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According to findings in the Worldwatch Institute’s ‘State of the World 2012’ report, “extreme weather events linked to global climate change - such as heat waves, droughts and floods - have already begun to increase, with serious impacts on crop production, harvests and food distribution and are contributing in many local and national settings to food price spikes.”(2)
Sub-Saharan-Africa is food-insecure. The region has access to good quality soils, and, with improved sustainable agricultural practises, could sustain itself.(3) Despite arable lands, the African continent is a net importer of food,(4) and thus heavily dependent on food prices to maintain stable levels. If prices are unstable, hikes in food price levels can lead to malnutrition, hunger, and riots; this is what happened in 2007/2008 when food prices rose abruptly.(5)
This CAI paper explores the role of global climate change in relation to food (in)security in sub-Saharan-Africa (SSA). In order to do so, the causes of food insecurity will be looked into. Subsequently, climate change and its implications on global food prices will be explored. Moreover, this paper will use the current drought in the United States (US) as an example of how climate change affects food prices on a global scale.
Background: Why does food insecurity exist?
The first thing that needs to be understood when examining food insecurity in the world is that it is an unnecessary phenomenon - “although the world grows enough food to feed the current population, poverty and hunger persist.”(6) Since there is enough food in the world to sustain everyone, the reason for hunger crises, like the one in the Horn of Africa in 2011 or the current situation in the Sahel region, must be of deeper structural character. In this section, some of the main reasons for food insecurity will be explored.
There is more or less a consensus among experts and academics globally that the current agricultural system is not working,(7) and the fact that hunger persists is proof of that. The issue of food insecurity is complex, and the reasons for it are numerous. Nevertheless, it is a situation that now almost exclusively faces Africa, south of the Sahara desert. Other developing regions, such as South America and Asia, have had similar problems in the past, but in those regions, agricultural production has tripled in the past 50 years.(8) In the 1960s and ‘70s, Asia and South America managed to increase production by incorporating new high yield crop varieties, fertilisers and pesticides;(9) the process has subsequently come to be known as the ‘green revolution’. It should be noted that although the ‘green revolution’ improved food security for a large number of people, there is a growing critique regarding its unsustainable nature. The new high yielding varieties are in need of continuous development to stave off the threat of pests and diseases, and places that are home to new types of crops have lower biodiversity and species’ density than places where crops have evolved through natural selection over a long period.(10) Nevertheless, the ‘green revolution’ has not yet been able to penetrate into SSA, where food production has, more or less, remained the same.(11) This is somewhat paradoxical, since Africa has experienced a spectacular human and economic development boom during the last decade. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, Africa has seen a 15% improvement on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index, but low weight and stunting among children have only improved marginally during the same time period.(12)
So why is it that African farmers do not manage to increase yields in the way that their Asian and Latin American counterparts have been able to? A recent UNDP report focusing on a food secure future for Africa identifies four “critical drivers of change: greater agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers; more effective nutrition policies, especially for children; greater community and household resilience to cope with shocks; and wider popular participation and empowerment, especially of women and the rural poor.”(13)
One characteristic of most African agriculture is that it is typically made up of smallholder farmers. These farmers tend to have limited access to “markets, land, finance, infrastructure and technologies.”(14) Moreover, the Governments of these African countries do not subsidise farming in the same way that the advanced economies of the European Union (EU) and North America do.(15) This leads to a biased market where some Governments financially support the production of crops that can subsequently be sold at prices lower than the actual cost of production, making African farmers unable to compete on the same terms, for example.(16)
Furthermore, during the structural adjustment era, the Bretton Woods institutions advocated for export-oriented so-called ‘cash-crops’ as a way of bringing in money for underdeveloped economies,(17) and thus preferring economic growth before proper nutrition for the people. To add to this, recent developments include many land deals between European/Asian and African countries. The derogatory term ‘land grab’ has come to describe these deals, which often affect smallholder farmers negatively as they can be left without land and work.(18) All in all, it is obvious that the situation for African farmers is less than ideal at the moment, and the harsh reality is that, as of now, Africa relies on importing food as the region does not produce enough to sustain itself.
African countries need to tackle this problem and the aim should be to become self-sufficient in terms of food production. Until that aim is realised, however, it is of utmost importance that food prices are stable. Unfortunately, global warming disturbs the patterns of growth on the planet and leads to more extreme weather.(19) This can in turn increase prices and volatility on the global food market. In 2007 and 2008, food prices skyrocketed due to a combination of causes such as higher oil prices, food vs. fuel programmes and increased meat consumption in developing countries.(20) The 2007/2008 food crisis caused widespread hunger and riots in a number of developing countries. This stands as a valuable lesson as to what can happen if food prices increase unchecked.
Climate change and food prices
It is impossible to deduce exactly which climatic irregularities are the direct causes of man-made climate change, and which ones are not. However, what is possible is to postulate that extreme weather is becoming more and more frequent as man-made climate change progresses. The weather patterns of the world are already changing, and the uninterrupted emissions of greenhouse gases mean that this development will continue. History shows, as indicated in Figure 1 below, what type of effects irregularities in weather patterns can have on crop yields. For example, at the end of the 1980s, corn production diminished by 29% in the US as a result of a drought.(21) As emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase worldwide, erratic weather events will increase as well, and as floods and droughts ruin agricultural production, food prices will increase. In fact, experts are already issuing warnings about upcoming hikes in food prices as a consequence of the current drought in the US,(22) the worst one in recorded history.(23)
Figure 1: Effects irregularities in weather patterns have on crop yields (24)
The current drought in the US is a part of a longer climatic process. In fact, the US has experienced conditions drier than normal since 2010, but in the summer of 2012, the situation has gone from bad to worse.(25) Not only has the summer been exceptionally warm in almost all of continental America,but the winter that led up to this summer was likewise exceptionally warm and dry.(26) The warm winter resulted in very little snowfall, which in turn caused less melt water than usual to be absorbed into the soil.(27) In combination with the record hot summer, this has led to a case of extreme drought for the US, with tremendous negative consequences for the agricultural sector.
In the beginning of the growing season in the US, it was estimated that the 2012 corn harvest would be the most rewarding one ever; the expected yield was 14 million bushels.(28) However, the heatwave and the drought, which at the time of writing covers around 80% of continental US,(29) have forced the prognosis down by as much as 3 billion bushels.(30) Since corn is used as food for farm animals such as cattle, chickens, turkeys, and pigs, it is not the only product that will increase in price. In addition, cattle produce fewer volumes of milk in hot weather, and the milk they do produce contains less protein and fat. All in all, dairy products are predicted to increase by about 10% in the coming year as a result of the heatwave.(31) Furthermore, America is the biggest food exporter in the world,(32) and the lowered supply will thus affect the global food market. Additionally, the American drought may continue over 2013, making the situation possibly even worse for subsequent months.(33)
It should be noted that the drought and the heatwave that the US is experiencing in 2012 cannot directly be linked to global warming; no single event can. Nevertheless, this type of extreme weather will most likely become more common as the climate changes. Africa has contributed very little to the warming of the planet, but as so often, the poorest region is also the most vulnerable, and the global scale of global warming implies that Africa is on the losing end of the matter. Carbon dioxide (CO2) knows no borders, and Africa is warming up more rapidly than many other regions.(34) The question of food insecurity and climate change needs to be addressed and taken seriously, and exploring ways out of the dependency on external markets is a necessity for SSA. Having looked into reasons for food insecurity and the role of climate change in relation to food prices, the next section examines potential solutions to this dilemma.
Reversing or slowing the pace of global warming has proven to be an exceptionally difficult task. It requires co-operation on an unprecedented scale, where national self-interest has to take a backseat in favour of the common good. Of course, it is important to keep working towards slowing global warming. However, the climate is changing and even the most optimistic person realises that going back to pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a pipe dream. It is sad to say, but adaptation to a warmer climate is the next best thing, and research about growing patterns and seeds that withstand drier climates are two factors that could become important in a warmer future.
Hunger and malnutrition are still big problem areas in parts of SSA today. Whereas other regions have moved towards a food secure existence, SSA is still more or less standing still in this regard. The developmental potential of a region can never be fully realised if the population does not get enough nourishment. Moreover, a fully functioning agricultural sector can have huge impacts on a macroeconomic level. Since agriculture employs a large part of the population in developing countries, investing in the agricultural sector can have a big impact also in economic terms.(35) Investing in agriculture can thus become a ‘growth spark’ in developing regions. In addition, the development that stems from agriculture can have as much as twice the effect on the poorest parts of the population compared to growth from other sectors.(36) In this way – other than bringing food security to a region that desperately needs it – advancement in farming in SSA can be an efficient poverty reduction method.
The problem of global warming is not one that is going to disappear once SSA becomes self-sufficient on food. Neither is the African continent free from the stresses to which the changing climate gives rise. Nevertheless, as food prices increase and become more volatile, partly due to climate change, it is of even greater importance that Africa faces its agricultural problems. Hence, American and European economies really need to start questioning the role of agricultural subsidies. Financial support of agriculture lowers food prices, but it also creates a biased market where not everybody is able to compete on the same terms. If support to farmers is to be a reality also in the future, it must take into consideration the globalised, intertwined economy of which we are all a part.
This paper has carried the notion that African farmers must increase yields and seek to become self-sufficient on food. This is not going to be accomplished without some form of state intervention. African Governments should support agricultural production, and the four ‘critical drivers of change’ that have been defined in this paper are good starting points. Furthermore, when redefining African agriculture, the sustainable aspect should not be forgotten. Productivity is pointless if it comes at the expense of for example future productivity or biodiversity. During the green revolution in Asia and South America, food productivity increased, but it also brought with it serious implications for the environment. Hopefully, Africa will be able to learn from previous mistakes and incorporate a more sustainable approach. Furthermore, it is important to understand that every region is unique, and that there is no panacea, no single approach that will work in every setting. Research regarding ‘what works where’, possibly with a participatory approach that takes into consideration the knowledge within each setting, could be one way to come to terms with such problems.
Despite its economic development in recent years, food insecurity is still a big area of concern for SSA. The agricultural practices of the region, and the rest of the world, are one cause of the situation and these need to be changed. African nations ought to invest in the agricultural sector. A well-nourished population will give rise to human and economic development, and it will serve as a first step in the fight against many diseases.
Global climate change is an obstacle in striving towards a food secure future for SSA. More extreme weather poses a threat against agricultural output. The question is not if this is the case, it is not even when we will see the consequences; rather, the question is to what extent climate change will affect agricultural production, and thus global food prices. The fact is that we can already notice that the weather is changing, and the current drought in the US could be a direct consequence of greenhouse gas emissions. The crops are diminishing in the hot and dry conditions and the prices of food will increase as a result.
SSA is a region that contributes the least to global warming, but it is one of the regions that is most affected by it. Not only does Africa warm up faster than the global average, the increased food prices are also most noticeable there. Coming to terms with global warming is going to take a long time, and the manmade climate changes are likely irreversible in the near future. From an African perspective, it is therefore important to adapt to a warmer and drier climate and to invest in a food secure future.
Written by Oskar Holst (1)
(1) Contact Oskar Holst through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.
(3) Salleh. A., ‘Africa could feed itself, says soil scientist’, ABC News, 10 June 2010, http://www.abc.net.au.
(4) ‘Towards a food secure future’, UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012, http://www.undp.org.
(5) According to the Oakland Institute, the hike in food prices increased the number of hungry people in the world to over 1 billion (‘High food price crisis’, Oakland Institute 2012, http://www.oaklandinstitute.org.).
(6) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.
(8) ‘Towards a food secure future’, UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012, http://www.undp.org.
(9) Goudie, A., 2006. The human impact on the natural environment (6th edition). Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
(11)‘Towards a food secure future’, UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012, http://www.undp.org.
(14) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable Prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.
(15) ‘Towards a food secure future’, UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012, http://www.undp.org.
(16) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.
(17) ‘Towards a food secure future’, UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012, http://www.undp.org.
(18) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.
(20) Johnston, D., and Bargawi, H., 2010. The 2007-2008 world food crisis: Focusing on the structural causes. Development Viewpoint, 46, http://www.soas.ac.uk.
(21) See Figure 1.
(22) ‘Analysts: Southwestern US drought might raise global food prices’. Voice of America, 7 September 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(23) Bryner, J., ‘US drought 2012: More than half of continental states experiencing extremely dry conditions’, The Huffington Post, 6 July 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(24) ‘Agriculture and food supply impacts and adaptation’, United States Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov.
(25) US Drought Monitor, Archive, time period 1 January 2010 – 12 August 2012, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu.
(27) Evans, M., ‘Serious implications from US snow drought?’, Accuweather, 6 January 2012, http://www.accuweather.com.
(28) Karnowski, S., ‘U.S. drought: Food prices will go up in 2013, USDA says’, The Huffington Post, 25 July 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(29) US Drought Monitor, Archive, time period 1 January 2010 – 12 August 2012, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu.
(30)Karnowski, S., ‘U.S. drought: food prices will go up in 2013, USDA says’, The Huffington Post, 25 July 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(32) Decapua, J., ‘US drought impacts global food security’, Voice of America, 13 August 2012, http://www.voanews.com.
(33) ‘Analysts: Southwestern US Drought might raise global food prices’, Voice of America, 7 September 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(34) ‘Global warming exacerbates African conflict’, The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, http://globalwarming.markey.house.gov.
(35) Monique, M., 2012. “Growing a sustainable future”, in State of the World 2012: Moving toward a sustainable prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C.