Salvaging Durban’s invisible climate talks

Food security is on the front line of the climate change battle

What marks out the current climate talks in Durban– ‘COP17’ – from Cancun, Copenhagen and its other predecessors? A lack of media coverage is perhaps the most conspicuous factor. Type COP17 into Google News and the shortage of coverage from big-hitting newspapers is striking. Admittedly the second week – the ‘end-game’ – is only now getting under way. And politicians have been managing expectations for months, effectively extinguishing any hopes of a Kyoto II agreement. But in Cancun (2010) and Copenhagen (2009) it was the intensity of coverage – and by extension, public debate – before and throughout the meeting that rebuilt these expectations, and forced countries to genuinely engage in the end-game negotiation.

The low-key nature of COP17 has nonetheless allowed a key issue to fill the void: food security. New studies from Oxfam, the FAO and the IPCC have painted a stark picture of how climate change is already wreaking havoc on the global food supply, and how much worse this could get. Polar bears drowning because of melting ice caps is one thing. But people being pushed to the brink of starvation because of climate change-induced desertification is quite another, and is surely too shocking an eventuality to be ignored.

2010 saw drought in Russia, China and Brazil, and flooding in Pakistan and Australia, severely straining the food supply and sending world grain prices through the roof, while this year’s intense drought in the Horn of Africa has created a humanitarian disaster in an already food insecure region. These events alone are not evidence that climate change is happening. But they are a crystal clear insight into the fragility of the food system, and how little it takes to send it out of kilter – and to send millions more people into malnourishment. Therefore, as temperatures increase and extreme weather events multiply over coming decades, the impacts on food security could be huge.

And this is exactly what the science is saying. Amid a host of more cautious findings (e.g. on cyclones and droughts), the latest IPCC report deems it ‘virtually certain’ that on a global scale abnormally hot days will become even hotter and more frequent – by a factor of 10 under high emissions scenarios. So, agricultural conditions will be threatened both by the steady upward creep of average temperatures, and by the acute heat waves and temperature volatility along the way – extreme events which can wreck harvests in a stroke. The belief that climate change will bring new land into production, to compensate for lost productivity further south, is highly optimistic. It may be possible to grow a more diverse range of crops at certain northern latitudes, but Siberia is not set to become the world’s breadbasket – as Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation would have us believe. The problem is that the climate will become more hostile to agriculture everywhere. Rainfall will be more unpredictable and temperatures more variable across the globe, pushing ecosystems to the point of failure and depriving the planet of these self-sustaining systems which make it resilient to droughts, floods and forest fires when they strike.

Food security – too compelling a case

With food security in the front line as the climate changes, it would seem natural that they be dealt with hand in hand. However, this is by no means guaranteed.

Food prices have been on a steep upward trajectory since 2008, garnering political attention and granting food security an agenda of its own. With or without climate change, food prices are likely to continue rising and exacerbating hunger in developing countries. The food security argument is so compelling that it has already created an appetite for drastic, tunnel-vision solutions. The current orthodoxy is that food production must rise by 70% by 2050, a figure which has been wheeled out so often that it has now taken on a life of its own.

There is a real risk of rushing into a second ‘green revolution’ where long-term sustainability is once again sacrificed on the altar of fertiliser and pesticide-driven short term yield increases. Natural indicators are telling us that huge swathes of our planet are already saturated; 25% of land is highly degraded and 8% moderately degraded, according to the FAO.

And as the remaining dregs of productivity are squeezed out of some areas under the stampede for 70% more food, other struggling areas would be abandoned rather than rehabilitated. Food insecure countries may be convinced by non-agricultural developers to cash in on their degraded farmland, and to rely on food imports to make up the food deficit. In doing so they would ignore the lessons of the current food crisis: that a high dependence on food imports means extra exposure to price shocks on international markets – and extra hunger risks. 

Agro-ecology must underpin the change

There is therefore a strong interest in tying the food security and climate change agendas more closely together. Ecological realism must be injected into the quest to secure our food supplies. Agro-ecological alternatives are out there (e.g. agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock production) and hold real promise of rehabilitating struggling production zones and making them more resilient to the climate challenges to come. Meanwhile this approach would maintain a food production base – and the communities and livelihoods it supports – in all regions, rather than driving agriculture into ever more intensive production in soon-to-be-saturated breadbasket zones.

The logic is becoming clearer: climate change cannot be allowed to happen because it will make hunger even more endemic. And food production cannot simply be ramped up in a way that contributes to climate change, and further degrades land, water and ecosystems in a way that leaves harvests vulnerable to more extreme weather. So food security must be the trigger to take climate change seriously, and climate change must be the constant reminder that food security cannot be pursued in an industrial, anti-ecological way.

If Durban cements an understanding of this, and ties the two agendas inextricably together, then it will have made more than modest progress.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the personal views of the author

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev