Thursday, July 13, 2017

Climate Change and a Food Future

 In 2017, the world population already stands at 7.3 billion. And the number will keep on rising. The UN believes we’ll reach 9.7 billion people in 2050 and a little over 11 billion by the end of the century.  According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2017, 11 per cent of the world population suffers from malnutrition. For poor countries, the figure rises to 25 per cent.

Gael Giraud, chief economist at the French Development Agency, says that “on the sole question of our capability to feed 9 billion people in 2050, our planet has the physical resources to do it.” Rabah Arezki, an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), agrees, as does the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Putting all unused land into service, assuming everything else remains equal, would help feed 9 billion people,” Arezki argued in a study published last October for the IMF’s World Economic Outlook.

Globally, about 20 per cent of the land is still uncultivated. The figure rises to over 40 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, according to the IMF. This means that there is potential for an increase of food production, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are 50 per cent below their potential level, the IMF says. Take corn for example. 

For the sake of comparative analysis, researchers use the coefficient 1 to measure the yield in the United States, the world’s leading corn producer. The yield in sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, is 0.19. And in Asia and Latin America, it is 0.48 and 0.43 respectively. The numbers are similar for rice production, with Oceania as the reference point. Planet Earth, in other words, still has reserves.

So why do millions of people still suffer - and sometimes die - from hunger? 

In Niger, more than 1.3 million people (7 per cent of the total population) are in urgent need of food assistance in the next fourth months even though the country had cereal surpluses last year, the UN said in mid-May. In a report it published in March, the Food Security Information Network observed that, “globally, 108 million people in 2016 were reported to be facing crisis level food insecurity or worse. This represents a 35 per cent increase compared to 2015 when the figure was almost 80 million.”

The Indian economist Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, was the first to warn, as early as 1981, that hunger wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of food but rather to a lack of means to buy that food. “It’s the inequality of our trade practices that kills,” Gael Giraud confirms. Both the IMF and the OECD denounce the harmful effects of agricultural policies of different countries, done in the name of their food sovereignty and of the protection of their farmers. It’s actually one of the reasons why trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation have been blocked for 15 years. 

 85 per cent of food is consumed where it is produced. And agricultural products represent just 8% of international trade. But the quick urbanisation and galloping growth of African and Asian countries make them dependent on imports. Since 1990, 24 countries (nine from sub-Saharan African, seven from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and eight from Latin America) have gone from being net exporters to net importers.

Removing trade barriers alone, however, won’t suffice to cover Asia and Africa’s needs, with both continents forecast to have 1.3 billion and 875 million more people to feed respectively in 2050. Improvements in land productivity is more than ever a decisive factor.

The main challenge will be dealing with the effects of climate change. “The impact from climate imbalance will be very unequally spread,” says Gael Giraud. “Our simulations indicate that it will soon be too late to be able to keep the global average temperature’s rise below 2 degree C at the end of the century. This means at least + 3 degree C for the African continent and therefore, very likely, a fall in agricultural productivity.”
The countries closest to the equator are the most vulnerable. Last year, Ethiopia experienced one of its worst drought episodes in the last decade, and the country relies on the two rainy seasons to obtain 80 per cent of its agricultural production, a sector that employs 85 per cent of the population. “Such extreme events will get worse and take place more frequently,” Giraud says. And Africa will be the first to suffer, along with some regions across Asia and Latin America.
But without close international cooperation, there certainly is a risk that the planet will experience more episodes of famine and potentially violent conflict.