us some background. Rockstrom conceived idea of planetary boundaries. That’s the safe operating space for humanity, or the earth’s natural carrying capacity for certain practices.
In these areas – climate change, biochemical cycles (nitrogen and phosphorus) biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction) and finally land-use change – we are exceeding our carrying capacity. Climate change and biodiversity loss were considered by the team to be core boundaries defining the future.

EU agri-food will reduce its climate change impact by 1% by 2020, yet we need global decarbonisation of 80% by 2050 to prevent runaway climate change. An area in the Baltic Sea sometimes rivalling the size of Germany is stubbornly covered in a polluting algal bloom thanks in large part to the excessive nitrogen and phosphorus levels industrial pig farming off-loads there.

Agri-food with its land-use, processes and pesticides, undermines biodiversity. Species are disappearing at between 100 and 1000 times the natural extinction rate. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN classifies 80% of fish stocks as “fully or excessively depleted”.
Scientists asked for a 20% reduction in the EU fishing quotas. What happened? A 5% increase was granted in January. There are socio-economic measures of agri-food’s poor performance but exceeding planetary boundaries is a solid indicator.

TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was credited by organisers as bringing the extra thousands out onto the streets this year. Ostensibly about trade, many civil society organisations fear TTIP is more about a race to the bottom for food standards, where the lowest standard becomes the norm. This suits corporations but not threatens citizens’ hard fought labour, health and environmental standards. TTIP is inimical to national standards.

To take a relevant example, the EU’s precautionary principle is seen as a barrier to equivalence, or harmonisation, of pesticide rules between the EU and US. Europe adopts a precautionary approach to pesticides, while in the US proof has to be provided that damage is being done. While currently pesticides like paraquat, and many class 1 organophosphates are not allowed in Europe, a recent report highlighted 82 potential new and very strong pesticides that would come on the market in the EU, were the US standards to be applied. There is evidence that a regulatory chill on, for example, endocrine disrupting pesticides is already happening in the EU, simply because legislators anticipate TTIP coming into effect.

It is interesting to see how these issues morph into each other. Walter Haefeker, President of the European Professional Beekeepers’ Association, spoke from the stage about TTIP because he feared the EU’s partial ban on bee-killing pesticides (neonicotonoids) is under threat: already “the manufacturers in question do not accept even the current temporary partial ban and have initiated legal action against the EU Commission at the European Court of Justice”, he said. One of the main provisions in TTIP is to make it easier for companies to sue governments or the EU potentially in Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDSs). Indeed this partial neonicotonoid ban has been specifically cited by US negotiators as problematic for regulatory harmonisation.

It is worth remembering that, while 97% of replies to a recent EU consultation were against either TTIP or ISDSs most lobbying on TTIP is by the corporate sector, the biggest component of which is agribusiness and food. It’s definitely a cause to march for.
What happened to the environmental movement, and its marches, in Ireland? •

Dr Oliver Moore works for UCC’s Food Business and Development Department