Climate Change and the Growing Food Crisis


Original source: The Guardian (Australia)

Australia in recent years has witnessed several extreme weather events from the droughts and floods in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and in the Gascoyne and Murchison regions of Western Australia and the unrelenting drought in south-western Australia. While the extreme weather events have disrupted the lives of individuals and their communities, the effects on the agricultural sector which is responsible for the production of food for domestic and international markets has been devastating.

One crop after another has had to downgrade its yield as droughts and flooding rains take their toll. Wheat crops on the east coast which were almost ready to harvest in Queensland and New South Wales fell victim to unseasonable rains which caused them to become moist and rot. Other fresh produce farmers in southern Queensland and northern News South Wales that until recently were driven almost to the brink of bankruptcy by drought were pushed over the edge by flooding rains which saturated their land and caused their crops to fail.

In Western Australia the food bowls in the south west have taken a hammering from drought as cereal harvests are their lowest in years. Another silent killer also stalks the land and reduces yields in the form rising water tables increasing the salinity of the soil as a consequence of poor vegetation clearing practices.

However, these incidences of weather extremes and changing climates are happening not just in Australia, but the world over – on every continent.

Climate change is a global phenomenon

If one were to Google the daily newspaper of any country in the world one would find a report of extreme weather happening somewhere in that country.

The US has recently had snow storms across its Midwest and northeast but in the southern state of Florida has experienced a sustained period of drought. It then had to contend with record winter rainfalls when usually it is cool and dry and instead it became cool and wet. It is cooler in Florida say some scientists because it is warmer in the Arctic – helped along by less ice and snow cover in the Arctic region which includes Russian Siberia. This has also lead to forest fires in Russia, loss of harvests, and an increase in the sea ice melt.

Fidel Castro in a recent Reflection titled, “The serious food crisis” hinted strongly at the economic and political consequences of climate change.

Two growing dustbowls are forming – one in north western China and Mongolia and another in Central Africa. There have been unprecedented rains in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Irrigated land area is shrinking across the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia which was totally dependent on a now depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production fell by more than two thirds. India, the United States and China are also being fed with grain that is produced by mining rather than harvesting water. Rising temperatures and melting ice and glaciers are also impacting on food production.

“For each 1° Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields,” continued Fidel.

The rising temperatures caused by an increase in carbon in the atmosphere also contribute to another change in the natural order of the world as the ice at both polar extremes of the world is melting at a rate beyond predictions made 20-30 years ago, causing the sea levels to rise. This will have the effect of depriving many people who live in river deltas and islands, of land on which they live and grow food.

However beyond the effects which increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere and rising sea levels will have on food production, are the less publicised effects, including plants bred for a particular level of rainfall or a particular range of temperatures. This will cause a dramatic change in yields in hotter drier, cooler, and wetter weather.

Most climate models envision more extreme weather events of all kinds, droughts of course, but also severe rainstorms, hurricanes, cyclones and flash flooding which can be just as damaging to yields. This was born out with the extreme rain conditions which have occurred across Australia. The Gascoyne River in WA’s mid-west has flooded three times in the past two months when normally it would do so once every five years. It is bracing itself for a fourth time.

In addition, as noted by Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food published in 2008, higher temperatures also boost pest populations and allow insects, fungi, weeds and other pests to migrate into farming regions that were previously uninfected, leading to substantial crop damage.

Higher temperatures will also stimulate soil bacteria and fungi which accelerate the decay of soil organic matter and thus reduce the capacity of the soil to store and transport nutrients and water. Such soils will not only erode more easily, but will also need more fertilisers to maintain yields; yet because they have less organic matter to retain those fertilisers, will simply yield more of that nitrogen into the groundwater.

Climate change and food security

The changes to the planet’s climate will have a devastating effect on food security in the less developed countries of the world, especially in the marginal food growing areas of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the changes to the world’s climate have also begun to have an impact on the crop yields of such agricultural powerhouses of the USA, Russia, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. All these food growing areas have had extremes of hot and cold, dry and wet in the past three years which have resulted in significant reductions in crop yields causing scarcity and rises in the cost of food production.

The answer to increasing food security is to diversify the type of crops grown so that when a weather extreme occurs only one or two crops have been wiped out from a dozen or so, rather than the entire crops of one or two monocrops.

The droughts and floods over the Australian summer of 2010 and 2011 had been a timely reminder of a future of rising food scarcity and increasing food prices which are on the way.

However, farmers are also facing the increases in the cost of food production as well as declining yields and therefore revenues and many are leaving the land altogether after a succession of crop failures – as happened in southern Queensland after drought followed by rains.

Roberts also points out in The End of Food that the solution to saving our food production and the soil that it grows in is to intensify the amount of effort and care that we put into food production because, as he sees it, we are using up its inputs at an alarming rate, degrading its assets and creating new opportunities for pathogens – (Avian bird flu, e-Coli bacteria, malaria, dengue fever and others).

It is time to have more people employed in the food production industry to ensure all the activities necessary to look after the soil and crops are able to be carried out. An example was Cuba during its Special Period from 1989 to 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union when the country had to turn to its own resources which it did with spectacular success.

Politicians and acknowledgment of climate change

Floods also wash topsoil out to sea and droughts and strong winds turn previously rich topsoil to dust which is blown away in the wind.

Many of our politicians including Anna Bligh, the Queensland premier who has overseen that state’s summer of climate upheaval, are reluctant to make the connection between human induced changes to the earth’s atmosphere and climate change which is contributing to more acute and more frequent weather events occurring in Queensland and around the world. The ten terms of references of that states flood inquiry do not include climate change as one of the causes worthy of examination.

But this is not surprising as this would mean engaging with the concept that somehow the wasteful and rapacious capitalist mode of production and consumption is a prime contributor to the problem.

Suddenly we would have to look at the coal mining industry, land development, and some agricultural land practices in a different and unfavourable light.

Climate change and the looming food crisis

In recent years, governments of countries have fallen or experienced instability due to food (and water) security issues. Haiti, Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand, Russia are all countries that have experienced turmoil due to sharp rises in the price of food brought on in turn by scarcity brought on by climate change.

Fidel Castro in his Reflection, concluded, “The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices – and the political turmoil this would lead to – that threatens our global future.

“Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilisation, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.”

As will social and political instability which will flow from failing to address the causes rather than some of the symptoms.

Photo by mava/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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