During their participation in the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December, three U.N. agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development warned that climate change poses a major threat to world food security and that immediate action is needed to stave off increases in hunger and malnutrition.
It will come as no surprise to those of us following the climate news (and connecting the dots that the media so often refuses to connect in terms of what is a climate change related event) that extreme weather is already adversely effecting food supplies and that further negative impacts are a reality in the near and medium terms.
FAO’s 2006 State of Food Insecurity Report estimated that 854 million people worldwide suffer from hunger and malnutrition, including 820 million in developing countries. They also warn that, as with so many other components like water and soil, the most vulnerable will be most adversely affected in terms of food supply by climate change. With three quarters of the world’s billion poorest people residing in rural areas of developing countries, crop failures and loss of livestock are an immediate risk. And with more than 1.5 billion of the world’s poorest being forest dependent, and 200 million dependent on fisheries, the risks of climate change are severe.
In response, in June of this year FAO will organize a high-level conference to address world food security and the challenges of climate change and bioenergy. In the meantime, FAO is making recommendations, including developing adaptation strategies, something many are now conceding is a necessity. They are also warning that we need to carefully balance any trade-offs between the agriculture and energy sectors, the subtext being that too strong a focus on biofuels runs the risk of further exacerbating food shortages as food crops are traded out for more lucrative fuel crops.
Ironically, western run hunger alleviation programs too often rely on subsidized foods that are grown in the west and shipped long distances to famine stricken regions, further undermining indigenous farming communities and keeping needed capital in the hands of western agribusinesses.
Deforestation which adversely effects the rural poor is also responsible for 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is an area that the three agencies have pinpointed as needing immediate action. They recommend more comprehensive forest management as well as payments for carbon conservation and sequestration to farmers living in fragile eco-systems. This can come with its own set of issues, as we have seen in the debate over carbon trading and offsetting, but it is important to both discourage deforestation by getting off of virgin paper products and reward forest stewardship (recently, I heard Dr. Allen Hershkowitz from the NRDC speak and he pointed out that 98.4% of toilet paper comes from virgin wood. We are chopping down ancient forests and destroying our environment for a product that spends all of three seconds wiping our bottoms!).
As with so much in the climate change conversation, the alarm bells are sounding. But the question remains, is anyone listening?