Our global farming and food crisis will get worse until we stop allowing politicians to claim carbon reduction is our ‘top priority’ at COPs but legislate the opposite when they return home
Climate weasel word spotting: a short guide
Listen to a well-informed journalist interviewing a competent politician, and you may sense a parallel contest taking place.
This game is well understood by both politician and journalist, but it rarely suits either of them to make this shadow-interview explicit. The politician fears loss of face: the journalist fears loss of employment.
But just so you know what to listen out for, here are a couple of red-flag giveaway words that signal what’s really happening ‘between the lines’:
Example: ‘We want Inflation to be a fraction of what it was under the previous regime.’
This framing is often used when the politician has no idea what the actual number is, but wants it to be small, and reckons they can get away with busking it. ‘Fraction’ is also deployed more cynically by politicians who do in fact know the actual number, but also know it won’t sound very impressive. ‘Fraction’ can leave a casual listener with the impression that the speaker is determined to drastically slash inflation, even though the word, mathematically, is meaningless. The interviewer could point out that a gross fraction would be greater than the current figure and press them for a verifiable number, but usually doesn’t. They both know the politician isn’t technically lying, just avoiding giving a specific goal to which they could be held to account.
Example: ‘The planet is in greater peril than ever before – we must all make decarbonising our economy our urgent priority.’
When it comes to climate matters, ‘priority’ is a favourite weasel word for political leaders. Like ‘fraction’, ‘priority’ can simultaneously mean opposite things – the trick is to avoid using a definite article. ‘The priority’ is singular, implying it’s preceded by ‘top’. There can only be one top priority. It means that everything else is less important. Slip in an indefinite article, however, and ‘a priority’ is relegated to one among many, including much easier political choices. ‘Priority’ is perfect for sounding like you’re serious about something, while providing a cloak of plausible deniability, permitting you to do nothing about it.
It’s the job of journalists, and the duty of any responsible adult, to identify this gap between words and action.
So why don’t we, when it comes to climate action in general, and food and farming in particular?
Climate: what politicians say vs. what politicians do
Here are three tidbits from the Declaration on Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace. This is the statement agreed on in Dubai, after months of top-level negotiations, by world leaders at the 28th UN Climate Change Conference.
- We call for bolder collective action to build climate resilience at the scale and speed required in highly vulnerable countries and communities
- An ambitious, immediate scale up of enhanced support is urgently needed
- We commit to scale-up financial resources for climate adaptation and resilience, and prioritizing [!] local ownership, impact, and results.
Inspiring words. They almost make you wonder what the problem is.
Here’s the problem. The moment these world leaders get home, they bin the climate greenwash, and carry on tinkering with Business As Usual.
This is partly because these quotations don’t mean what they appear to mean – we’ve removed all the ‘boring’ bits of legalese-sounding blether, caveats and qualifiers.
This leaves the sound bites you may have heard on the news. As intended, they sound significant and meaningful, so long as you’re not paying too much attention. Most of us aren’t, so job done.
We won’t list all these weasel phrases, like ‘substantial’ ‘committed to’, goal, or ‘relevant’, precisely because they’re so boring. If you fancy a game of Spot The Weasel Words, trawl through the COP28 Declaration text and highlight them for yourself.
Greenwash has, until recently, been pretty simple. Very few people really wanted to know the answer, in case it might involve changing the status quo. But as global heating becomes a fatal current reality rather than some nebulous future risk, the status quo is rapidly getting less attractive for more people. This makes getting away with greenwash harder – but not yet hard enough to abandon greenwash, and replace it with green action.
Significant climate action means no longer allowing ourselves to be beguiled by weasel words. We’ve allowed our politicians to leave a Grand Canyon-size gap between what they say at climate conferences, and what they legislate once they return home.
Let’s take the one thing we all need – food, literally a matter of life and death – and work out what’s required to narrow this words/action gap.
How about a pop quiz?
Farming Quiz Round 1 – word cloud
Round One is a picture-round.
If you’re not sure what word clouds are, they’re graphical representations of word frequency is a particular text, using font size to represent the relative frequency of the word excluding common words like ‘the’ or ‘and’. We generated world clouds from current agricultural policy documents of the following entities:
- The UN
- The EU
- The USA
- The UK
- The People’s Republic of China
You’ll notice there are five entities, but only four word clouds.
Q1: Which of the five entities’ word clouds is missing?
Q2: Can you match each of the four word clouds to the right entity?
Answers at the bottom of this article…
Farming Quiz Round 2 – guess the entity
To make this round easier, refer to the world clouds above. If you think it will help (and for you to verify if you doubt our arithmetic) here are the particular documents we searched, in alphabetical order:
- China’s State Council Agricultural Policy 2023
- EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2020-2027
- UK’s Sustainable Farming Incentive Handbook
- UN’s State of Food & Agriculture Report 2023
- USA’s 2023 Farm Bill
These documents are all different lengths, and China’s is an unofficial translation, but each is a fair representation of the most up-to-date texts describing, in reasonable detail, the current and future farming policy of each of these countries/organisations.
Within these texts, as a rough-and-ready, measurable proxy for ‘how seriously we take this thing’, we counted the frequency of the following six words:
- ‘sustainable’ or ’sustainability’
- ‘pollute’ or ‘pollution’
- ‘biodiverse’ or ‘biodiversity’
Now here’s Round Two of our farming pop quiz:
Q1: Rank how often these 5 documents used these 6 words, from most frequent to least.
Q2: 3 of the 5 texts had the same word as most-used. Which word, and which three?
Q3: One of the texts used the most popular word far more than the others (86% of total for that word). Which word, and whose text?
Q4: One of the texts accounted for 78% of the instances of the word ‘soil’. Whose?
Q5: Which was the least frequent of the 6 words, only accounting for 6% of the total?
Answers in the table at the bottom of this article – pause here if you want to check the answers now.
Why this is not a game
We’ve dressed this information up as a game for fun, but its implications couldn’t be more serious.
The answer to Q5 was ‘carbon’.
Now consider quotations from the COP Declaration. Unless you skipped the weasel words spotters guide, you might be wondering how to reconcile these fine words uttered at a global climate conference with the laws, regulations, schemes, grants, incentives and taxes world leaders actually implement once they get home.
If you still find this disconnect surprising, this is what we mean by the Grand Canyon-like gap between politicians’ words on climate change, and their actions. While it’s a truism that politicians don’t always say what they mean, and can usually be shrugged away as one of life’s many disappointments, when it comes to ‘carbon’, we can’t afford to be indifferent.
Think of all those speeches about how AI, broadband access, genetic engineering or even space travel are ‘life-or-death’ issues for humanity.
They definitively aren’t. They’ve been absent for 99.99% of human history, and billions still live without them. Food, however, we definitely can’t live without. For a significant proportion of the world’s population (as it happens, the same ones whose lives are untouched by AI, broadband, genetic engineering and space travel), their next meal is a daily preoccupation, not a menu choice.
Yet we’ve come to regard food policy, or agricultural regulation, as a boring, old-fashioned, even obsolete topic. The global food system may make a less compelling headline than nanotechnology turning life on earth to sludge, social media enslaving our children, AI robots enslaving the rest of us, or the latest space rocket launched by a multibillionaire made rich by such digital enslavement. Miss a few meals in a row, however, and we all will be thinking of nothing but food.
Yet we’re not even asking the right questions when it comes to reconciling our food system with sustainability.
If the gap between words and action is currently the Grand Canyon, sustainability will narrow it to a mere crack.
This, then, is the climate gap in action. How can we close it?
Remove the Money Goggles
For a start, replace your Money Goggles with Carbon Goggles, and the food problem comes into startling focus.
We’re all complicit in ignoring our food crisis, because we fear the answer may have ‘financial consequences’, and we take money (something we made up) a lot more seriously than carbon (something we’re made of).
We’re happy to let our politicians get away with weasel words, because none of us wants to hear the era of cheap food is over.
There’s no need to explain why we don’t want this to be true, but the inconvenient truth is that, since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have been subsidising cheap food.
We’ve become so accustomed to food getting progressively cheaper, we’ve come to think this is a Law, an economic inevitability. Food, we like to think, insofar as we think of it at all, is an ex-problem, solved by human ingenuity.
But look at the news…
If only that were true. Re-read the news headlines with Carbon Goggles, rather than Money Goggles, and the true nature of the problem becomes all too obvious.
Today’s food system is only possible because we’ve not been pricing in the environmental costs.
Food is cheap because mechanised farming, globalised food chains, and industrial production of nitrate fertiliser, all depend on fossil fuels.
The cost may, so far, be invisible, in our grocery bills, but is apparent in the news:
- Russia invading Ukraine sends fertiliser prices shooting up.
- Houthi rebels attacking shipping in the Red Sea sends shipping charges rocketing and disrupts the global supply chain.
- Farmers around the world are protesting against all the symptoms – blaming cheap imports, supermarkets, fertiliser manufacturers or ‘green’ regulations, rather than the root cause.
Nothing will change until we start including the carbon cost of farming in our food bills. Viewed through Carbon Goggles, this looks hard. Viewed through Money Goggles, impossible.
But if you think the very notion of expensive food is ‘politically unacceptable’, as society will break down if we’re asked to pay more for food, there’s good news.
Why not transfer the subsidies we’re currently paying fossil fuel companies ($7,000,000,000 per year) to the farmers?
That should help soften the blow, for everyone apart from Big Oil at least, while we re-adjust to living sustainably.
Farming’s Carbon Gap
Until we face up to the physics and economics of our unsustainable food system, Business As Usual will keep our food gap as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Business As Usual accelerates the inevitable point when, lemming-like, large numbers of us start plunging over the cliff edge, because we’ve left it too late to determine our fate.
The first step to taking responsibility for our future, and start narrowing the gap separating us from a sustainable future, is to start telling our politicians to match their COP words with their legislative actions.
We need to reassure our governments that all those angry farmers tipping manure on their parliament steps and blocking roads with tractors are not actually the problem, just symptoms of our collective reluctance to include carbon costs in our food bills.
Farmers are protesting because the Money Goggle system squeezes the producers at the bottom, and no one is helping them. Farmers would soon return to their fields if we changed regulations so that making a living and reducing carbon were aligned, instead of in conflict. If regulations rewarded farmers for reducing carbon, instead of punishing them, there’d be no need to protest against strangling supermarkets, cheap foreign imports, or green taxes.
The future is unlikely to ever involve a world where farmers never complain about anything, but let’s try to make their complaints traditional grumbles about the weather, rather than desperate, angry protests against their inability to stay in business as we mess with our climate.
Thought for Food
Farming is climate change’s front line:
- As Cause: food production is responsible for up to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
- As Effect: Rising temperatures, wilder weather events and shifting rainfall are forcing farmers to adapt to an uncertain future, navigating between feeding us and remaining solvent.
For farmers, tradition has, until now, been a reliable guide, but old lore is becoming obsolete.
Technology has been, until now, an ally, but is now as much problem as solution. Standing in their fields, beset by storms, floods and wildfire, global heating is tearing, dissolving and singeing farmers’ once-reliable handbooks. No wonder farmers around the world, the first to be squeezed to keep food cheap, are angry.
The only certainty is our current unsustainable path. More of the same guarantees failure. Until the climate stabilises, every choice a farmer makes is a gamble on future weather, rainfall, temperature and climate that strays way beyond the boundaries faced by their fathers, grandfathers, and farming forebears stretching back millennia.
Farmers are on the front line of our collective gamble on what we all need to survive – food.
Betting the farm
This gamble is unprecedented. Farming has always been dependent on weather, but a changing climate is a new and unprecedented wild card. While we dither over taking decisive action to reduce carbon, no one – including the experts – can predict what the climate will be decades from now.
Over the next few decades, farmers face the greatest challenge in human history. By the time farmers now taking over established farms from their parents do the same for their children, now in school, everything will be different.
The bets they make over the next few decades will determine whether we can decarbonise farming to stabilise the climate, and whether they’ll still have a viable farm to pass on.
Unfortunately, this is the worst time in human history to make such bets, because we’ve forgotten the importance of farming.
Let’s improve their odds – and ours – by changing government regulations to make reducing carbon and running a thriving farm compatible, rather than conflicting.
Modern society has never been more divorced from the reality of food production. Meat has become something that appears in plastic trays. We expect supermarkets to be permanently stocked with all fresh food, whatever the season. Food is a lifestyle choice, not an existential obsession.
Farming is literally a matter of life or death. Business As Usual simply makes global heating worse, delays any stability and makes recovery harder, and prolongs the human suffering between now and whenever our climate stabilises again.
It’s rolling dice with no markings.
It’s betting the farm on a roulette wheel with no ball.
It’s playing Russian Roulette with all six chambers loaded.
[This is the second in a series of articles outlining the big issue behind See Through Together’s Betting The Farm project. The first article, on cheap food, is Food – It’s Time To Get Serious: Betting The Farm]
Word Cloud Quiz Answers
Guess the Entity Quiz Answers