The Right to Food During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Time of Bio-Ethical-Ecological Crisis
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Jun 2020
Ecological Imperatives and the Right to Food During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Time of Bio-Ethical-Ecological Crisis
14 Jun 2020 – Even before the Coronavirus Pandemic, humanity faced an unprecedented challenge in the coming decades that threatened the foundations of life itself, and yet, up to this time societal reactions have been disappointingly weak and evasive, aside from a few voices in the wilderness. Despite expertly documented studies from the most qualified climate scientists, the overall behavior of supposedly responsible political and economic elites has been tepid, escapist, and even denialist. The United State Government has been leading the way toward a dismal future by its anti-internationalism during the Trump presidency, above all, withdrawing from the 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Agreement. Although this international agreement that did not go as far as necessary to meet the challenges of climate change, it was rightfully praised as demonstrating the importance of global cooperative efforts to combat global warming. It was also encouraging that this initiative was supported by virtually every government on the face of the earth.
With nihilistic audacity the American president, Donald Trump, formally withdrew American participation from this international framework that mandates national reductions in carbon emissions. The proclaimed objective of the agreement was to keep global warming from increases in the earth’s average temperature above 2 degrees centigrade. This is higher than the 1.5 degrees that the scientific consensus puts forth as necessary. At the same time the Paris results in far lower carbon emissions than will occur if present emissions trends continue without significant international cutbacks and sufficient regulatory oversight. The withdrawal of the U.S., the largest and richest per capita emitter, sends the worse possible signal to the world at this time of growing threat.
The COVID-19 experience, with its planetary scope and concrete daily tales of morbidity confirms, the precariousness of human existence and its unforeseen vulnerabilities to a variety of threats to the well being of the human species. What is more, it is evident that the harm done by these events could be mitigated if not almost altogether avoided if the warnings of experts been prudently heeded, and acted upon, in a timely anticipatory manner. Even before this global health crisis of great severity shocked people around the world, the deficiencies of global governance became vividly evident for all who took the trouble to see. The reaction to the pandemic has been most disappointing at the governmental level in most, but not all countries. In contrast, many instances of bravery and empathy have been exhilarating and redemptive at the level of people. Instead of an ethos of ‘we are all in this together’ several of the most influential governments led by the United States have adhered to a zero/sum ethos of ‘going it alone.’ The U.S. also refused humanitarian appeals to suspend sanctions for the duration of the crisis on countries such as Iran and Venezuela, which were already suffering from severe food insecurities and shortages of medical supplies partly brought about by the sanctions.
Worse still, the United States at the Security Council blocked a formal endorsement of the UN Secretary General’s inspirational call for a global ceasefire during the health crisis. Trump withdrew U.S. support because the draft resolution contained an indirect favorable reference to the work of the World Health Organization (WHO). This was a sad development as this dramatic expression of global unity had achieved the approval of the other 14 members of the Security Council after weeks of negotiating political compromises on the appropriate message to send the world. Its passage would have signaled a commitment to world peace by leading governments, as well as showing all of us that the UN’s voice can serve as an uplifting alternative in such a crisis to the bickering and rivalry of sovereign states. This kind of initiative also might have renewed faith in the UN, demonstrating to the public and politicians how the UN might serve in the future to strengthen global governance on behalf of peace, justice, and food/water security for all. We might come to understand that the UN if properly used can be much more than a talk shop for clashing national interests or an exhibition hall displaying the rival strategic ambitions of the Permanent Members of the Security Council.
The onset of the pandemic added a sense of urgent immediacy to what was already an extremely disturbing evolving awareness by informed persons. To identify this as ‘the first bio-ethical crisis to confront humanity’ is to employ unfamiliar and strong language. This underlying crisis was bio-ethical in the primary sense that its challenges are fundamentally directed at the collective wellbeing of humanity taken as a whole, as well as a challenge to the sustainability of modern civilization, and the ecosystem stability governing the fundamentals of human/nature interactions, and of life itself. Widespread recognition of the gravity of these threats would amount to a revolutionary change in the self-awareness of the human species, and lead the way to profound shifts in behavior.
This crisis also possesses an ethical character because knowledge and resources exist to meet the challenges facing humanity, and yet responsible, precautionary action is not taken. We need to ask ‘why?’ so as to understand what action should be taken. 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, nor likely to do so without further shocks. By having the knowledge of such a menacing future and yet choosing not to act sensibly is to make a fundamental ethical and biological choice, with possibly awful consequences. My point is this.
The unprecedented crisis facing humanity is not similar to a gigantic meteor hurtling toward the earth with no known way of diverting its path or cushioning its impact. We know mostly what needs be done and yet we lack the fortitude to act for the sake of persons currently alive, and even more for the sake of future generations. It is likely that the unborn will suffer the most acute adverse consequences of the irresponsibility of this current refusal to heed the warnings of the experts. As the divisiveness and global governance deficiencies of the response to COVID-19 have revealed, many of the most technologically sophisticated societies have turned out to be the most incompetent when it came to safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of even their own society, failing to adopt or unreasonably delaying the adoption of practical measures to protect the health and security of their own citizens, while neglecting neighbors in need near and far living in other countries throughout the world. We also learned the grim consequence of pronounced economic and social inequality. The poorest and socially disfavored, especially in cities, turned out to be the demographic sectors most at risk of infection and death during the pandemic. Any student of modern society should not have been surprised by this information, but the mainstream media acted as if it had just discovered the plight of the poor, including their massive dependence on public food distributions, acting as if this was a startling revelation of the class impacts of the pandemic.
The effects of the pandemic on food security are being felt, and there seems worse ahead. The 2020 Report on World Food Crises warns that the risk of famine has been greatly increased by disruptions of harvests and food supply chains due to the greatly reduced availability of migrant farm workers and the disease-prone sites of animal slaughterhouses. Already in such affluent countries as the UK, U.S., and Switzerland poorer people are waiting for hours on long lines to obtain food for their families from overstretched food banks, and are fortunate if the food remains available when their turn finally comes.
Putting these broader eco-ethical 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 are beginning to realize that rights to material necessities are drained of meaning if extreme poverty means that the poorest among us lack the purchasing power to buy food that is affordable, sufficient, and nutritious. In other words, even if food supplies are sufficient to meet human needs, it will not prevent starvation, malnutrition, and food riots if people lack the means to buy what is being sold in markets. In this sense, the loss of tens of millions of jobs around the world means the disappearance of purchasing power for people with the least capacity to cope with unemployment, including very little savings.
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 or charitable impulses 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 members of society. This sends a perverse ethical message: the rich deserve their bounty of plenitude, while the poor deserve their hardships. From such an austere capitalist standpoint, pleading for the intervention of the state even in an emergency is alleged by the staunchest guardians of capital to undermine public morality based on individual accountability and incentive structures.
To overcome this failure to respond effectively to the bio-ethical crisis, it is necessary to identify and understand the obstacles to rational and humane action, while suggesting how these might be overcome. To summarize the argument, we know what is wrong, we mostly know what should be done, yet it still is not happening, and to have any hope of doing something about this deplorable situation, we must try our best to know why. Furthermore, the longer that we defer prudent action, the more burdensome and painful will be a future adjustment. There are also unknowable risks present. By not acting responsibly in the present, tipping points of irreversibility seem likely to be soon crossed making societal adjustments if not impossible, almost so.
Illustratively, if diets were now to limit meat consumption by decreeing one or two meatless days a week, there would be good prospects of achieving ecological balance by gradual measures, but if diets are unregulated for the next two decades, an adjustment to avert catastrophe would likely require a mandatory vegetarian planetary survival diet. The COVID-19 experience is one more chance to undertake comprehensive transformational processes of adapting global governance to the dual demands of ecological balance and social justice, and ending the false security of managerial approaches that avoid fundamental change. Managers generally do nothing more than keep operations going, collapse or recovering from a severe crisis that disrupted the established order. This might temporarily calm anxieties, but this would be deceptive dynamic in this instance, a disastrous contentment with ‘business as usual,’ with the false assumption that all was well before the pandemic.
Confronting the Obstacles:
These obstacles overlap and reinforce one another, and should not be regarded as entirely distinct. My assessment is grounded on the advocacy of an integrated and transformational approach. To move forward in such a direction, I find it helpful to identify four clusters of obstacles.
Our social relationship to food and agriculture deeply reflect the interplay of capitalism—maximizing profits and inflating consumerism—which includes constantly increasing consumer choice, identified misleadingly as a kind of freedom. Interferences by governing authorities occur if overwhelming demonstrations of adverse health effects can be demonstrated, but usually only after costly delays resulting from ‘expert’ reassurances on food safety that are obtained from corporate high paid consultants. Such profit-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 responses to emergencies while ignoring the underlying ideological problem arising from distorted priorities of profits, destructive competition, agribusiness, and unregulated markets as favored over human health and ecological stability. The same forces that suppress and distort information pertaining to health are irresponsible abusers of environment, disrespectful of culturally sanctified food traditions, and disrupters of ecological balance. A vivid recent example is the burning of the Brazilian rainforest to satisfy corporate greed taking the form of high-yield logging and deforestation to clear land for livestock farming, while eroding, and possibly dooming, the viability of the rainforest as a major carbon capture resource and a precious storehouse of biodiversity. The world’s major rainforests should be treated as falling within the ‘global commons’ and not be regarded as totally subject to Brazil’s priorities. It is a matter of finding the proper formula for ‘responsible sovereignty’ or, more accurately, how to reconcile sovereign rights with upholding the viability of the global commons.
Seeking to balance food security and health against these ecological concerns is often at odds with human and global interests. The structures of authority that shape global policy and practices are overwhelmingly responsive to national interests as themselves distorted by corrupted elites and corporate influences on governance. This includes the UN System, which has been increasingly configured to serve the interests of states and mega-corporations. Again, the example of Brazil is instructive. Giving priority to development over planetary equilibrium with respect to the Amazon rainforest privileges irresponsible claims of territorial sovereignty. This overrides objections about the dangerous impacts of Brazilian behavior on global warming, ecological stability, and the quality of biodiversity. Despite the global scale of agriculture, particularly agribusiness, there exist presently no effective international mechanisms to achieve responsible behavior on national and transnational levels of behavior.
Even when governments do cooperate for the public common good, as was the case with the Paris Climate Change Agreement (2015), their commitments are framed in an unenforceable manner that allows national sovereignty to prevail over longer run global interests. This meant that even if the pledges of reductions in carbon emissions were made in good faith and somehow fulfilled, they would still fall inexcusably short of what the respected IPCC Panel and other expert bodies prescribed as the essential benchmark 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 that takes due account of the future. This voluntaristic approach dependent on the good faith and responsible behavior of states, is further weakened by the current crop of irresponsible leaders in many key states. This irresponsibility was epitomized in 2019 by its show of support for 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, place limits on its developmental and growth opportunities by acting in a more ecologically responsible manner when the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter is behaving so irresponsibly?
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 shareholders. Democracy rests on this proposition that voters get the chance every four years to heed the call that “it is time for a change,” or more crudely, ‘to throw the bastards out.’ This pattern can be observed in the preoccupation of political leaders with the electoral cycles, which are treated as decisive when it comes to assessing their performance. Even non-democratic forms of governance give priority to short-term results, which either builds or undermines confidence in the political leadership of a country regardless of its form of government.
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 or for responsiveness to long-term crisis prevention.
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 developments attributable to mismanagement and shortsightedness led to relatively local and national, or at most regional, harm, but the threats in the world today are more systemic, totalistic, and often difficult to reverse or correct. Such issues as land use, pesticides, herbicides, soil preservation, genetically modified foods, and agricultural productivity 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 taking, and thus relates to all aspects of food policy. Adverse health conditions, facilitating zoonotic transfers of a deadly virus from animals to humans also reflects disregard of natural surroundings, which are depriving wild animals of their normal habitats, bringing them into ever closer contact with people and city food markets, facilitating disease vectors.
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 materially. That path brought segments of humanity 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 especially in this circumstance of bio-ethical crisis to alter our way of seeing so that it encompasses ecological wellbeing and social justice in addition to human comfort and longevity. It is my belief that this kind of ecological/ethical consciousness as an alternative to anthropocentric orientations will provide human society with benefits of a spiritual nature that go significantly beyond meeting the materialist challenges of human existence. If this is so, it would reenchant the human experience with meaning and purpose in ways that the great religions did in the past, and not link human happiness so closely, and now dangerously, with materialist satisfactions.
Food, health, and agriculture provide the vital linkages between this search for more harmonious forms of coexistence between nature and human experience, as well as respect for the carrying capacity of the earth. Pre-modern societies often achieved this equilibrium either by design or automatically, but lost this capability with the advent of modernity. Translating such a vision of humane equilibrium into practical policies is the proper work of specialists and those who are attuned both to ethical and ecological imperatives. Enlightened guidance will fail unless leaders in all spheres of collective existence become themselves more receptive to such knowledge, and begin to be held accountable by popular will, reinforced by activism and education. The proper attunement to the balance of material, ethical, ecological, and spiritual concerns is always subject to this complex interplay of human activity with limits on the carrying capacity of the earth. Equitable burden-sharing is also essential in awakening public consciousness to the changing priorities of our historical moment.
Preliminary data collected during COVID-19 reveals a disturbing correlation between susceptibility to the disease and those segments of society that are impoverished or members of communities disfavored because of race, ethnicity, and religion. This pattern was especially evident in the slums of large cities, which experienced a disproportionately much higher number of fatalities. Such findings raised issues of social justice and human rights, bearing on equal protection of the rights to health and the right to life.
A Concluding Plea
Pointing toward a desired reconciliation between ecological imperatives, world health, and the fulfillment of the right to food requires attention, commitment, and resources, as well as the exertions of moral and political imagination. From such a perspective I offer these suggestions:
- applying the precautionary principle in all policy-making arenas with an awareness of the need to reconcile food and agricultural policy with ecological imperatives, as well as to emphasize preventive responses and discontinue excessive reliance on reactive approaches and crisis management;
- identifying 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, all the while giving due attention given to climate justice and universal health coverage for everyone;
- without minimizing the magnitude of the challenges or the resistance of the obstacles, I find hope in ‘a politics of impossibility’; many historical developments, including the collapse of colonialism, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and the sudden implosion of repressive communism in Soviet Russia demonstrate that ‘the impossible happens’ in real life even when unanticipated. As a result, the fact that the future is uncertain creates opportunities as well as responsibilities. As to what seems impossible, yet desirable and necessary, can still be made more likely to happen through concerted struggle, undoubtedly mostly as responsive to movements from below, from peoples not elites or governments. Such is our situation, such is our hope.
 Remarks as substantially 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 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms 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 associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
Tags: Agroecology, Basic Needs, COVID-19, Coronavirus, Ecology, Environment, Human Needs, Human Rights, Right to Food
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