Just transition of agriculture to low carbon pathways

2022-06-09 Ellen Huan-Niemi
© Just food

The conflicting aims and values between promoting food security and preserving ecological resilience should be addressed. Dominant food and agricultural practices have significant impacts on the environment and at the same time contributing to climate change to the extent that they are systemic rather than localised – the harms that amount to structural injustices are the consequences of the system-wide processes and structures where food is produced, distributed, marketed, accessed, eaten, and regulated.

An example of structural injustice in Finland is that most of the farmlands with organic soils have been cleared by and inherited from previous generations. In order to improve food security, there was a need to clear land to establish new fields after Finland became independent in 1917 due to a land reform to provide fields for smallholders.

The Second World War increased the demand for farmland due to food shortages as well as re-settling refugees from the Eastern parts of Finland. This also led to governmental support for land clearance especially during the 1950s and a significant increase in the cultivation of peatlands. As several generations have benefited from the land clearance, it would be unfair to demand the current generation of farmers to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural peatlands without societal assistance.

However, instead of passing the high costs of climate change to future generations, the current generation of farmers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural peatlands at certain bearable costs and thus circumvent the grave consequences of climate change in the future. Therefore, in-depth knowledge from research may help in addressing the intergenerational justice issue in the transition towards low carbon pathways. Fully informed farmers may agree to assume disproportional burdens due to the possibilities of other opportunities in the pursuit to tackle climate change.

Just transition to a low carbon food system

The research results from the Just Food project published by Lehtonen et al. (2022) evaluated how the transition to a low carbon food system may develop and how it could be promoted in a just manner. The urgency of moving towards a post-carbon society necessitates a united conceptual approach to guarantee justice throughout this transition. This transition is reshaping our environment and ecosystems as well as the climate of the future. Food and agricultural practices are entangled in multiple structural processes (political, economic, social, and cultural) in different interlinked domains (regional, national, international).

The European Union aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. However, Finland has a more ambitious goal to become carbon neutral by 2035. This goal won't be achieved unless new actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions are quickly introduced in all sectors, including the agricultural sector. The projected results indicate how changes in food consumption and specific land use measures can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Finnish agriculture, and what are the likely impacts on regional levels of agricultural production, land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and farm income along with the economic consequences and socio-economic disparities between the different regions in Finland.

Land use measures are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture

The implications of the modelling results in relation to distributive justice (e.g., fair income distribution) and procedural justice (e.g., fair decision-making processes) along with intergenerational justice (e.g., act now for future generations) are analysed for greenhouse gas abatement from agriculture. The modelling results demonstrate that it is difficult to achieve a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by just changing diet alone.

There is a big disparity in the distribution of farm income among the main regions in Finland due to a radical decrease in the consumption of livestock products. However, land use-based measures alone do not create the disparity in farm income among the different regions.

Combining changes in diet and land use is the most effective in mitigating GHG emissions from agriculture.

However, the relatively disadvantaged regions with high shares of livestock production and peatlands may experience major restructuring in agriculture and land use.

The problem is how to ensure a just transition for farmers in livestock dominated regions with poor production conditions and weak employment opportunities. Soil emission abatement subsidies for peatlands may provide partial income compensation to the farmers, but unable to offset the high loss of farm income to sustain their livelihoods due to a large decrease in livestock production.

Other sources of income in addition to agricultural revenues are needed in regions where agriculture is important if livestock production in peatland-rich areas is significantly reduced, and a significant share of peatlands is taken out from agricultural use. There is a need for public guidance and assistance in the disadvantaged regions with limited alternatives for livestock production. There is also a need for support from relevant actors in the food value chain such as the processing and retail sectors along with consumers to facilitate a just transition in the Finnish food system.

Ellen Huan-Niemi, Senior Research Scientist, Natural Research Institute Finland (Luke)

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