The Intertwined Food and Climate Emergencies: Culpability

Contrasting images come to mind when it comes to hunger and climate: the haunting silhouetted dance of death in Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal, the Last Supper scene with a blind Jesus, set to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in surrealist director Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana. Unfortunately, this image isn’t fiction — “Scenic Eclipse Ultra-Luxury Ocean Cruising” to melting Antarctica offering “private degustation – 2500 recipes”. Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka speaks of the haywire loss of morality, a world in which UN Right to Food expert Jean Ziegler reported that a child under age ten dies of hunger every five seconds and the oligarchs of agri-food and finance decide every day who on this planet will die and who will live. This article is about loss of both morality and of thinking. Economist Steve Keen reports on the “apocalyptic mistakes” of mainstream classical economists whose climate “budget” belongs in the garbage bin. Much factual and essential information about intersecting emergencies like world hunger, war, the agro-industrial complex, and climate change is published but is then lost to follow-up, lost to prevention of human tragedy.

Here is easily accessible, factual, current food and climate news.

The March 3rd 2023 Guardian Weekly reported that The Great Salt Lake has dried up and could vanish in 5 years due mainly to climate drought and voracious water diversion for agriculture, leaving “unprecedented danger”, toxic dust clouds partly from pesticides and fertilizers, that will cause thousands of excess deaths annually. Will Salt Lake City need to be evacuated?

Antarctica ‘An extreme situation’ Sea ice hits record low. The ice extent is expected to shrink even further before this year’s summer melting season ends. A 2014 warning estimated that the West Antarctica Ice Sheet would be tipped into gradual collapse, causing 4 meters of sea level rise.

Researchers have identified 26 global warming accelerators known as amplifying feedback loops that the researchers say aren’t being properly included in climate models.

Another new analysis has identified 55 “methane bombs.” These are oil and gas fields “where leakage alone from the full exploitation of the resources would result in emissions equivalent to at least a billion tonnes of CO2.” Environmentalists promoted natural gas as a transition fuel yet ignored the vast amounts of methane released in the extraction process.

Carbon emissions from wildfires in North America reached a record high in 2021. Forests shift from sequestering to emitting carbon dioxide.

The largest annual increase in CO2 emissions on record was reported in 2022 according to the International Energy Agency: 36.8 gigatonnes by the end of 2022 due to skyrocketing fossil fuel use, marking the largest annual increase in CO2 emissions on record. Language shifted from eliminating fossil fuels, to a vague focus on mitigation, adaptation, transition, drawdown, net zero.

News March 21. 2023: Cyclone Freddy was the most energetic storm on record and it may have been the longest-lived cyclone in history. It killed 560 people in Malawi and Mozambique. The revised death toll in the 2022 Somali drought was 43,000.

In 1988, James Hansen and other climate scientists reported to U.S. Congress that greenhouse gas emissions urgently needed to be brought down to maximum 350 parts per million to prevent catastrophic climate change. Carbon dioxide concentration is now 419.19 ppm. The actual concentration level is much higher as it includes other heat-trapping emissions from methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. Hansen’s brilliance was partly based on his ability to use many sources of information. Based on Earth’s paleoclimate record of past ice and ice-free ages, he determined that 350ppm carbon dioxide is the approximate turning point for the formation or melting of all ice on Earth. [1] This stark fact, and the whole topic of greenhouse gas concentration, is not mentioned even by the organization . In the past, the addition of 1/1000 part per million of CO2 created an energy imbalance by 100ppm over a million year period, while at present, 2.9 ppm was added in one year from 2015-2016, generating additional amplifying feedbacks. Ignored or not understood by economists is the meaning of “system”, the difference between the climate system and weather, the driving forces of amplifying feedbacks and the transformation of Earth’s forest, soil, and ocean sinks into greenhouse gas emitters.

Factual news about the food emergency, exacerbated by climate and war, is publicly reported but produces few, if any, responsible actions.

Despite promises, nearly three-quarters of African governments reduced their agricultural budgets while paying almost double that on arms. Over 20 million more people have been pushed into severe hunger – equivalent to the entire population of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe combined. Today a fifth of the African population (278m) is undernourished, and 55 million of its children under the age of five are stunted due to severe malnutrition.

Trends in the Horn of Africa are now worse than they were during the 2011 famine in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

Even in affluent liberal democracies: some 30 million people across the U.S. are seeing a portion of their federal food assistance taken away (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). 1 in 8 children go hungry in the U.S. In England, teachers reveal scale of pupils’ hunger as 100,000 frozen out of free school meals. Children come to school with mouldy bread or even nothing.

According to UNICEF, nearly 7 million mothers are suffering from hunger as a food shortage crisis has worsened due to the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, ongoing conflict and the pandemic.

Millions of Afghan and Yemeni children’s lives are precarious or lost due to starvation because of US sanctions and U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

The state of food and agriculture was hardly mentioned in IPCC assessment reports until 2019 when it released a report, “Climate Change and Land, which focused on land-soil interactions, desertification, and land degradation.”[2] From the current report: “More frequent and intense droughts, floods and storms were reported across the globe, harvests failing simultaneously in multiple major food-producing countries. Food productivity growth is already down 21 percent because of global heating.”

Also well-documented and reported to the public are the forces interacting with climate and food: the steady dismantling of environmental regulations following the 1988 Congressional hearings, military expansion even though the military itself is the largest single contributor to fossil fuel emissions and is exempt under Kyoto, the effect of the current Russia/Ukraine war on food availability and prices, the financial investments in fossil fuels and in factory farming and the cutbacks in public farm subsidies leading to hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides and massive displacement of farmers to urban slums, the dismantling of publicly-funded food reserves, trade rules allowing the dumping of subsidized food to impoverished countries already weighed down by debt, the ruinous effect of factory farming on pollinators, topsoil, and nutrients. Climate refugees still remain unprotected or not covered under the rights of refugees, even under the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): “the term ‘climate refugee’ is not endorsed by UNHCR, and it is more accurate to refer to ‘persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.’”

In medicine and climate, cures can be iatrogenic — they produce worse outcomes. The metals and minerals required for electric vehicles and electronic devices involves mining that is ruinous to water, soil, forests, the murder of land defenders and the displacement of people worldwide. “Recent news reports show how China’s solar-energy industry is having dire consequences not only for the environment but also for human rights and well-being. In Xinjiang, members of the persecuted Uyghur ethnic minority make up most of the labor force in the hazardous quartz mining and polysilicon manufacturing industries. The researchers found that the supply chains of at least ninety solar energy companies worldwide included polysilicon produced by this forced-labor system.” In an article on biofuels and the global food crisis, Brian Tokar cites an unpublished report by a senior World Bank economist stating that biofuels were responsible for a 75% increase in global food prices by 2008. [3]

There have been responsible and rapid responses to climate and hunger. Mike Davis writes that “There was no mass mortality in China from either starvation or disease in the El Nino drought of 1743-44. Under the skilled Confucian administration of Fang Guancheng, the agricultural and hydraulic expert who directed relief operations, the renowned “ever-normal granaries” in each county immediately began to issue rations (without any means test) to peasants in the officially designated disaster counties. Local gentry had already organized soup kitchens to ensure the survival of the poorest residents until state distributions began. When local supplies proved insufficient, Guancheng shifted millet and rice from the great store of tribute grain at Tongcang at the terminus of the Grand Canal, then used the Canal to move vast quantities of rice from the south. Two million peasants were maintained for eight months, until the return of the monsoon made agriculture again possible. Ultimately 85% of the relief grain was borrowed from tribute depots or granaries outside the radius of the drought.” Contemporary Europeans were dying in the millions from famine and hunger-related diseases following Arctic winters and summer droughts in 1740-43. [4]

A second example is Cuba during the ‘Special Period’, after losing most of its fertilizers, pesticides, and agriculture export trade with the collapse of the Soviet Union and compounded by U.S. sanctions. In 1993-94, the average Cuban lost between 10 and 20 lbs. The Castro government quickly recognized that the large industrialized farms were obsolete and that small farms were much more adaptable to the low-input techniques required to produce food. Laws limiting the size of landholdings and new farmers’ markets were mixed with state controls, and considerable scientific effort focused on agro-ecological research and the shift to organic techniques, resulting in rapid improvement of food security and health. [5]

In these emergency situations, there was a social hierarchy in the sense that some people took on responsibility and arranged to provide what was needed for the victims. There was a real understanding of need, no monetization of food, no immediate relevance of exchange value or trade or markets, no debt incurred. Decisions and actions seemed to come from a visceral sense of hunger and empathy, like a nursing mother’s let-down of milk, not an abstract principle of human rights. It was understood what to do. On the other hand, the full range of political systems and technologies have in the past and in the present perpetrated massive fatalities and stand in the way of obvious emergency measures. This ought to be a warning about believing “it can’t happen here” or any number of truisms that falsify the seriousness of threat and the depth of irresponsibility or disregard for human lives.

Disasters are happening now. Less than 1.2C increase in temperature has caused heat waves that are not survivable by humans (wet bulb temperature of 31.1C, or 88F and 100% humidity), droughts, floods, wildfires, sea-level rise and inundation of agricultural land with salt water, changes in horizontal and vertical ocean circulation which also affects nutrients at the bottom of the ocean, changes in atmospheric circulation that already reach into the stratosphere.

Pledges to reduce emissions are based on arbitrary targets and baselines that are silent or ignorant about greenhouse gas concentration and feedbacks. Biden pledged to reduce emissions 50% by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050 from a baseline of 2005, but 2005 was the year that US emissions peaked at just below 6,000 million tonnes of CO2. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia set 2060 as a target for net zero, India 2070 target, the EU 2050 target with a baseline of 1990 levels, and Canada’s target is 2050 below 2005 levels. Net zero is meaningless in terms of stopping climate change as there is no accounting for greenhouse gas concentration. Silenced are expert predictions of much higher temperatures than 1.5C: the UN Environment Program in 2009 predicted a 3.5C increase by 2100 at the current rate of emissions, in October 2009 the Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research suggested a 4C temperature increase by 2060, and in November 2013 the International Energy Agency predicted a 3.5C increase by 2035. Safe? The Lancet reports 5 million climate-related deaths/year based on current levels. A new method to more accurately determine mortality, the World Mortality Database, found that the number of people dying in the 2015 Egyptian heat wave was 20,000, not 61.

The current IPCC Assessment Report [AR6] classifies five levels of Reasons for Concern, with very high risk level indicating irreversibility, cascading effects across interconnected systems, and human systems pushed beyond their ability to adapt even at warming levels of 1.5C. High risks include food and water availability, inadequate water for agriculture, malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies, loss of pollinators and declining soil health, food and water-borne diseases, large-scale singular events such as ice sheet disintegration, and slowing of ocean circulation.

I note two well-documented but underreported ‘reasons for concern’. First, the dismantling of food reserves under neoliberal economics. The function of reserves is clear in the example from the Qing dynasty, from the story of Joseph in Egypt, from children’s stories about animals storing food for winter. In 2008 a letter was written to the US Congress on the Need for Strategic Grain Reserves and the devastation caused by rising food prices worldwide: “The global move towards free trade and trade liberalization means countries around the world have also forfeited much of their food stocks. The current price volatility roiling global food prices should come as no surprise.” Even in biblical times these would be seen as a recipe for starvation: agriculture to produce biofuels, speculation in food, and the centralization of agribusiness under a handful of corporations.

The second ‘reason for concern’ is the United Nations Food Systems Summit which took place in September 2021 under the confused and inconsistent leadership of Secretary-General António Guterres. Predictably, his legitimation of unelected, private control over the entirety of global food was barely reported. Former UN food rapporteur Jean Ziegler names the culpable as the handful of multinational agriculture corporations that exert horizontal and vertical control of the food system, the Geneva Agri-Food speculators, the Land Grabbers, the ideologues of the International Financial Institutions, the PR hacks, Western ambassadors sitting on the UN Human Rights Council for whom the World Bank is gospel.[6] The politically correct wording of this food systems meeting conceals the multistakeholder interests and their devastating effects on farmers worldwide and on the climate. The World Economic Forum made up of the world’s top 1000 corporations, prioritizes scientists, engineers, research institutions and academics, data companies, chemical companies, politicians, to create the appearance of a democratic process while privileging agribusiness multinationals. Extensive critiques are published by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Oakland Institute, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems report “Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems, the Global Alliance for Social Justice.”

About food and climate, there is a great deal of ignorance, deception, and reductionistic iatrogenic single solutions.

My two previous articles on these intersecting emergencies focused on scientific reports about the effect of carbon dioxide on plants, climate and the loss of topsoil, and the human situation.

“I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

Bob Dylan


[1] James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, 2009¸Bloomsbury, New York. P. 36ff

[2] Jo Handelsman (2021) A World Without Soil: the past, present, and precarious future of the Earth beneath our feet, Yale University Press, New Haven. P. 114

[3] Brian Tokar in Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar (2010) Agriculture and Food in Crisis: conflict, resistance, and renewal, Monthly Review, New York. P. 121-138

[4] Mike Davis (2002), Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino famines and the making of the third world, Verso, New York. P. 280-285

[5] Tony Weis (2007), The Global Food Economy: the battle for the future of farming, Zed, New York. p. 183-184.

[6] Jean Ziegler (2013), Betting on Famine; why the world still goes hungry, The New Press, New York. There is much excellent work on the current food system, the ‘green revolution’, neoliberalism, debt, farmers movements. See for example Eric Holt-Gimenez, Philip McMichael, Walden Bellow, Fred Magdoff, Vandana Shiva, Raj Patel, Eric Toussaint.

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