The unintended casualty of climate change debate – global food security

By DANI OR, SHMUEL ASSOULINE
December 21, 2015 20:49
3 minute read.
A drip irrigation farm.

A drip irrigation farm.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The unprecedented level of public awareness and the global political organization mobilized to address potential consequences of global climate change have pushed aside a potentially more urgent global challenge linked only indirectly with climate change – securing sufficient food production capabilities to meet the needs of a rapidly growing world population (Evans, 2009; Godfray, 2010).

The dominance of the climate change agenda seems to trump food security concerns in three main areas: 1) climate change, with its own uncertainties in timeline is portrayed as the most urgent global environmental challenge, whereas prospects for worldwide hunger are far more imminent and unfortunately more certain; 2) the unprecedented funding for climate change research and the aggressive pursuit of mitigation-adaptation measures eclipse the urgency and scope of developing capabilities and strategies to feed an estimated additional three billion people within the next few decades irrespective of global warming; and 3) the growing tendency to consider issues of resource scarcity, energy and food production primarily through the spectacles of global climate change perpetuates the perception that food security is but a subservient issue of global climate change.

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The world’s population is estimated to exceed nine billion by 2050 with associated food requirements rising by 70 percent to 100% (World Bank, 2008; Evans, 2009). The urgent challenge of meeting demand for food from a larger and more affluent population requires radical changes in the way food is produced, stored, distributed and accessed (Godfray, 2010). The limited reserves of water and arable land, their imbalanced geographic distribution and the increase in competition for their alternative uses limit the scope of agricultural expansion as occurred during the Green Revolution. Hence, the primary strategy for addressing the food security challenge is limited to increasing food production using a similar land footprint by focusing primarily on closing the so-called yield gap, namely increasing crop production limits, reducing waste, changing diets and expanding aquaculture.

Improved production by expansion of irrigation is constrained by limited availability of water resources especially because most population growth is projected to occur in countries chronically short of water (Evans, 2009; Assouline et al., 2015). Agricultural land and water constraints and the food price crisis of 2008 have already triggered new global food production trends where large tracts of some the most fertile land in Africa are farmed by developed countries via various agribusinesses for food production (Vidal, 2010). The trend is accelerated by recent stipulation by the European Union requiring a fraction of fuel for transportation to be based on plant-based biofuels by 2015 triggering an increase in demand for land. European biofuel companies have acquired or requested about 3.9 million hectares in Africa (Rice, 2010; Vidal, 2010).

The entanglement of climate change concerns with sustainable energy security represents an agenda promoted primarily by developed economies, while the consequences are likely to adversely impact food security and diminish prospects for a global agreement that equitably addresses both climate change and food security with due attention to pressing needs of the developing world. The recent waves of refugees flocking to the borders of Europe and Australia remind us of the urgent need to invest in securing the livelihood of these largely agrarian communities to secure the geopolitical stability necessary for tackling the climate change challenge.

Notwithstanding the importance and urgency of addressing climate change and related energy policy, the prospects for mitigating food deprivation and starvation of a growing portion of the world’s population, along with attendant disruption of geopolitical stability, has greater and more immediate societal importance and therefore merits increased and more balanced scientific and socio-political effort to urgently address these contemporary challenges. The real possibility of mobilizing hunger-stricken populations numbering in the hundreds of millions would make climate change seem the least of our problems. The gradual shift from the input-intensive model of the Green Revolution to knowledge-intensive trends in agricultural innovations will require massive investment in public research and consultancy infrastructure to reverse erosion in agricultural research that in some cases has fallen by 50% over the past 15 years (Evans, 2009). This trend is reflected in the massive shrinking of academic units related to food production in many universities (Baveye et al., 2006) at a time when they are needed most.

Dani Or is a professor of Soil and Environmental Physics at ETH-Zurich, Switzerland. Shmuel Assouline is a research scientist at the Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani center, Israel.

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