By Nayah Thu
There are many reasons to care about the climate crisis. But, fundamentally, most people care about climate change because they care about people. So why aren’t we talking more about food insecurity? With a growing population and ever-growing pressure on fertile land, it is one of the clearest threats posed by climate change, with concrete consequences for global health and inequality.
When climate-induced food insecurity is mentioned, it is often in one of two lights: either as an inevitable evil that we will have to live with, or as a far-away and uncertain spectre that may never materialise, especially if we keep developing our farming technology. Both perspectives reek of privilege, distancing the speaker from the reality of the situation. The immense suffering caused by hunger is neither inevitable nor invisible. We know this. Global hunger is one of the most highly profiled humanitarian causes. But it’s no longer an issue solely of resource redistribution. It’s a consequence of unsustainable and imperialistic farming practices.
The Global South is already disproportionately affected by climate-related food insecurity. For example, Africa is the continent with “the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, at almost 20 percent,” and as at August 2019, hunger was on the rise in “almost all parts” of the continent.
Some of this hunger is due to extreme weather events, such as droughts, which are occurring more frequently and more severely than they have before. Some of it is due to more indirect effects of these changes in the weather, such as the burden of pests and disease. While pesticides and management have historically helped increase production, pests and disease still reduce global harvests by 10-16%, a figure only set to get worse. The spring locust swarms that accompanied this year's pandemic can be directly linked to climate change; according to Nature, the climactic conditions which produce cyclones and wet weather—which create ideal breeding conditions for locusts—are becoming more frequent. Ethiopia, for one, has been battling constant locust swarms since June 2019. Increasingly frequent locust outbreaks have catastrophic consequences: a swarm covering one square kilometre can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people. And warming temperatures mean that even the winter won’t stop them.
The problem doesn’t stop there: the fall armyworm, which was first recorded in Africa in 2017, is now present in all Southern Africa Development Community countries (SADC) except Lesotho. Over 20 million metric tonnes of maize have been lost in just under three years to the armyworm: enough to feed 100 million people. This pest disproportionately affects smaller farmers, exacerbating existing inequalities. Loss of income is compounded by rising staple food prices, according to the World Food Programme. It’s clear that we need to address the causes of these problems.
To do so requires research and funding. Food production is threatened by warming temperatures, unsustainable farming practices, desertification and soil degradation. It’s a slippery slope: the topsoil is a quasi-finite resource, susceptible to erosion, especially with the single-crop, tilling-heavy intensive style of farming prevalent today. If current trends continue, global mean crop yields are projected to decrease between 3% and 10% per degree of warming above historical levels. Even limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (as per the Paris Accord) puts us at risk of losing 15% of global crop yields, at a time when some say the current consumption trajectory means we’ll need to increase food production by 60% by 2050. We can’t just expand: according to Valerie Masson-Delmotte, we humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land, a quarter of which is already degraded. The rest is either not suitable for farming, or represents important carbon sinks and biodiversity havens, like the remains of the Amazon. We need to make the most of the farmland we already have.
Doing that will require cooperation, but it is possible. Discussions of famine often veer into naïve techno-optimism, or sink into apathetic nihilism. The truth is somewhere in the middle: the situation is bad, and it will probably get worse. However, we can make a big difference if we get to the root of the problem. Innovation and implementation is needed now: it is not enough to be reactive. In the words of Hans Otto Pörtner: there is “no possibility for anybody to say, ‘Oh, climate change is happening and we (will) just adapt to it.’ The capacity to adapt is limited.” This is especially true for the most vulnerable, who often lack resources to implement mitigation and risk reduction strategies. We see much lower adoption rates of technologies in the countries where they are most sorely needed. Where action plans exist, they are often sector dependent – they are not optimised for specific geographies and communities, and don’t allow for inter-industry synergies. Right now, climate impact studies are mostly done on crops, but impacts on fisheries and livestock production are no less serious. Additionally, the narrow focus on yield fails to develop our understanding of the systemic ecological and social contexts within which crops exist. Research must continue, but it must diversify.
While we are living in the Anthropocene, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that everyone is equally culpable. Through the past centuries, traditional and sustainable farming practices have been ignored and destroyed across the world in the name of a limited vision of modernisation. Voices in the contemporary debate are overwhelmingly white and Western, corporations and techno-optimists who advocate continuing to exploit the land, only more efficiently, setting us up for more trouble down the line. Only treating the obvious signs of food insecurity, such as rising disease prevalence, will lead to new problems, like the overuse of pesticides and veterinary medicines. More voices need to be heard.
There is a wealth of traditional and indigenous knowledge to draw on, in conjunction with modern technology. As ecosystems are so varied, measures need to be specific enough to make a difference, and developed in partnership with those who know the land. One interesting example is that of 'climate smart villages' or CSVs, which act “as platforms where researchers, local partners, farmers’ groups and policy makers collaborate to select and trial a portfolio of technologies and institutional interventions.”
Only an inclusive approach can prevent further degradation and increase long-term agricultural productivity within the constraints of specific ecosystems and communities. There are also many social dimensions that have to be taken into account: bringing more voices to the table expands the horizon of possible solutions.
Global food insecurity is one of today's leading issues. Our response to it will either prevent or cause enormous amounts of human suffering. Only by looking at its connections to the climate crisis, can we effectively take control. It’s not always clear what should be done. But we’ve had to make decisions based on uncertain information in the past. The only real wrong is not taking the problem seriously enough.
Image by sarangib on Pixabay
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science, policy, perspectives and more from the OCS team.