From the Fall 2015 Issue “Food Fight“
Some 40,000 people, including delegates from 190 nations, will be gathering in Paris this December to examine and hopefully reinvigorate the future shape of the world, and particularly our climate. It promises to be the largest single gathering of nations in our history, and it comes at a moment many believe is a critical turning point in our future. Climate change is the centerpiece of this attempt to mold a global consensus on how to protect our people from cataclysmic changes that could render Earth inhospitable to life as we know it. But the subtext is even more powerful and immediate—how to empower the planet to feed the billions who live on it today and the billions more who will need its resources in the future. For decades, one woman has played a central role in this effort. Ségolène Royal, France’s Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy, and the former Socialist Party candidate for president of France, the first woman to be nominated by a major party, has devoted her life to conservation of the environment and improving people’s overall quality of life. Born on a French military base in Dakar, Senegal, she is a graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, one of her classmates being her longtime partner and current president of France, François Hollande. In December, she will join Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to welcome the world to Paris. In advance, World Policy Journal Editor & Publisher David A. Andelman sat down with Minister Royal in the office of the French Consul General to New York to discuss the environment, and especially the relationship between climate change and the growing global food demands.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: I’d like to start out by asking you about the links between climate change, global warming, and our ability to feed the world’s people. Are such links real and immediate, and how great a problem are they?
SÉGOLÈNE ROYAL: Yes, that’s the essential problem, the relationship between the planet’s capacity to produce food, and to feed its inhabitants—9 billion, 10 billion people by the end of the century. It’s incidentally the question that we find at the heart of the Pope’s encyclical. We aren’t saving the planet for the planet’s sake. Earth could save itself without human beings; it doesn’t need us. And often this error is made. We save the planet for its relationship with human beings, and that’s not the same. How can human beings on this planet live in dignity? The question of climate change is directly related to the question of human dignity. And incidentally these links are known because they are evoked in the text discussed in Bonn at the climate change conference in June. The Bonn Text, the document that sets the stage for the global conference to be held in Paris in December, says that we must assure the resilience of the most vulnerable populations by securing subsistence and food security in developing countries. So for example, what FAO [Food and Agricultural Organization] says is that we must raise food production by 70 percent between now and 2050 in order to feed 9 billion people.
But global warming creates uncertainty that weighs heavily on agriculture and the means of subsistence for vulnerable populations. We estimate that 800 million people in the world are currently hungry or dying of famine, and according to the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] this figure will have doubled by 2080. Furthermore, the fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also underlined that climate change will impact food security and that without efforts to address it, the yields of major crops could diminish by 2 percent per decade. These losses will be even greater in tropical zones, which are the ones that are already affected by food insecurity. And so there’s also a risk of price increases, volatile growth, and speculation on primary food sources.
WPJ: So it would seem that some of the more dramatic changes in the global climate are often attributed to carbon buildup and climate change—drought in the western United States, the growing numbers of typhoons and tsunamis in Asia, and sharp temperature changes. Are they affecting the ability to produce food worldwide?
ROYAL: It’s true. The situation is catastrophic. If we don’t do anything, inaction will cost much more than action. And at the same time there are solutions. We are already capable of calculating the benefits of action because the Environmental Protection Agency, which I visited during my recent visit to Washington D.C., published a very interesting report on June 23 that shows we can reduce the grave droughts on the horizon in the United States from 40 to 60 percent if we change our behavior. By contrast, inaction will cause the decline of soy and potato yields on the order of 20 percent, with even more dramatic results. California, which undergoes the worst droughts, is already rethinking its agricultural model, for example the production of almonds, which consume a lot of water. And so we must multiply this kind of agricultural research, putting the focus on plants that consume less water to diminish the part played by chemicals and change our planting choices. All agricultural countries are affected by this.
WPJ: You mentioned the United States. But the United States has not been very, shall we say, welcoming in terms of reducing carbon emissions and so on; they have not been very agreeable to this. Do you think that you can turn them around in December at the Paris summit?
ROYAL: Yes, I believe so.
WPJ: And how would you do that?
ROYAL: First, I think that President Obama is convinced and involved. I also met members of Congress, the climate group, who are very involved, very convinced. I think that certain American states are accelerating the energy transition much more rapidly than the country as a whole. And that is true in many countries. In France, for example, as the head of my region, I installed principles of energy transition 10 years ago. And I rely a lot on economic circles, businesses that have understood there is a demand they can meet. The global market for renewable energy and energy performance is solvent, even profitable. At this moment, businesses want to do green business, and investment funds want to invest in green business. So I think this will go much more quickly than we said and that resistance will, little by little, weaken. But it remains a fight. We still see whole skyscrapers that stay lit all night in New York. In France and Europe, this kind of change took time to incorporate, but now there are rules for shutting off office lights at night, for lowering the air conditioning. The Tour Montparnasse in Paris used to be lit up all night, but not now. It even has smart meters to lower the heating or the air conditioning at night. And the Eiffel Tower has changed all its lights to LEDs.
WPJ: Ok, so we do need to reduce the carbon and water footprint. Do we need to reduce the carbon and water footprint of food itself? Because the production of food has a very large footprint in terms of CO2 emissions.
ROYAL: Listen, we must realize that it’s not worth pointing a finger at agriculture; we’re the first to want to eat our fill. Agriculture is at once a source of CO2 and a victim of global warming, but it can also bring solutions. It is a source of CO2 because 15 percent to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. There’s methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and a whole set of problems with pesticides. This problem must be addressed head-on, and at the same time I don’t want to point a finger at agriculture because it is also itself a victim of climate change. Farmers are the ones who are most directly hit because there is a decline in the productivity of the soil, there is a lack of water, their livestock and farm output are suffering, and the balance of the earth is changing. In France, for example, and it’s the case in all countries, plants that used to be raised in the south are moving northward. It’s the same for fish—we see species that were formerly in the tropics surging in temperate waters. This genetic mutation is an enormous problem to which we must adapt, but at the same time try to deal with. And in the end, agriculture can equally be a solution, for example by bringing more nature into cities. In island nations, we’ve revived mangrove plantations, which help reduce global warming. So we can very well imagine that farmers continue to do their jobs while also helping agriculture evolve, that is to say not only preserving natural spaces with agricultural activity, but also reconquering natural spaces, which they should be paid to do, because that’s their job. We must also think of the crucial role of rural populations in countries that need to proceed to reforestation.
WPJ: And deforestation is another critical problem. How can France, Europe, and the rest of the world slow deforestation? About two years ago, French senators tried to impose a tax of 300 percent on palm oil, but the measure fell through. Are there other ways to do that?
ROYAL: First, we must realize that the loss of our forests represents 20 percent of greenhouse gases, which is considerable. And the primal forest of certain countries has been ravaged by palm oil plantations, not to mention the pesticides used on these plantations. The soil is degraded, land is confiscated, people are displaced, and the food-producing crops that nourish these populations are destroyed. NGOs sounded the alarm a long time ago on this topic. We must really fight the disappearance of the primal forest and find substitutes for the agro-food industry, which constitutes a very powerful lobby.
WPJ: How much global management is necessary or even possible to put an end to the lucrative practice of palm oil production?
ROYAL: The FAO calculates that 30 percent of deforestation in Indonesia is due to palm oil, and 80 percent in Malaysia. When you see aerial photos of an island like Borneo, you can see that it has been totally ravaged by palm oil. Now a certain number of producers say that there are sustainable methods to produce palm oil, but this remains very marginal. So we must encourage new practices, find new raw materials for the confectionary industry. But it’s not only in sweets that palm oil is found—it’s found in many food products. Courageous decisions must be taken on the level of the FAO, because it is not possible to let industrial lobbies ravage entire countries and populations.
WPJ: Do you have confidence in organizations such as FAO and others?
ROYAL: Yes, I think so, and countries feel obliged to transcribe on the national level that which is said in international documents. Leaders of exploited countries are becoming more and more conscious of the exploitation that they suffer. And opportunities such as the climate conference in Paris should be seized on to create strong relationships and raise awareness. Again, as it says in the Pope’s encyclical, if it weren’t for financial predators, the predators of natural resources would not be able to continue their ravages.
WPJ: If we are unable to bring our warming trends under control, how will the Earth ever feed a growing population? We are 7 billion now. If we add 74 million a year—more than the population of France and Switzerland—we will arrive at 9 billion in 25 years and 11 billion 10 years later. So we will be overpopulated, right?
ROYAL: Yes, but at the same time we waste a lot—30 percent of food is wasted.
WPJ: And the United States is the most wasteful.
ROYAL: It’s also true for energy. You know, when you turn down the air conditioning, because you over-consume air conditioning to the point where you have to wear extra clothing because it’s so cold, the United States could save 30 percent of its energy. And then there’s a second thing that I put in the French law on energy transition, which is that every time a building undergoes construction, it is required to install insulation. So I see that there is lots of scaffolding in New York, because there is a requirement to prevent material from falling. Well if every five years there were also a requirement to install insulation and use materials that don’t reflect the heat of the city, plus the obligation to install green roofs, you could lower the temperature of the city between 5 and 10 degrees (Celsius).
WPJ: But in any case, for the environment in general, and especially for food, what can we do to feed more people more efficiently?
ROYAL: It’s simple—we must reduce waste and work on soil usage and prevent deforestation. Then, we can build factories for the desalinization of water using solar energy. It’s a very important issue in Africa. And then above all, we must replant massively, especially in the most urbanized nations and metropolitan areas. There could be orchards, for instance, planted in cities, on roofs, everywhere.
WPJ: In Paris, this December, the objective is to begin the process, but there will be 190 nations there, many with diverging priorities and levels of economic development. I don’t see how we can attain unanimity or quasi-unanimity in such a diverse world.
ROYAL: It’s true this is difficult, but at the same time the moment has come. What has happened since Copenhagen [climate conference in 2009], which was a failure, is that heads of state have become personally engaged. The President of France is personally committed, and every time he meets a head of state, the climate conference is on the agenda. So if all of the big powers are committed, this is on its way to happening. The Chinese premier was recently in Paris as well.
WPJ: Are you sure that the Chinese are committed?
ROYAL: They are committed. They chose this moment to make a trip to present their national commitment for climate control. They have supported Paris. The United States is committed. India as well—their president was also in Paris. He has a project in his country to create 100 “smart cities.” The question of what will happen with India’s cities is crucial to obtain positive results. Latin America has embraced the movement, notably Mexico. Cuba, formerly aligned with countries that were hostile to action against climate change, has passed over to the right side of history.
WPJ: Still, that’s a pretty small country.
ROYAL: But it’s a crucial country. It’s an island country. We held a summit in the Caribbean, and it was very important that Cuba was there. Island countries are directly threatened by the rising level of the oceans.
WPJ: France was represented at the Bonn preparatory conference in June. Did you have the impression that you were on the right track for December?
ROYAL: Yes, things progressed a little at Bonn. But as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, we need to accelerate. And the traditional methods of the U.N. are no longer adaptable to the challenges of global warming. I said this, and it created a small stir, but Ban Ki-moon then said that it was true in an interview with the French press. There’s going to be a climate week in September, and Ban Ki-moon will take some further initiatives. Religious leaders will be there as well, and so we see that there’s a movement building, at the same time of conscience and responsibility for political actions, which now must accelerate.
WPJ: There are Republicans in the United States, candidates for the presidential election, who are not convinced that global warming is any sort of threat. What will happen with them?
ROYAL: They must be financed by oil lobbies. You can write that, because everybody knows it.
WPJ: Have you met any of these Republicans?
ROYAL: No, I haven’t met them, but I have heard their declarations, and even for Republicans things are moving, changing. There are some Republicans who consider that for reasons of conscience they must stop aligning themselves with the oil lobby. Indeed, some oil companies, such as the [French] group Total, have begun to take action in the fight against CO2, because they have technologies linked to oil production such as carbon capture. The Total Group made a declaration with companies that produce fossil fuel-based energy on these systems of carbon capture. And secondly, some of these companies are in the process of diversifying their investments and investing massively in solar centers and photovoltaic systems. And I speak to them very clearly when I say that they must prepare for the post-oil era. My message to them is, ‘you have earned a lot of money from oil, but the day will come when you will be the first victims of global warming.’ That is why we must never lose hope in human intelligence.
WPJ: If we succeed in keeping global warming in check, how will this affect the production of food in the world? And if that fails, what will be the consequences for food production?
ROYAL: It cannot fail. It cannot fail—that’s all. If we are responsible, this must not fail.
WPJ: But if it succeeds, do you really think that we can feed the whole world? Even with a population of 9 billion?
ROYAL: Of course, there is the potential. There is already 30 percent waste in food production. With new agricultural technologies and work on the balance of soils, on the entire production cycle, of course, yes.
WPJ: There is a French expert, Louis Albert de Broglie. He has an entire experimental farm growing 650 types of tomatoes to see which are the best. Must we invent new species like that? Must we create new forms of crops in order to feed the world in the future, even if we cannot hold temperatures down?
ROYAL: Yes, that is clear, it’s agro-ecology, green agriculture. We need species that are more drought-resistant, but without genetic manipulation. We must reinvent natural treatments for agricultural production. That also creates jobs and work for research institutes. It’s very important.
WPJ: You were talking about urban spaces, and one of the big problems is the migration from rural to urban lands. Do we need to find a way of slowing that down?
ROYAL: We must not only slow it down, but set off a reverse movement. There is too much urban concentration. Urban concentration has high costs, in terms of transport, pollution, food, delinquency. We must ask the question of why people are leaving their villages. They are leaving their villages because there is not access to services; there are no jobs. So we must rethink land balance.
In terms of work, people want to live nearby, but in an agreeable location with a garden and a school nearby as well. Urban planners must begin to consider carefully the nature of space and how effectively it works for the people who live there.
WPJ: But once they’ve seen the lure, the attraction of the city, how do you keep them “down on the farm,” when they have seen the advantages of wealth, the richness of a big city? How do you tell them it’s better to stay on the farm, or go back to the farm, better for the whole country?
ROYAL: But they are doing that already, you can see more and more people going back to mid-sized towns. And when you ask them where the best standards of living are, they answer ‘in mid-sized towns.’
WPJ: So it’s the quality of life that’s most attractive?
ROYAL: Yes, health, the quality of life, on the condition that there are also opportunities and training nearby—universities, for example. And with Internet, working remotely, this is changing. It comes down to a question of mobility.
WPJ: Do you have other hopes you’d like to share?
ROYAL: Well the hope is that everyone understands that he or she has a role to play in global warming. Everyone has a role to play.
WPJ: What are your hopes for the conference in December? What is the best document or agreement that you would hope might emerge?
ROYAL: First, we need an agreement—an agreement that no one will block, particularly the poorest countries that don’t believe they have the financial capacity to act. 100 billion euros in private and public funds were freed up for technology transfers to emerging countries. And secondly there must be an agenda of solutions, that is to say that the big global actions that will allow us to roll back global warming must be written down in simple fashion, for example, reforestation, ocean management, smart cities in terms of energy consumption, agricultural innovations. We must be clear on what the big challenges for the planet are and how each country can act, while using this action for their own economic development.
WPJ: So would you like to see each country take a pledge by itself to do certain things?
ROYAL: Each country, each company, each territory, each citizen—there are four poles of intervention. At the Paris conference there will be side events, with a summit of cities that will group 1,000 cities around the world with NGOs. Then you have nine focus groups in the UN—women, youths, corporations, unions, NGOs from every part of the world. Each of these poles put into a network must bring solutions. And we must launch a global debate, buy Internet, mobilize 10,000 people around the world in at least 60 countries. So there will be sites in every country, engaging citizens everywhere.
These are great hopes. It is a great chance for the future of our planet. Now we must build a structure on which we can act.
WPJ: Well, we will see you in Paris in December. Thank you.
-transcribed & translated from French by Sasha Mitchell & Nellie Peyton
[Cartoon courtesy of Jeff Danziger]