/ 11 September 2012

Deep Read: Hear the farmers’ cry

The price of staple foods could more than double by 2030.
The price of staple foods could more than double by 2030.

Politicians are talking 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 have a heavy responsibility now to speak the truth about our changing world, a responsibility mirrored only by ours to listen and act in its defence.

Harvests across more than 26 American states have not been ruined by a perfectly natural accident. The desperation of a million underfed children in the West African Sahel is not an unrelated problem.

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 2.2°C to as much as 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 this week 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.

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.

Jay Naidoo chairs the board of directors and partnership council of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). He was the founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and served as a government minister in the Cabinet of former president Nelson Mandela.