Six years ago there were fears of a transnational famine developing across much of eastern Africa. At least 11 million people were at risk in what might have been the worst disaster of its kind since the early 1970s (see "A world in hunger: east Africa and beyond", 21 July 2011).
This impending crisis was not unforeseen.
This impending crisis was not unforeseen. An analysis of several interlocking factors, already evident several years earlier, had anticipated such an outcome (see "The world's food insecurity", 24 April 2008). These factors included higher oil prices, the early impact of climate change, increased demand for feed grains to boost meat production for the richer countries, and the diversion of land to grow biofuels.
These recent moments of urgent concern from ten and six years ago mirror the near-disaster of the world food crisis of 1973-74, when multiple elements put at least 22 million people at risk. The danger then was narrowly avoided by emergency financial aid to enable the most crisis-ridden states to purchase grain from the international markets.
But that very success pointed to an underlying feature of all such crises, which needs to be better understood: namely, there has never been too little food to go round, for (at least since 1945) world grain resources have not been anywhere near complete depletion. The problem, instead, has been much more one of poverty. In short, people are unable for many reasons to grow their own food and far too poor to buy food when harvests fail.
There has never been too little food to go round.
Now there is a new international food crisis, as reported by the director-general of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation at the organisation's biennial conference. Jose Graziano da Silva said that the FAO "has identified nineteen countries facing severe food crises due to a combination of conflict and climate change, including South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, where nearly 20 million are at risk.”
In broad terms, da Silva and the FAO specialists see the current predicament as a reversal of the previous trend in which there has been a slow improvement in food availability across the world – the two recent periods cited above being the exception. Now there is a real problem, with the FAO calculating that some 60% people across the world who face hunger live in countries experiencing conflict or climate change, or both at once.
The effect of conflict on food availability, as in the many irregular wars of recent years, is clear enough. Here, some countries are able eventually to see a degree of peace restored, while others continue to be consumed by violence and as a result suffer deep food insecurity (see Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins [IB Tauris, 2016]).
But what seems to be most significant today, and increasingly accepted within the FAO and other agencies, is that climate change is becoming a permanent reality affecting food supplies in many parts of the world. It is not something for the future, but is happening now (see "Climate disruption, the new reality", 19 May 2016).
Time to act
Since the early 1990s It has been recognised that climate change is an asymmetric process, which is likely to lead to a progressive drying out of the tropical and sub-tropical regions. David Rind’s seminal article was a vital early contribution for the non-specialist, in emphasising less that global rainfall was decreasing and more that this rainfall was tending to fall over the oceans and polar regions (see "Drying out the Tropics", New Scientist, 6 May 1995). Since the tropics and sub-tropics provide much of the food for the whole world, the implications of a fall in the carrying-capacity of the croplands would be progressive and, ultimately, catastrophic (see "Climate change and global security", 2 January 2003).
Climate change is an asymmetric process, which is likely to lead to a progressive drying out of the tropical and sub-tropical regions.
As with so many aspects of climate change, little was done at a global level in light of this knowledge. The world is now witnessing the results. The degree of vulnerability is shown by the relative availability of renewable water resources in different parts of the world. An FAO analysis puts it bluntly:
“In the Near East and North Africa region, the per capita renewable water availability is around 600 cubic metres per person per year – only 10 per cent of the world average –and drops to just 100 cubic metres in some countries…”
With financial support and political commitment, there are many ways for food-producing communities to adapt in some degree to a decline in rainfall. The tactics might include really substantial improvements in water conservation, changes in the crops being grown and greater use of drought-tolerant varieties. These are necessary and buy time, but only up to a point. They will only realise their potential in the long term if the root cause of climate change – carbon emissions – is addressed. There is no escape from the need for a rapid reduction in such emissions.
The increasing migratory flows across the Mediterranean towards southern Europe, and through other routes, are already featuring on the news agenda. These will become a familiar daily story in the coming months. Yet there is currently little evidence that western governments recognise their long-term significance and growing connection to climate change (see "Mediterranean dreams, climate realities", 23 April 2015).
What is happening now is a marker for much greater pressures as climate change translates into climate disruption. If that is grasped in a strategic way, the urgent need to curb carbon emissions will become unavoidable.