Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - Page 9 News List

A warming world threatens our food supplies

Global warming is exacerbating political instability as tensions brought on by food insecurity rise, and new research suggests the issue can only get worse

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

When Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, it was in protest at heavy-handed treatment and harassment in the province where he lived. However, a host of new studies suggest that a major factor in the subsequent uprisings, which became known as the Arab spring, was food insecurity.

Drought, rocketing bread prices, food and water shortages have all blighted parts of the Middle East. Analysts at the Center for American Progress in Washington say a combination of food shortages and other environmental factors exacerbated the already tense politics of the region. As the Observer reported on Sunday, an as-yet unpublished US government study indicates that the world needs to prepare for much more of the same, as food prices spiral and longstanding agricultural practices are disrupted by climate change.

“We should expect much more political destabilization of countries as it bites,” said Richard Choularton, a policy officer in the UN’s World Food Programme climate change office. “What is different now from 20 years ago is that far more people are living in places with a higher climatic risk; 650 million people now live in arid or semi-arid areas where floods and droughts and price shocks are expected to have the most impact.

“The recent crises in the Horn of Africa and Sahel may be becoming the new normal. Droughts are expected to become more frequent. Studies suggest anything up to 200 million more food-insecure people by 2050 or an additional 24 million malnourished children. In parts of Africa we already have a protracted and growing humanitarian disaster. Climate change is a creeping disaster,” he said.

The Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation hosted a major conference in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday. Research presented there said rising incomes and growth in the global population, expected to create 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, will drive food prices higher by between 40 percent and 50 percent.

“We must prepare today for higher temperatures in all sectors,” said Gerald Nelson, a senior economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

All of the studies suggest the worst impacts will be felt by the poorest people.

“Climate change is already having a domino effect on food and nutritional security for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Child malnutrition is predicted to increase by 20 percent by 2050. Climate change impacts will disproportionately fall on people living in tropical regions, and particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalized population groups. This is the injustice of climate change — the worst of the impacts are felt by those who contributed least to causing the problem,” said Robinson, the former Irish president.

However, from Europe to the US to Asia, no population will remain insulated from the huge changes in food production that the rest of the century will bring.


Many African countries are already experiencing longer and deeper droughts, floods and cyclones. The continent is expected to suffer disproportionately from food insecurity, due to fast-growing vulnerable populations.

Egypt expects to lose 15 percent of its wheat crops if temperatures rise 2°C, and 36 percent if the increase is 4°C. Morocco expects crops to remain stable up to about 2030, but then to drop quickly later. Most North African countries traditionally import wheat and are therefore highly vulnerable to price shocks and droughts elsewhere.

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