The role of water in building resilient food and farming systems

News 04.05.2023

Water is essential to ensuring food security. Five experts who work on different aspects of this question are Right Livelihood Laureates Pat Mooney, GRAIN, SEKEM, Anwar Fazal and Nnimmo Bassey. They have dedicated their life’s work to these matters by shedding light on pressing urgencies as well as implementing local solutions and planning ahead. They do all of this to stabilise the future of food production and increase food sovereignty.

According to the World Bank, the earth’s population is expected to reach over 10 billion in 2050. This population will need food and water to meet its basic needs. However, the food chain is already under pressure due to climate change and industrial farming. Such practices not only deplete freshwater resources, but they pollute drinking water, damage biodiversity and human health.

By 2060, the US Department of Agriculture predicts that the availability of water for agriculture will be significantly reduced, primarily because of climate change, but also due to current water use patterns. The study indicates long-term yields are set to decline for seven out of ten major grain crops as a result.

At the same time, activists, farmers and agriculturalists are increasingly worried about the food chain, the future of food production and the decrease in food sovereignty. These experts, including several Right Livelihood Laureates, are advocating instead for a sustainable, local farming practices-approach. They say that securing people’s right to a healthy and culturally appropriate produce is needed, through socially just, ecologically  nd sustainable methods. Farmers also need collective rights to define their own systems for food production, distribution and consumption to secure a sustainable food chain.

Below, you can find out how Right Livelihood Laureates have been working towards these goals for decades:

1985 Right Livelihood Laureate Pat Mooney has spent most of his life working on genetic conservation, biodiversity and agricultural development in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In recent years, his work has shifted to focusing on the so-called “Long Food Movement.” It comes from a need to plan decades ahead instead of just a few years. The “Long Food Movement” combines short-term action with long-term thinking by putting people working at the beginning of the food chain, such as farmers and local producers, before the corporations in the industrial food system. It seeks to change current power relations in the food chain with industries and mass-production at the top.

Currently, the food-industrial system uses at least 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land. It stands for most of agriculture’s fossil fuel and freshwater resources, yet it feeds barely 30 per cent of the world’s population. Connecting small, local food systems that, according to Mooney’s research, are already feeding most of the world, will make it possible to build resilience and information sharing. Mooney is adamant that we can achieve food security and food sovereignty.

GRAIN is an international non-profit organisation that supports small farmers and movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

The organisation received the Right Livelihood Award in 2011 “for their worldwide work to protect the livelihoods and rights of farming communities and to expose the massive purchases of farmland in developing countries by foreign financial interests.”  GRAIN was founded in the 1990s after several activists noticed the dramatic erosion of genetic diversity, something absolutely vital for agriculture. GRAIN has since been a key player in the global movement to challenge corporate power over people’s food and livelihood, and to promote food sovereignty.

The climate crisis, the water crisis and the food crisis are interlinked. The industrial food system is largely responsible. Industrial agriculture can account for as much as 90 per cent of all freshwater use in Western countries. GRAIN seeks to increase knowledge about this and draw attention to it globally. They work with outreach activities, connect social movements, build coalitions, and develop actionable strategies.

Dr Ibrahim Abouleish (1937-2017) was an Egyptian development activist who, in 1977, founded SEKEM, a comprehensive development initiative. The organisation received the Right Livelihood Award in 2003.

Abouleish felt overwhelmed by Egypt’s pressing problems in overpopulation, environmental degradation, inadequate education and health care. Agriculture involved 40 per cent of the workforce yet remained the least developed sector of the Egyptian economy at the time.

SEKEM was the first organisation that developed biodynamic farming methods in Egypt, treating animals, crops and soil as one single system in a sustainable way. This is especially important in Egypt, as the country is expected to be greatly affected by the world’s water scarcity. One of the organisation’s highest priorities currently is to raise awareness to the cautious and efficient usage of Egypt’s water sources.

1982 Right Livelihood Laureate and founder of the Right Livelihood College, Anwar Fazal is a Malaysian activist campaigning for consumer and citizens’ rights.

Fazal has identified five responsibilities for consumer organisations: critical awareness, action, social concern, ecological awareness and solidarity.

In his work, he has argued for the exclusion of water as a “good” or “service”, stating that it is not something a person or entity has the right to profit from. According to Fazal, water should not be commodified, privatised, traded or exported for commercial gain. It is a human right. Fazal has said that we need to have a holistic approach to manage water. The governance of water will be at the centre of survival in the future. Water should therefore be controlled by those who rely on it to live and not only corporations, according to Fazal. It has to be a balance between all levels of society and nature.

Nnimmo Bassey is one of Africa’s leading advocates and campaigners for the environment and human rights. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 2010 “for revealing the full ecological and human horrors of oil production and for his inspired work to strengthen the environmental movement in Nigeria and globally.”

Bassey’s primary focus has been campaigning against oil and the damage it causes to oil-rich nations. He discovered that at least 300 oil spills have occurred in the Niger Delta yearly for 50 years, many of which have never been cleared up. As a result, Bassey demands that we “leave the oil in the soil,” arguing for the importance of not seeing waters as waste dumps for pollution. He also advocates for water to remain a common good instead of being privatised.

As fellow Laureate Pat Mooney, Bassey supports a farmers-based approach to agriculture. He has worked as an international campaigner on GMO issues, saying that it will challenge food security, decrease soil fertility, erode biodiversity and impoverish small scale farmers. He sees a big risk in African agriculture being contaminated by GMOs in the future.

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