Food and Climate Emergencies: The Human Side

“The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Anatole France

The food and climate emergencies are grievously and dangerously underreported. Food is a human need. Marx famously wrote “to each according to his (sic) needs”, but all living things need food, water, shelter, oxygen, and in the first year of life a mothering person. How is it that essential needs for life are valued using the same measure as weapons? How many bushels of rice = one reaper drone? ”Freedom from want, freedom from fear”, aspirations of Churchill and Roosevelt written into the 1942 Atlantic Charter, perhaps appear to express concern about human security, but security has a code meaning of military security.

The agro-industrial complex emits approximately 40% of global greenhouse gases through mechanization, release of methane and nitrous oxide, destruction of soil and forest carbon sinks, transportation (Kyoto exempt), refrigeration, packaging. Governments and politicians, the UNFCC, IPCC, economists, green new deals, all omit this sector in their pie charts and climate solutions. Renewables will barely affect the current agriculture system. The mineral and metal components mined for modern manufacturing and for green energy technology are in themselves ruinous to agriculture, to the ecosystems and to the people impacted by mining. Food and Climate Part I focused on the impact of (1)increased carbon dioxide emissions on plants, and (2) the loss of topsoil due to erosion exacerbated by more intense and frequent rain and wind storms.

There are many misconceptions about the effect of climate change on people: that somehow, usually with human (and artificial) intelligence and technology, people will manage the problem. Quaint Gaia guru James Lovelock blithely says that billions of people will disappear but that the world is still lovely. People cannot survive the wet-bulb temperature (the combination of heat and moisture, around 35C) even for a brief time outdoors. There is the Hobbesian and Malthusian convenient misconception that people will react violently to increased hardship, a rationale for military securitization of climate change as an adaptational measure. The violence paradigm is irresponsibly ignorant: attributing the Syrian civil (proxy) war to climate change, to drought driving farmers to urban slums and to anger and rebellion, leaves out the preceding socioeconomic decline in Syria, the suppression of political life, the shift since the 1980s from the agricultural sector and rapid decline of agriculture subsidies, the new land ownership laws. [1] Complementing the Hobbesian view of violent, selfish people is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin) view that people grab onto what’s best for themselves and that common care of land will end up in selfish grabbing and utterly depleting any shared resource. These are many truisms denigrating the “other”. Novelist Marilynne Robinson found that the British Poor Laws from the 13th, 19th, and 20th centuries assume that poor people are by nature unwilling to work and that providing for basic needs like food will increase self-indulgence and irresponsibility.

News about food, undernutrition and starvation, is quickly lost to follow-up and to any sense of urgency.

Children scream with hunger every night after Biden seized Afghan funds: 1.1 million children under the age of 5 will likely face the most severe form of malnutrition this year, according to the U.N., as increasing numbers of hungry, wasting-away children are brought into hospital wards. Around 9.6 million children in Afghanistan have been going hungry daily amid the country’s economic collapse. Various reports from United Nations and humanitarian organizations in recent months have found about 20 million people in Afghanistan, roughly half the population, face acute hunger.

Members of the former Afghan government, diaspora groups, and relatives of 9/11 victims call on U.S. President Joe Biden to help end the suffering after freezing $7 billion in the nation’s central bank funds. Also, and: “Humanitarians–including those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks of 2001–responded with condemnation Friday after it was reported that President Joe Biden has decided to permanently seize $7 billion of currently frozen Afghan assets even as the people of the war-torn and poverty-stricken nation suffer a broken economy, a collapsed healthcare system, and widespread starvation.”

This is what some 9/11 victims said in 9/11: “Not in our Son’s Name” (Sept 15 2001): “Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.” Orlando Rodriguez and Phyllis Rodriguez.

2.2 m Yemeni children are hungry and at risk of starvation due to Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. The U.S. and other nations refuse to limit weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the world’s richest democracies: :

Universal School Meals Programs Are Being Cut Despite 1 in 8 Kids Going Hungry in the U.S. Federal funding lapsed in June 2022, forcing most public schools to charge all but the poorest students for food. February 2, 2023

Teachers reveal scale of pupils’ hunger as 100,000 frozen out of free school meals. Children in England come to school with moldy bread or even nothing.

2008-9 Financial crisis: the World Food Program had to practically suspend school meals worldwide, at a time of climate disasters devastating to agriculture.

Lost to history is the death of ½ million Iraqi children due to the UN-administered oil-for-food program, infamously defended by Madeleine Albright who said these deaths were “worth it”. After this, why did Amnesty International feature Madeleine Albright at an AGM? Rania Masri: “Imagine what it feels like to live for 10 years under sanctions and bombardment. You’re in Basra..It’s morning and 120 degrees in the shade…. You’re thirsty, but the tap water is unsafe to drink You’re hungry, but the monthly food ration has almost run out, and all that is left is some rice and tea. Your 8-year-old son has started screaming in fright again, as he does every time a fighter jet flies overhead…. Your 4-year-old daughter is suffering from diarrhea, as a result of the dirty drinking water, and the doctor said the simple medicine needed to cure her is not available. Most likely, your little girl will die in your arms.” [2]

In 2013 Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, put it plainly: “The destruction, every year, of tens of millions of men, women, and children from hunger is the greatest scandal of our era. Every five seconds, a child under the age of ten dies of hunger – on a planet abounding in wealth and rich in natural resources…. Every child who starves to death is murdered.” [3] He writes about the body effects of malnutrition and undernutrition and the interconnected systems and causes, many of which are unacknowledged or forgotten. There are innumerable examples. It is not sufficient to abstractly talk about system change, and certainly without a time frame that accounts for the emergency of starvation and the emergency of climate change.

Ziegler describes diseases, living conditions, politics, and institutional malfeasance that are rarely reported. NOMA is a disease of malnutrition, a gangrenous disease that destroys the tissue of the face mainly in children aged one to six due to weakness in the immune system. It begins with inflammation of the gums. If untreated a wound develops in the mouth that oozes blood, and then progresses to tissue death. The child shakes with fever, but it is enough to provide the child with antibiotics, adequate food, and rigorous oral hygiene. If untreated, Noma becomes invincible. The child’s face swells, then necrosis destroys all soft tissues, the lips and cheeks disappear, the eyes drop down as the orbital bone is laid waste, the jaws are sealed shut so the child can only emit groans and guttural noises. 80% of children will die. It is found in sub-Saharan Africa, the mountains of Southeast Asia, the Andean highlands. This disease was known in antiquity and appeared massively in Nazi concentration camps from 1933-45. Now, more than 120,000 people die from Noma every year. In many countries, mothers are too hungry to breastfeed their children or mothers are compelled to undertake hard work in the fields. Engels described mothers forced to return to work right after delivery in the English working class. Ziegler writes that “the indifference of WHO is as bottomless as that of the heads of state” to this preventable condition.

The Touareg rebellion in Niger is rooted in extreme impoverishment largely due to the monopoly of the French nuclear AREVA uranium mining company; AREVA refused to finance an irrigation system that would shield from famine 10 million people. “The Touareg have been reduced by AREVA’s policies to a life of permanent unemployment, despair, and poverty.” P. 33. Confined by theory and not by the reality of human life, ignoring the lethality of nuclear reactors to people, soil, water and food, nuclear power as a solution to climate change is supported by Jacobin Magazine’s Matt Huber as it is unionized and is potentially a vanguard of revolution.

Food as a weapon:

The rise of Nazism is often attributed to German humiliation by losing WWI. ¾ million Germans died during that war, but the winning powers extended the blockade after the war causing extreme hunger, malnutrition, and that the suffering of German children, women, and men was greater under the blockade than prior to the Armistice. There was a decline in weight and size at birth, the ability of mothers to nurse, increased illness and death among small children carried through to children of school age. Children were so weak that school hours were reduced, children of 3 years were only beginning to walk, there was stunting of growth, swollen joints, absent parents. [4]

Hitler’s Hungerplan killed millions of men, women, and children across Europe by restricting access to food to a level below the threshold of survival. Hitler built up considerable stocks of food for Germans. Between 1933- 39, Germany absorbed 40% of all food exports from Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, and Hungary. This continued throughout Europe during the entire war. Stalin, like Hitler, committed massacres through starvation.

In December 2008, attacking Israeli forces systematically destroyed Gaza’s civilian, and especially its agricultural infrastructure: the biggest flour mill in Gaza, the water treatment plant depriving people of drinking water, the greenhouses. The Israeli government allows just enough food to enter to prevent a general famine, which would attract too much international attention. “Many children can no longer stand upright. Anemia is devastating them. They can no longer manage to concentrate…” P 39

Does a psychological factor affect attitudes about agriculture? There is the depiction of yeoman farmers and gentlemen farmers. Foods are assigned social status. A student from a recently industrialized country said that factory workers would never accept going back to farming. In Achebe’s novels, women do much of the farming but men’s crops like yams and cassavas have more value. Cesar Chavez, union organizer of farm workers: “regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishments cannot be undone! … The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm!” He said that farm workers and their families are moving into the professions and into business and into politics. No wonder: farming means child labor, miserable wages and working conditions, sexual harassment of women workers, dangerous pesticides which poison people and food. Zinn 518-20. On the Left, are unionized workers in the industrial sector, mainly men, more validated as effective historical forces than the very large landless peasant and farmers movements worldwide?

Novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga vividly describes a lunch scene in colonial Rhodesia in which foods convey racial superiority and denigrating humiliation.[5]

The subject of climate change requires more truthful information about human death, food, and the military (though it is the largest single greenhouse gas emitter on the planet and is exempt from being counted). My next article on food and climate interactions will elaborate on the politics, economics, and institutions that persistently accelerate multiple dire threats to human life.


[1] Samer Abboud, Syria, Polity, Cambridge (2016), p. 33-47.

[2] Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, Seven Stories Press, New York (2004). Cesar Chavez p. 515-520, and Rania Masri p. 581.

[3] Jean Ziegler, Betting on Famine: why the world still goes hungry, The New Press, New York. (2013)

[4]Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the Past: the psychohistorical approach, University of California Press, Los Angeles (1985).

[5] Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Book of Not, Ayebia Clarke Publishing, Oxfordshire, (2006). P. 33ff

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at