Climate change is ravaging the world’s nutritional supplies, and in the very near future we’ll be looking at astronomical prices for staple foods. Which will lead to starvation, conflict, and hugely increased competition for resources. Can we really afford to let that happen?
I recently attended a briefing session of the High Level Panel on the post-2015 discussion in New York. If I had to measure the urgency of these discussions against the crisis the world faces, I would be tempted to jump off a precipice without a parachute.
Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace, quoted Einstein in that meeting, saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That is precisely what global leaders entrusted with the stewardship of the world are doing. Their lives revolve around glittering banquets and long and dreary conferences, where they listen to each other in endless process-driven negotiations – so far from the reality of the day-to-day hardships of more than half of humanity.
As I sat through the discussion discussing the statistical probability of halving poverty by 2015, all I saw was the faces of the starving women I met in the communities of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. These were once vibrant communities abuzz with laughter and communal activity. Lake Turkana was the oasis of life, providing bountiful fish to feed the community. The grasslands provided ample grazing land. Now I stand on cracked earth and stare at the arid desert around me. The land is barren. The simmering blue shoreline has receded. The salinity of this gigantic inland sea has worsened. The fish have begun to die as the temperature increases. The conflicts have increased thanks to competition for scarce grazing lands. People wait in the blistering heat for relief to be brought in. They live a hair’s breadth away from starvation, saved only by the monthly supply of basics donated by an NGO.
We know that the greatest conflicts we will see in the future will be over water, food and land. Skin deep in the Horn of Africa, and now in the west of Africa around Niger and Mali, are the stark consequences of the climate crisis we face in the world. But these are communities where one barely sees a refrigerator or the prized ‘progress’ our consumption model advertises as success.
I watch the burgeoning slums of Mumbai, Nairobi and Cape Town, and see defeat in the faces of the people. They have left the rural areas in the hope of a better life in the cities. But in overcrowded conditions with little public investment, household insecurity is the constant threat, and living conditions such as the lack of clean water and sanitation bring death nearer to doorsteps every day.
Yet as effects of global climate change intensify, politicians continue to talk past each other, ignoring or distorting the science, passing the buck on meaningful action. Enough is enough. The people who grow the food we eat, and everyone else by extension, have a heavy responsibility now to speak the truth about our changing world.
Harvests across more than 26 American states have not been ruined by a perfectly natural accident. The US misused its underground water reserves in its natural aquifers and today faces prolonged droughts that has a huge impact on global food supply. The desperation of a million underfed children in the West African Sahel is not an unrelated problem.
For us here in South Africa, this situation has a devastating impact. Being a net importer of food, importing staple grain such as maize and wheat from the US, our country inevitably faces increased food prices in the immediate future.
I saw the impact of extreme and unpredictable weather phenomena on a trip to Thailand where unseasonal and flooding caused widespread destruction loss of life. The casualties of global climate change can be felt now, and is increasingly becoming a global phenomenon. The heat wave in Russia and flooding in India are all part of the same global pattern. The threat of climate change is not a future one; it is a threat today. Our planet is heading towards warming by an increase of between 2.2°C and 5°C, and if it gets there, not even money will buy protection.
These are truths that our farmers can tell. They are the canary in the mine.
For some years, researchers have been warning about how the gradual impacts of climate change will act like a brake on agricultural productivity, pushing up long-run food prices. By 2030, world food prices for staple crops could double, with around half the increase driven by the steadily rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change. For the fight against global hunger, this is a terrifying prospect.
But perhaps the most devastating impact of climate change on food security is actually the least well explored. On top of these insidious slow-onset impacts, we must grasp what an increase in extreme weather means for increasing food price volatility in the years and decades ahead.
New research released by Oxfam shows, for the first time, how extreme weather events could affect future world food prices. The results should make leaders sit up. Even under a conservative scenario, another drought in North America in 2030 could see the world price of maize jump as much as 140%. This is 140% on top of projected long-run price rises.
By 2030, the report shows, the world could be even more vulnerable to the kind of drought witnessed in the US today, as dependence on US exports of wheat and maize grows, just as climate change makes droughts in the US much more likely. The current crisis is just a glimpse of the fragility of our future food system in a warming world.
Even more alarming, perhaps, is the prospect of more extreme weather events in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2030, 95% of staple grains consumed in sub-Saharan Africa could come from the region itself, meaning that local climatic shocks are likely to have a dramatic impact on local food production, prices and ultimately levels of consumption. Drought and flooding in Southern Africa, equivalent to that seen in 1995, for example, could increase consumer prices for maize, sorghum and millet in the region by around 120%.
Food price spikes like this are climate change’s weapon of mass destruction. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimates that the 2007/08 food price spike contributed to an 8% rise in the number of undernourished people in Africa. For people who may spend up to 75% of their incomes on food, sudden and extreme price hikes can be even more devastating than gradual long-term rises to which they may have more chance of adjusting.
While a price spike can be short-term, the impact on poor people can be generational. Malnourished women give birth to smaller, stunted babies. Children may be withdrawn from school, livestock sold, seeds eaten instead of planted or further family debt incurred.
Unchecked climate change will stretch our global food system to a breaking point, yet we have barely started to face up to what this means for the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Governments “stress tested” the banks after the financial crisis; now they need to “stress test” the world food system under climate change.
Governments must urgently identify the weaknesses of today’s food system and address them. Reversing decades of under-investment in small-scale agriculture, establishing food reserves and scaling-up social protection schemes can all help build people’s resilience.
Global climate change is, and will increasingly be, a human issue – one that we will associate less with the natural world that we have removed ourselves from, as it now affects the crops with which we sustain ourselves. The urgency of immediate action to slash emissions and to fund agricultural adaptation to climate change, in developed as well as developing countries, could not be starker. Farmers rich and poor are on the front lines of this unfolding global food crisis. By joining together in common cause, they could spur their governments to confront it. DM
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