Step One in Halting Climate Change: Introduce Laws to Force Food Businesses to Trade Sustainably.

Time is against me and I don’t get to write as much here as I would like. I have a full-time job and a social life. And I research and write here for free, but also for the pure enjoyment of writing about these topics. Also, I am enthused about the interest I garner from spammers in my comments sections. Who knew spammers had such a healthy interest in matters of science. So, in light of the many issues coming to my attention that I feel this blog needs to deal with, this post will deal with two separate recent announcements regarding the human impact upon the only home we currently know – Earth. Two birds with one post, as it were.

The first was a report published this month by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) highlighting a 60% loss of wildlife populations since 1970 (link). This was an average figure, some species have increased their numbers, probably rats and cockroaches. But the overall trend is a decline in animal populations (particularly large animals) and a significant loss of biodiversity. This is all the result of expanding human populations and activity. Or, poor management of resources, it depends on your viewpoint. To me it a good proportion of both.

The second is more encouraging. The UK, France and Germany have called, as part of a political body called the Amsterdam Declaration, for a series of measures to halt deforestation to be announced by the end of the year (link). Again, like previous posts, I refer to the use of language here. They call for measures to be drawn up and announced by the end of the year. It is already November. And that they have cooperated in this way in the midst of ferocious Brexit negotiations which are currently reaching their endgame, is the result of a miracle. Or else its due to the fact that intense Brexit trench fighting is having little effect on the matter of actually running things.

The WWF report coming as it does just a month after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC – link), presents further depressing news, with similarly seemingly unattainable solutions. It is as emphatic and clear as the IPCC report on the steps we need to take and the challenges in implementing those steps. And the steps are very similar. We need to reverse on our current path to empty forests, sterile seas choked with plastic, and degraded land that was once fertile – the decline in agriculture in the once extremely fertile Middle East region over the last 1000 years is a case in warning. Instead, we must engage in a full scale cultural tilt toward more sustainable expectations as to the limits of the natural world.

It is sad to say it, but most people do not care about the natural world, or understand its importance. If you are living in a shanty town on the edge of mountain with no food, no money, and no clean water, then you will not happily sacrifice yourself for the good of the nearby forest. Instead you are going to strip it for food and warmth, and for whatever else you might be able to sell. And in the rich cities we continue to buy products containing palm oil, rubber, plastics, rare wood, tiger bones, ivory, rhino horn, and seek out rare fish species for food. We burn oil, burn peat, burn aviation fuel on the way to the beach, and produce so much waste and build so much infrastructure that less than 30% of the planet is now untouched by humans, mostly Greenland and the Antarctic. All to keep the lights on.

Again, when I bring this up in conversation and try to discuss the changes we need to address, I am met with unawareness, and/or refusal. And as I rant on, I begin to feel decidedly like a street crank, one of those guys raving about chapters from John 13 and the end of the world. A recent poll conducted here in Ireland stated that 60% of people will refuse to change their behaviour in order to address a degrading planet (link).

The report also states that a further challenge we need to face is economic. Chiming with the recommendations contained within the UN IPCC report, it states that humanity needs to drastically reset environmentally damaging and unsustainable production models (ie: use of factory ships, extensive beef farming etc) if we have any chance to halt or, dare I suggest it, reverse planetary decline. The problem lies in the fact that those two issues, cultural and economic, are composed of systems so entrenched in our ways of life that it is difficult to see how they can be altered.

The WWF report stresses on the positive that we are the first generation to be fully aware of the challenges faced by the changing climate and loss of biodiversity. I agree that therein lies the power needed to steer this very unsteerable ship that we are on. If we know what to do, and why we need to do it, it gives unprecedented impetus to act to save our planet, or at least our species. Actually, our planet will be fine. It works on longer and far slower timelines than we do, so when our time comes to finally go extinct the planet will regenerate itself, lock away most of the released carbon again, and most likely evolve a wide range of new life-forms. This will be over a few million years, which is but a blip on the clock of earth.

But that is a different argument. The choice we have now is whether to continue to ravish and deplete Earth’s resources until they are diminished enough to reduce the quality of life to abject misery for those humans who remain – our grandchildren. It really is going to happen that soon. Or whether we can organise to act, multi-laterally and internationally, in order to better manage what is left, to allow it to replenish and recycle efficiently so we can share the planet with other species, in a mutually beneficial way.

So, after you read this, would you think twice about ordering beef tacos to be delivered to your door on a diesel-powered scooter from the local takeaway, three times wrapped in plastic? Or will you take a walk instead and collect some environmentally sustainable falafel wraps from the environmentally sustainable restaurant in your neighbourhood? The only problem for me with that is that there is no environmentally sustainable restaurant in my area. In fact, a boss of a restaurant once told me that the “Seas will never run out of fish”.  So, for a start, it is safe to say the wrong people are running restaurants. I for one would support strict and unavoidable and eminently enforceable laws requiring current and new food producing businesses to commit solely to environmentally sustainable practices. Can you imagine that happening? Yet it must be part of any cooperative effort to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. And I have never once heard it proposed by a government.

In Europe the food industry lobby is powerful, so the difficulty in rolling out such legislation is immense. And if and when they do introduce such laws, what then? What exactly is an environmentally sustainable food business practice? How would they vet suppliers to ensure they conform to it? Indeed, are there many food industry supplier chains that are environmentally friendly? Should restaurants commit to selling fish only from fish farms? How do they confirm that the fish farms are humane and ecologically aware? And currently they are not (link).

How would the food businesses deal with customer power once the customers see menu choices restricted due to these new laws? Tourism can bring out the worst in humanity, and customers think nothing of retreating online with scathing but ill-informed reviews of a business that might have called off the salmon options before they sat in their seats. Never mind that the reason they called of the salmon was because they sold out of their, for now hypothetical, daily “legal quota of bio-ethical salmon” early in the night. And these reviews matter to the business. See where this can go?

But, we have little choice. We need leadership from government on this, and strong leadership enforced by robust legislation. I would wager that a democratic majority may not be required for such a government. Currently the majority do not wish to commit to the changes required, and that will consistently reflect who wins elections. For such a majority to emerge, the super storms predicted to wreck havoc will be wrecking regular havoc, and sea level rises will already be soaking into New York’s Fifth Avenue and Amsterdam’s famous Damrak Square. In other words, people with voting power will actually be experiencing the effects of climate disaster in real time. It will finally inspire them to vote sustainably on their recycled voting paper. But by then it will be too late. We need leadership now. The Amsterdam Declaration might just be the start of something new.

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