Broken global food system needs climate for change

Mon, Aug 13, 2012, 01:00

OPINION: We need to address climate change to fix the damage to the world’s food supply

A DROUGHT in the US is not just an American problem. It’s our problem too.

World food prices surged in July as an extended drought across the corn-growing heartland of the US midwest destroyed much of this year’s crop.

Global futures corn prices have increased by 45 per cent, soya beans by 30 per cent and wheat by 50 per cent since June, according to the World Bank, as the US, which is the world’s largest food exporter, struggles to harvest enough food for itself.

Thankfully, in Ireland just 7 per cent of household incomes goes on the weekly shop.

But in many poorer countries, where up to 70 per cent of household incomes is spent on food, it will mean hunger, soaring food prices and riots, similar to those that spread across 60 countries in 2008 and, arguably, sparked the Arab spring a year and a half ago.

In Yemen, which imports 90 per cent of its wheat, 267,000 children are at risk of death from malnutrition already. In Cambodia, where people get 60 per cent of their nutrition from rice, the staple has risen in price by 50 per cent in six months.

Is this really where we should be, one year on from the worst food crisis so far this century, when a famine was declared in Somalia? Hardly, given that there is currently enough food in the world to feed everyone.

But then the global food system, as it is, is broken.

It is a system that has led to more than 50 per cent of the population in more than half of industrialised countries becoming overweight. It is one in which the amount of food thrown away in rich countries each year is almost the same as that produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, what can we do? The US can start by dismantling subsidies for biofuels.

In 2011 the fuel industry took 40 per cent of the US corn crop, which is then converted into ethanol. By doing so, food that could feed people is being diverted to make energy.

Secondly, governments can directly improve food security by investing more in their agricultural industries and providing access to financing for farmers.

African countries have begun moving towards this goal. The 2003 Maputo declaration, an agreement signed in Mozambique by governments on the continent, requires African countries to spend 10 per cent of their national budget on agriculture by 2030.

Giving more responsibility to women on farms is also a major step. On average, women do most of the work on farms in the developing world. However, they rarely own the land.

There is significant evidence that if these women had the same access to productive resources as men they could increase yields on their farms by between 20 and 30 per cent, raising total agricultural output in these countries by between 2.5 and 4 per cent.

This would reduce the number of hungry people in the world by about 12 to 17 per cent.

Here in the West, we can also take action. We can start by wasting less and buying seasonally. About a third of the food produced for people’s plates ends up lost or wasted between farm and fork. But by planning meals and saving leftovers we can reduce this waste.

Most importantly of all, we need to tackle climate change. Changing weather patterns are having a detrimental impact on the ability of farmers in Africa to grow food to feed themselves.

The Horn of Africa is particularly vulnerable, with drought now hitting the region in east Africa every two years instead of every 10 until a decade ago.

In the US, the record-breaking drought is fully consistent with scientific projections that climate change will mean increasingly arid conditions and drought in the region. Those projections suggest persistent severe droughts across the central US in future decades.

May was the 327th consecutive month in which the global temperature exceeded the 20th century average. The US experienced 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2011 – an historical record – including a blizzard, tornadoes, floods, a hurricane, a tropical storm, wildfires, drought and heatwaves.

In 2012 it has already experienced horrific wildfires, a windstorm that hit Washington DC, heatwaves in much of the country and a massive drought.

Christopher Field, a lead author of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institute for Science, outlined the situation to the US Congress earlier this month.

“There is no doubt that climate has changed. There is also no doubt that a changing climate changes the risks of extremes, including extremes that can lead to disaster,” he said.

With nearly a billion people going hungry in the world, and with demand for food set to soar, we need to play our part in ensuring that the food that is grown is available to the people who need it, rather than rotting in landfill or being guzzled by automobiles.

And we need to tackle climate change. Ireland can play its part by ensuring it meets its target to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland

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