Holiday thoughts on food security and climate change

Recently, I was asked to give a short speech about policy issues relating to my research. I thought I might post those comments here, as they address at least a few of the big issues the global community grapples with these days:

When someone sitting next to me on an airplane asks me what I do, I usually say I study the politics of food.  Food is gloriously universal: we all need it, and, globally, 1 in 3 of us still spends our waking hours planting and/or harvesting it.  Worldwide, most farmers are poor and live in low-income countries, and are thus vulnerable both because of low levels of material wealth and because of the higher levels of social and political violence that characterize poorer countries.  Thankfully, food is also a great tool for peace: from Israel and Palestine to Iraq and South Africa, “peace meals”, which bring together former partisans to conflicts and people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, have become part of the healing process.  The same, simple good cheer and food we share tonight can be part of bringing peace, stability, and hope to troubled places.

But, as we sit down to dinner tonight, there will be roughly 925 million people around the world—three times the population of the United States—that will be going hungry.  The number of people experiencing food insecurity—a lack of access to the basic nutrition necessary to lead a healthy, active life—increased in the last five years, reversing three decades of progress in eradicating world hunger.

The causes of world hunger are at once maddeningly simple and incredibly complex.  Fundamentally, hunger is a problem of poverty: people go hungry in the world not because we don’t make enough food to feed everyone, but rather because they are not able—because they’re too poor to afford it, or it’s not available locally—to access it.  However, the causes of food insecurity are themselves complex, involving government policy, both here and abroad, but also technological factors, like access to fertilizers and tractors, and environmental factors like temperature, rainfall, and natural disasters like cyclones, flooding, and droughts.

Here, in the developed world, we’ve done a remarkable job of insulating our lives from our physical environment.  Most, if not all of us live in climate-controlled homes, arrived here this evening in climate-controlled cars, and generally lead climate-controlled lives.  This is largely true of our food production systems, as well, which are highly regulated and fed by high-tech fertilizers and irrigation systems.  Not so in much of the developing world: less than 5 percent of cultivated land in Africa benefits from irrigation, meaning that when the rain doesn’t come (or too much comes at once), crops fail with alarming regularity, harming rural livelihoods and causing hunger.

This brings me to two important points.  First, global climate change will likely exacerbate these problems.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts dramatic increases in extreme weather events over broad swaths of Africa and Asia, the continents that are home to the world’s most food insecure populations.  Second, and here’s the kicker: it’s our fault—partially, at least.  The question is “what are we going to do about it?”

There is broad consensus that a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will be necessary to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global climate change.  The sticking point, which global leaders discussed this past week in Cancun, is who will do the cutting.  About 80 percent of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution have been by only 20% of the world’s population in industrialized countries: the United States, the European Union, Japan, and the former Soviet Union.  Carbon emissions made our societies wealthy and gave us the wherewithal to address future problems, but these past emissions threaten the ability of other countries to use fossil fuels in order to do the same.  Moreover, most of the damage was done long before the scientific community realized that our fossil fuel-dependent mode of development would have real effects on the global climate.

However, roughly 80 percent of the growth in carbon emissions since 2000 has been in the developing world, particularly China.  The governments of many of these countries see environmental concerns as secondary to their prime directive: to raise their populations out of poverty.  Any meaningful movement on climate change will require compromise between countries that contributed the most to creating the problem—and benefited greatly in doing so—and those countries that view caps on future emissions as a potential break on their ability to develop and meet the basic needs, including food security, of their people.

No meaningful agreement on CO2 emissions can be made without the United States and China.  The United States didn’t know what it was doing in 1945 when we were completely dependent on coal-fired power plants, but we don’t have widespread hunger.  China knows what it is doing—the Chinese government doesn’t impugn the science of climate change—but it views hunger and poverty as more pressing concerns.  Here’s the dilemma: how do you “grow” the developing world out of poverty and food insecurity without massively increasing CO2 emissions, and how do you persuade them to develop “cleanly” unless the “developed” world first steps up to the plate and does its part?

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