Real Climate Solutions Come from the Grassroots: Why I Believe in WhyHunger

By Peter Shaviro

I started working for WhyHunger in August 2023 as I was going into my final semester of a master’s degree in environmental policy. Optimism can be hard to come by in this field, but I decided to pursue this path for a number of reasons. I was radicalized by some combination of the increasingly dire climate reports in the late 2010s, the miserable political situation in the US and world (especially as it relates to climate and the Earth), and a desire to dedicate my career to a goal besides merely making money. And given the way things are going, it still feels like a practical choice. But if I want to make a difference regarding the climate, why did I want to work for WhyHunger? First, let’s zoom out for a second.

Like most of their predecessors, the most recent two Conferences of the Parties (COPs) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were very disappointing to anyone paying attention. COP27 in 2022 was held in Egypt, an extremely repressive oil-producing state. COP28 in 2023 was held in the United Arab Emirates, a similarly repressive state which produces almost seven times as much oil as Egypt. The next one, COP29, will be held in Azerbaijan, another major oil producer and a country which recently conducted a major ethnic cleansing.

Regardless of their hosts, the current purpose of the COPs is to flesh out and carry out the Paris Agreement, which came out of COP21. Among other things, the goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global heating below an increase of 2°C, and ideally below 1.5°C (compared to pre-industrial baselines). To a lay observer, there might not seem to be much of a difference between the two, but scientists agreed that avoiding an increase of 1.5°C is imperative to avoid the worst effects. The Agreement called for a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 to achieve this.

On February 9th, 2024, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that not only was January 2024 the hottest on record, but that the previous 12 months averaged 1.52°C above the pre-industrial average. 1.5°C has already been breached.

Zooming back in. Why does WhyHunger matter in this context? Because I firmly believe that WhyHunger and its grassroots partners represent the vanguard of climate action far more than the jet-setting climate negotiations held in fossil-fueled autocracies. Climate change is not just an ‘externality’ created by the unfortunate happenstance that global civilization is powered by fossil fuels. The systems of extraction, production, distribution, and profit that run the world would be impossible without fossil fuels. They must be dismantled to protect the future of the biosphere, let alone humanity. Identifying the need for a tear down is the easy part, imagining and achieving a new world is the wicked problem at hand. In the words of the late theorist Mark Fisher, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. He called this state capitalist realism. But this imagining is precisely what WhyHunger and its grassroots partners do.

The specific system that WhyHunger stands against is one of the most odious. The corporate industrial agriculture system purports to feed the world, and to do so it has a shockingly bad effect on the Earth. Industrial agriculture is responsible for almost 1/3 of all fossil fuel emissions when one accounts for all of the impacts: methane and nitrous oxide from livestock and fertilizers; the destruction of carbon stocks from land use change (i.e. conversion of forests to crop land); emissions from machinery, processing, packaging, and transportation of food; and indirect emissions from the manufacture of inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, and the production of machinery. It is even worse when one looks beyond greenhouse gases to the full-spectrum environmental impacts of the industrial agriculture system. It is one of the largest drivers of the biodiversity crisis/Sixth Mass Extinction, as more and more land is converted. It uses extremely large amounts of fresh water. The system consumes more nitrogen fertilizer than all terrestrial ecosystems put together, and nearly 50% of this nitrogen ends up in runoff, flows into lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and damages marine ecosystems. And all of this destruction is in service of a global food system that leaves two billion people overweight, two billion people hungry, and 800 million people starving.

But the system cannot be torn down without alternatives. And this is where WhyHunger gives me hope. Following the grassroots is not just a marketing strategy, it is both the appropriate praxis for an NGO to follow and the one I believe most likely to build true alternatives. The systems of power that have created the climate crisis were created from the top down, irrespective of the needs and knowledges of localities. To avoid repeating the mistakes of the recent past and to build alternatives that are place-based, serve the needs of their communities, and heal the planet, grassroots leadership is crucial. The agroecological methods promoted by WhyHunger and used by its partners are both a return and an evolution. A return to traditional agricultural methods, mixed with the innovations and understanding of modern agricultural science to produce a true alternative to the industrial agricultural system. Agroecology repudiates industrial agriculture, replacing fertilizer and pesticide-heavy monocropping with locally appropriate mixtures of crops. Biodiversity is promoted rather than destroyed, and the growing of crops returns to being carbon negative. That is the technical side. On the political side, by supporting grassroots movements for food sovereignty, WhyHunger promotes systemic alternatives. Resourcing the ability of food producers to control of their lands, seeds, and water for the purpose of scaling local agroecology and other sustainable practices is the path toward the systemic alternatives which much arise as the corporate industrial agricultural system is torn down.

That is why WhyHunger gives me optimism. Capitalist realism may be pervasive, but there are alternatives in the making. I am proud to have contributed my labor in the past six months towards this goal.

Peter Shaviro

Peter Shaviro was WhyHunger’s Development Intern from August 2023-February 2024, while he completed a MS in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management at The New School. He also holds a BA/BS in History and Business from Skidmore College, has conducted research on US foreign policy, military spending, and climate finance, and lives in New York.