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Climate Change and Food Production

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An unpalatable truth

“We live in an era of man-made climate change. In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face”, warns a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, put together by more than 300 scientists over a three-year period, looks at the impact climate change is having now and will have in the future.

Heat waves, flooding and the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic have been linked to climate change for some time. However, the IPCC report also points out the effect climate change will have on global food supplies, raising the possibility of conflicts provoked by lack of ‘food security’. The report says that climate change will result in problems in “all four dimensions”: food availability, stability of food supplies, access to food, and food utilisation.

Already climate change has had an impact on crop yields, which have begun to decline, and could in the future lead to dramatic drops in global wheat production. In some areas, fish catches are predicted to fall between 40% and 60%. This is set against the backdrop of continued population growth.

Not only are governments unprepared to protect their populations from natural disasters, they are also not ready to deal with shocks to the global food supply, rising food prices and political instability. Droughts and flooding will both lead to loss of livelihoods, through damage to cultivated land and fisheries, as well as an increase in diseases like malaria and cholera. Food stocks are too low to deal with instability.

The IPCC report looked at various scenarios involving different levels of climate change and various world events, such as population and economic growth, and found that it is likely that the number of people at risk of hunger will increase in all eventualities. The worst-case scenario would increase it by 26% (120-170 million people) by 2050. By 2080, sub-Saharan Africa could be home to 40% (or even as high as 75%) of all ‘undernourished people’, compared to 24% today. The IPCC’s best case – based on rapid economic growth, the quick spread of new and efficient technologies, and an emphasis on non-fossil energy sources – is the most unlikely scenario imaginable under capitalism!

Climate change is likely to lead to the acidification of the ocean, because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being absorbed into the sea. This will impact on fish and the people who rely on eating fish. Some species could face extinction and others may migrate to other areas. The IPCC argues that it will be necessary to curb meat and dairy consumption in order to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

It is clear how climate change and the increase in extreme weather – flooding, drought, heat waves, etc – can impact on food production. In many neo-colonial countries, farmers have struggled to deal with changes in seasons and harsh weather conditions impacting on harvests. However, climate change is now becoming an issue for food production on a global scale.

The typhoon in the Philippines last year destroyed the livelihoods of 20,000 fishermen, both by wrecking boats but also by damaging reefs which provide breeding grounds for fish. It is estimated it will take three to five years for fish stocks to recover. Floods in Pakistan in 2010 killed 40% of livestock and ruined two million hectares of crops. Even in the UK, flooding like that seen at the beginning of this year could impact on local food production as 58% of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain.

This leads to increases in food prices which hit people in the poorest countries who spend over 50% of their income on food. The IPCC warns that climate change will exacerbate inequality, with the possibility of 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five by 2050. Severe impacts on global hunger could be felt in the next 20 to 30 years.

Research carried out by Oxfam in its report, Hot and Hungry, predicts that food prices could double by 2030 mainly because of the impact extreme weather will have on food supply. This is our future if nothing is done. Oxfam points out that if the global temperature rises more than three or four degrees centigrade, on pre-industrial levels, there will be ‘little we can do to avoid severe damage to food production’.

While climate change is likely to increase world hunger, it is not the cause. It is estimated that 842 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. Even in Britain, one of the world’s richest countries, there has been a massive increase in the number of people using food banks as food prices have shot up by 30% in the last five years. Yet the richest 500 people in the world have wealth totalling $4.4 trillion – enough to feed everybody on the planet.

The problem is capitalism. The motivation for big business to produce food is profit, not to provide for people. Despite steps forward in technology, this system cannot provide the most basic necessities for the world’s population. Due to lack of infrastructure, women in sub-Saharan Africa collectively spend 40 billion hours every year collecting water, according to Oxfam. People go hungry or beg, borrow and steal to feed their families.

It is not a question of there being too many people or not enough food available. Food production and distribution is not planned but is at the behest of the anarchy of the market, controlled by a handful of multi-national companies. These monopolies are able to drive small farmers out of business and force the production of cash crops to boost profits. Meanwhile, many farmers and workers who produce and distribute food cannot afford to feed themselves. Oxfam research shows that 80% of people going hungry in the world are farmers and those whose livelihoods depend on farming and natural resources.

Big businesses attack trade unionists and have no regard for the health and safety of their workers or the impact they have on the environment. This all gets in the way of making money. By using seeds that have been sterilised or genetically engineered, these companies have contributed to a 75% decrease in global seed diversity. This means that they are less able to adapt to changing seasons and have a negative effect on the environment – as well as it being costly for farmers to buy seeds every year. The recent horse-meat scandal highlighted how little we know about how and where our food is produced and processed.

Capitalism is unable to feed the world. The future under capitalism – one of increasing damage to the environment and austerity – will mean this terrible situation gets worse. The prospects being raised by the IPCC of war, famine and starvation show the urgency of the need for system change.

The World Hunger Education Service argues that today world agriculture produces 17% more calories per person than 30 years ago, despite a 70% increase in the population. This is enough to provide everyone with at least 2,720 calories a day, even on the basis of capitalism. This gives a glimpse at how a socialist planned economy would be able to abolish want.

Socialism is the only solution to stopping and reversing climate change – and for providing everyone with the necessities of life. The nationalisation of the multi-national companies which dominate food production and distribution is a necessary first step, under the democratic control of the workers and consumers. A democratic plan of land use, and the production of good quality food, could then be drawn up to provide for everyone in the world.

This article originally appeared in Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales).

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