Reconciling Ecological Imperatives and the Right to Food at a Time of Bio-Ethical Crisis


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

A Perspective [1]

15 Dec 2019 – Humanity faces an unprecedented challenge in the coming decades that threatens the foundations of life itself, and yet to date societal reactions have been disappointingly weak and evasive, aside from voices in the wilderness. Despite expertly documented studies from the most qualified climate scientists, the overall response of supposedly responsible political and economic elites has been tepid, escapist, and even denialist.

The United State Government has led the way toward doom by withdrawing from the 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Agreement, an international agreement that did not go far enough to meet the challenges of climate change, but it was an encouraging step in the right direction that was taken by virtually every government on the face of the earth. With nihilistic audacity the American president, Donald Trump, has formally withdrawn American participation in this international framework that mandates national reductions in carbon emissions with the overall objective of keeping global warming from increases above 2%, which is higher than the 1.5% that the scientific consensus proposes as necessary, but far lower than what we can expect if present emissions trends continue without significant cutbacks and regulatory oversight.

I wish to give attention to this extremely disturbing evolving situation by labeling it ‘the first bio-ethical crisis to confront humanity.’ It is bio-ethical in the primary sense that the challenges posed are fundamentally directed at the wellbeing and even survival of the species as a whole, which is a new occurrence for the human species. The crisis has an ethical character because knowledge and resources exist to overcome these challenges, and yet such suitable action is not taken.

We need to ask ‘why?’ to discern the obstacles. In essence, these challenges to our human future could be addressed within the broad framework of a feasible reconfiguring of the industrial foundations and ethical outlook of modernity, and yet it is not happening. By having the knowledge of such a menacing future and yet choosing not to act is itself an ethical choice of the greatest magnitude. It is not as if a gigantic meteor was hurtling toward the earth with no known way of diverting its path or cushioning its impact. We know, and yet we lack the fortitude to act even for the sake of future generations that will suffer the main consequences of our profound irresponsibility.

Putting these concerns in the context of the right to food and food security generally, we are keenly aware that food and water are the most indispensable aspects to the right to life itself. We also realize that rights to material necessities are drained of meaning if extreme poverty deprives the poorest among us the purchasing power to purchase food that is affordable, sufficient, and nutritious. Although some governments are more protective of the vulnerable segments of their population than others, experience teaches us that social protection cannot be left to the good will of governments.

Rights must be reinforced by practical remedies that are accessible to ordinary people, and can be successfully implemented. In many countries of the West where capitalism and fiscal austerity prevail, there is an ethically deficient ideological insistence on allowing the market to decide on the wellbeing of the members of society. This sends a perverse ethical message: the rich deserve their bounty, while the poor deserve their hardships. From such a strictly capitalist standpoint, pleading for the intervention of the state is alleged to make matters worse by imposing restraints on economic growth.

My attempt is to identify the obstacles, and suggest how these might be overcome. Put differently, we know what is wrong, we know what should be done, and yet it does not happen.

Further, the longer that it doesn’t happen the more burdensome will be the adjustment, and there are risks that by not acting responsibly in the present, tipping points of irreversibility will be crossed making societal adjustments if not impossible, almost so. Illustratively, if diets now limited meat consumption by one or two meatless days a week, there might be some prospect of achieving ecological balance by gradual measures, but if diets are unregulated for the next two decades, adjustment to avert catastrophe may require a mandatory vegetarian diet.

Confronting the Obstacles:

These obstacles overlap and reinforce one another, and should not be regarded as entirely distinct. Such an assessment suggest that an integrated and transformative approach should be developed to comprehend these four types of obstacles in an integrated and comprehensive manner, and what might be done to overcome them.

(1) Ideological

Our social relationship to food and agriculture deeply reflect the interplay of capitalism—maximizing profits and consumerism—which includes maximizing choice, identified positively  as freedom. Interferences by governing authorities occur only if overwhelming demonstrations of adverse health effects can be demonstrated, but usually only after costly delays resulting from ‘expert’ reassurances on food safety given by corporate high paid consultants. Such market-driven patterns, fueled by advertising and addictive products produce unhealthy dietary habits throughout society, causing epidemics of obesity and many serious health issues.

Social concerns on an international level are understandably focused on avoiding humanitarian catastrophes in the form of mass starvation or famine. This kind of preoccupation places an emphasis on disaster relief and response to emergencies while ignoring the underlying ideological problem arising from distorted priorities of profits and unregulated markets over human health and ecological stability. The same forces that suppress and distort information pertaining to health are irresponsible abusers of environment, and disrupters of ecological balance. A vivid recent example is the burning of the Brazilian rainforest to satisfy market demands for high-yield logging and livestock farming, while undermining the viability of the rainforest as a major carbon capture resource and a precious storehouse of biodiversity.

(2) Structural

Seeking to balance food security against these ecological concerns is often at odds with the human and global interest. The structures of authority that shape global policy are overwhelming responsive to national interests, and this includes the UN System. Again, using the example of Brazil giving priority to development over planetary dimensions with respect to the Amazon rainforest by deferring to claims of national sovereignty so as to override objections about the dangerous impacts of this behavior on global warming and ecological equilibrium. Despite the global scale of the effects of agriculture, particularly agro-business, there is no effective international mechanisms to achieve responsible behavior on a national level.

Even when governments cooperate for the public common good, as was the case with the Paris Climate Change Agreement (2015), the commitment is framed in an unenforceable and sovereignty respecting manner. This means that even if the pledges of reductions in carbon emissions were to be fulfilled, it would still fall short of what the respected IPCC Panel prescribes as essential to avoid dangerous, possibly catastrophic effects of further global warming. Similar considerations bear on meat consumption undertaken without any effort at achieving a global regulatory perspective. Such an approach is also shaken by irresponsible global leadership as currently exercised by the United States, epitomized by its recent support of Brazil’s sovereignty claims with respect to the management of the Amazon rainforest and by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, creating dreadful precedents that will certainly affect poorer, more economically stressed countries, and eventually the rest of us. Why should a country confronted by a food and agriculture crisis, for instance, Zimbabwe, forego developmental opportunities by acting more ecologically responsible when the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter is behaving so irresponsibly?

(3) Temporal

The most influential sources and structures of influence and authority have evolved in the modern period by being excessively attentive to short-term results. Such short-termism is associated with holding political leaders and corporate executives accountable to citizens and shareholder. Democracy rests on this proposition that voters get the chance every four years to heed the call that “it time for a change,” or more crudely, ‘throw the bastards out.’ This pattern can be observed in the preoccupation of political leaders with the electoral cycles, which are seen as decisive when it comes to assessing performance. Even for non-democratic forms of governance short-term results shape views of whether the leadership should be supported and given signs of approval.

It is no different for the economy, which exhibits an even more pronounced tendency toward short-termism. Most corporate and financial executives are judged by quarterly balance sheets when it comes to performance, and given little or no credit by shareholders and hedge fund managers for normative achievements relating to health, safety, and environment.

The importance of longer horizons of accountability is a consequence of the character of current world order challenges, with preservation of environment, avoidance of human-generated climate change, and maintenance of ecosystem stability being illustrative of the growing importance of thinking further ahead than in the past, especially when it comes to government and private sector behavior. Yet to propose such an adjustment is far easier than it is to envision how such temporal adjustments to human and ecological wellbeing could be brought about. These clusters of concerns bear directly on all dimensions of food and agricultural policy. In earlier periods adverse change from mismanagement and shortsightedness led to relatively local and national, or at most regional, harm, but the threats at this time are more systemic, totalistic, and more costly to reverse or correct. Such issues as land use, pesticides, herbicides, soil preservation, genetically modified foods, and agricultural production priorities suggest how crucial it has become to plan in a time frame that is as sensitive as possible to the precautionary principle as it applies to risk management, and thus relates to all aspects of food policy.

(4) Normative

In considering these broad issues of risk and choice in a food context we encounter a distinctive array of normative concerns of an ethical, legal, and even spiritual character. At issue most basically is the way humanity interacts with nature. Modernity, with its vision of progress resting on science and technology, regarded the natural surrounding as a series of venues useful for exploitation to enrich human society. That path brought us many interim benefits and pleasures, but it also set in motion trends that over time have produced the current bio-ethical crisis that challenges, as never before, the future wellbeing and even survival of the human species. It is relevant even in this circumstance of bio-ethical crisis to alter our way of seeing so that it encompasses ecological wellbeing in addition to human wellbeing.

It is my belief that this kind of ecological consciousness as an alternative to anthropocentric orientations will provide human society with also yield benefits of a spiritual nature that go beyond meeting the materialist challenges of human existence, thus reenchanting the human experience with meaning and purpose in ways that the great religions did in the past.

Food and agriculture provide the vital linkages between this search for better forms of coexistence between nature and human experience, what pre-modern society often achieved but lost with the advent of modernity. Translating such a vision into practical policies is the work of specialists and those who are attuned both to human and ecological imperatives, but whose guidance will fail unless leaders in all spheres of collective existence are held accountable by popular will, strengthened by activism and education, so as to be properly attuned to the complex interplay of human activity and the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth.

A Concluding Plea

Pointing toward a desired reconciliation between ecological imperatives and the fulfillment of the right to food requires our attention, as well as our moral and political imagination. From such a perspective I offer these suggestions:

  • Applying the precautionary principle in all policymaking arenas with an awareness of the need to reconcile food and agricultural policy with ecological imperatives;
  • identify the obstacles to such a reconciliation with a stress on the human as distinct from the national, on the ecological as distinct from the anthropocentric, on the intermediate and long-term as distinct from the short-term;
  • without minimizing the magnitude of the challenges or the resistance of the obstacles find hope in ‘a politics of impossibility’; many historical developments from the collapse of colonialism to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and repressive communism in Soviet Russia demonstrate that ‘the impossible happens.’ As a result, the future is uncertain to the extent that we have an opportunity and a related responsibility to act as if what seems impossible can still be made to happen. Such is our situation, such is our hope.


[1] Remarks as modified, first presented at “The 2nd International Agricultural & Food Congress,” 25 October 2019, Izmir, Turkey.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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