In mid-September, New York hosted Climate Week NYC, an annual fixture hosted by an international nonprofit called the Climate Group in partnership with the United Nations (U.N.) and New York City. Hundreds of events are squeezed into the five-day schedule, creating a smorgasbord of academic talks, impassioned panelists, art shows and high-profile speeches. Coincidentally, at the end of Climate Week, Farm Aid hosted its 38th annual concert and Farmers’ Forum in Noblesville, Indiana, a town about 700 miles due west of New York. Farm Aid’s theme this year was climate change. I was lucky enough to attend both events.
My version of Climate Week included breakfast meetings and all-day panels, wine receptions and salmon bakes, in venues as different as the Rockefeller Foundation headquarters on 5th Avenue and Teter Organic Farm, 30 miles north of Indianapolis, Indiana. I heard from and talked with farmers and farm workers, Indigenous leaders, environmentalists, public servants, elected officials, youth activists, volunteers, researchers and academics, trade unionists, and philanthropists.
With my IATP colleague Vanessa Ocasio and board member Marie Clarke, I started Climate Week with the March for Climate Justice, which made its way through Midtown Manhattan on Sunday, September 17. We were part of a loud and friendly crowd of an estimated 75,000 people, enjoying the sunshine and cheered along by marching bands, puppeteers and drummers. At the concluding rally, we heard from an all-star cast of speakers, including climate activists from across the globe, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and veteran protestor Jane Fonda.
Monday was the official start to Climate Week, which was timed to coincide with the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly. It was a wet day, and the roads around U.N. Headquarters on 1st Ave and 42nd Street were jammed with cars and pedestrians trying to make their way through road closures and motorcades carrying heads of state and their escorts. I spent the day with civil society and trade union activists from every continent, discussing a wide range of climate justice issues, including gender rights, international finance, developing country debt and youth activism. We met in the conference room on the second floor of the U.N. Church Center, looking out at the U.N. Headquarters and East River. All the member states’ flags were flying, and snipers came in and out of view as they patrolled the U.N. building roof.
That conference room has personal history: I first sat there during the final preparatory meetings for the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) in March 1992. That was the U.N. summit where governments adopted the UNFCCC, as well as the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Earth Charter and Agenda 21. Thirty years later, it is painful to reflect on all that remains to be done to address these challenges.
At Climate Week, the mood in the Church Center was angry and determined. The organizers include people who have been fighting for climate justice for decades. Their frustration is understandable as governments head into yet another COP (this year will be COP28), with outsized unkept promises and incomplete negotiations. The global North continues not to pay for the climate damage they have caused. Oil states continue to block meaningful action to mitigate energy emissions. National indebtedness in the world’s poorest countries has resurged since the COVID-19 pandemic, eroding national sovereignty. Transnational corporations and wealthy countries are using this situation to push questionable carbon offset and removal schemes. There is a lot to make anyone sad and angry, and there are too few glimmers of hope.
Wednesday was more upbeat. Declared Climate Week’s Food Day, the Rockefeller Foundation hosted an all-day event at their headquarters, jointly with WWF and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (an alliance of philanthropic foundations). The day was packed with leaders and big names in the world of food systems and agriculture. In a succession of plenary panels, each one had 2-3 minutes to say their piece in an impressive if dizzying morning program. In the afternoon, the organizers set up discussion tracks, including agroecology, oceans, nutrition and fossil fuel use in agriculture.
I left Climate Week early Thursday for Farm Aid. In Indianapolis, I joined farm tours inside the city limits, before an evening salmon bake (wild caught fish from the Pacific) at Teter Farm, where we were treated to sneak previews of Saturday’s concert. I got a warm welcome to my first Farm Aid annual concert with a proud moment for IATP as we were honored with our partners in the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment with the first People Powered Organizing and Leadership award.
Friday was the Farmer Forum and People’s Hearing. Two panels of Indiana farmers and farm activists described their response to the climate crisis, to social exclusion and inequality, and to concentrated agribusiness power in their markets. They talked about personal struggles and the social and economic crises facing their communities, and the way farms and food hubs have created hope and opportunity for change. On the panel discussing food sovereignty, Lauren McCalister, farmer and manager of Bloomington’s People’s Market, called for cooperative rather than community food systems. She argued that cooperative systems are powerful because they are chosen, not an accident of geography or culture, and they work across space and time in ways communities alone cannot. In the afternoon, the People’s Hearing gave a dozen farm and food organizations from across the U.S. a chance to testify on the changes needed in the next U.S. Farm Bill, now in negotiation in Congress. Testifiers called for tighter regulation of corporate power and accountability for corporate labor and environmental abuses; they called for increased public funding for climate action on farms, and simpler mechanisms to release public money to small operations, especially for BIPOC and new farmers.
For me, Climate Week concluded as it began, in a crowd. On Saturday I was one of tens of thousands at the musical marathon that is the Farm Aid concert. We were graced by the musicians who founded Farm Aid — Willy Nelson, John Mellencamp and (back after a three-year gap) Neil Young — as well as Dave Matthews, Margo Price and a surprise appearance from Bob Dylan. It was an epic show. Dave Matthews gave as cogent and concise a summary of the evils of capitalism as I have heard. I got to eat a delicious porkchop from Patchwork Farms. Neil Young exhorted us all to stop making excuses and get busy, not just for farmers but for planet Earth.
At the end of all that, what did I take away from it all?
Global activists are defiant, if anguished. It is hard to be optimistic that we will avert a global crisis, but the climate justice movement is neither giving up nor going home.
Climate change is a complex and dynamic problem that demands a multitude of responses. The global talks matter, but they are only one piece of climate action. I was so impressed at what is happening in Indiana, including ways that USDA and state funding is finally reaching BIPOC farmers and community food hubs, and how farmers have rejected the mantra of “get big or get out” in favor of businesses that support access to healthy foods for all and invest in climate-resilient landscapes.
Healthy food systems depend on cooperation. At IATP, our work is always focused on both local food systems and global relationships. Food system choices in one place can have powerful effects far away. Food system transformation demands that we overcome distances, sometimes really big distances, and take responsibility for how our food systems interact across space and time.
Farming is a social activity. Farmers benefit from organizing and economically vibrant local communities. One of the cruelest dimensions of the industrial agricultural systems that dominate so much of the U.S. food landscape is the way they have shrunk rural populations, closing schools and small businesses. The loss is not only social, although the social fabric is crucial to healthy economies. The loss is also scientific; it is a loss of critical local knowledge of seed varietals and animal breeds, land management practices and marketing opportunities. Innovation is stifled and on-farm adaptive capacity is weakened as a result.
Implementing effective public policy depends on having enough of the right people to do the work. USDA is chronically understaffed. As a result, the relationships that should ensure responsive farm programs lack trust and continuity. The Farm Bill must invest in a strong cohort of public servants alongside better conservation and economic support programs.
Frankly, I found Climate Week NYC exhausting. The sheer number of people and events, issues and perspectives on offer is a recipe for indigestion. Of course, it is exciting to be part of the frenzy, to hear an admired author speak, or to bump into an old friend, or to be inspired by new impassioned voices. But it is impossible to process so much content in so short a time — much of the time, it was hard just finishing a conversation. Everyone is in a hurry, looking over the shoulder of the person they are speaking with to see who else they should try to catch, all while figuring out how much time they need in the traffic to get to the next “must-see” event. The menu on offer is remarkably rich and varied, but also impossible to appreciate properly.
Farm Aid has a very different feel. The annual gathering is a precious moment in the lives of farmers, food activists and policy advocates. We get to see each other, for one thing, and to share good food. We visit farms where we see better food systems in practice and hear stories of survival and success. We sit down at a table and eat together, often accompanied by some great music. At the Farmer’s Forum, local farmers, food hub coordinators, food justice fighters and community leaders get the microphone, joined by farm activists from across the country. USDA officials and state legislators are there to listen and respond.
Both events gave me plenty to think about and together, they made for an extraordinary week. I heard ideas, recommendations and testimony that linked food and climate to racial justice and inclusion, Indigenous peoples’ rights, finance and debt, and the intractability of concentrated corporate power. I heard about regenerative farming and the need to protect our fisheries. I listened to calls for dietary change and compelling evidence against soil-based carbon removals and voluntary carbon markets. I heard farmers talk about how hard it is to thrive in a system where both public programs and private markets are stacked against them, and how they are nonetheless making their business work, in part by defining their own success. They presented their definition of success as a form of food sovereignty. Their indicators include how many community members are fed; how much total food is produced per acre; and how well the soil is holding up to floods and drought. I came home with lots to think about, tired and yet reenergized for the urgent food and climate justice work ahead.