26 June 2015

Trade and the quest for more evidence, solutions to the issue of food and climate change, says an expert consultation

The recent publication ‘Climate change and food systems - Global assessments and implications for food security and trade’ published by FAO gives some insight on the way this organisation considers the impact of climate change on food security and the solutions that are likely to help to deal with this extremely important issue. More broadly, arising from an expert consultation organized at FAO in 2013, it sums up the current dominent thinking on this topic.

Stressing that ‘crop productivity impacts are expected to be negative in low-latitude and tropical regions but somewhat positive in high-latitude regions’ and that climate change will also impact on the nutritional content of food, as ‘higher carbon dioxide concentration [CO2] is shown to lower concentrations of zinc, iron and protein and raise starch and sugar content in crop plants that use three-carbon (C3) fixation pathway such as wheat, rice and soybeans’, the authors foresee that climate change will ‘exacerbate the malnutrition challenges, including obesity and nutrition deficits in poor communities’.

To face the likely water scarcity increase induced by climate change, the report advocates market based instruments such as water pricing and trading as the solution, but does not, regrettably, propose to invest more in improving dryland agriculture by developing new water-stress resistant varieties, when there are good indications that such solutions can be found at a relatively low cost [read examples here and here]. On important issues like agrofuels and fertiliser, the report recognizes the potential negative impact of the former but does not question the currently dominant fertiliser-based agriculture on the ground of the alleged importance of fertiliser in production and does not consider organic agriculture as an alternative, despite convincing indications that it can be, if properly managed, at least as productive as conventional agrochemicals-based agriculture. In doing so, the publication clearly gives a biased priority to unsustainable production, to the detriment of a more climate-friendly agriculture with technologies accessible to poor (and often under-nourished) farmers who do not have the means to purchase agrochemicals.

The report also does not propose the indispensable policy changes that could prevent ‘trade… [expansion] from the mid- to high-latitude regions to the low-latitude regions, where production and export potential could be reduced’, thus accepting as a fact the increasing food dependency of food-insecure regions in the world, such as Africa. This is not a position that would be expected to be found in a publication of an Organisation whose mandate is to reduce undernourishment and that committed to contribute to the eradication of hunger in the world. Moreover, trade is being presented as part of the solution on the ground that it is able to ‘play a stabilizing role for prices and supplies’: lessons from the 2008 crisis, where world markets have clearly been shown to have contributed to spread instability, have already been forgotten! Let’s hope that the internalisation of environmental costs into the cost of trade, proposed by the report, will contribute to increase considerably the competitiveness of local production and thus benefit local producers (provided, of course, the land of these producers is not grabbed, sending them to add to the mass of population living in abject conditions in the slums of the large cities of the South).

When the report attempts to address the climate-change/poverty/food systems nexus, the language it uses becomes remarkably vague, with concepts such as ‘mainstreaming climate change in pro-poor strategies’, ‘cross-sectoral frameworks’, ‘critical linkages’, ‘socio-economic determinants’ and many others which appear to the reader to be as many screens that prevent to see that the real issue at stake, from which the report shies away, and points at the need for a fundamental re-engineering of our food and agricultural system that will provide all the incentives and regulations likely to lead to the adoption of more climate-friendly technologies, while giving opportunities to small family farms to benefit from this change and thus improve their food status. [read some of our proposals here]

The most amazing aspect of this book is that the policy solutions it proposes can be roughly summarised as follows:

  1. expand trade and make it more climate-compatible by internalizing its environmental costs

  2. mainstream ‘climate responses within pro-poor development strategies

  3. gather more ‘robust and reliable science-based evidence’.

Nothing on the importance of research into new climate-friendly technologies or the revisiting of policies which have, for several decades, provided incentives to the development a climate-aggressive and malnutrition-generating world food system. Nothing also on how to deal with the acknowledged nutritional implications of climate change which are acknowledged in the text.

A rather disappointing outcome for a 336 page publication, a large part of which is devoted to the discussion of on-going modeling work and research, that will unfortunately be of little help to policy makers throughout the world who have to deal now with the issue and be of no help to achieve a breakthrough in the negotiations during forthcoming Paris Climate Change Conference at the end of this year.


Further readings:

  1. -FAO. Climate change and food systems: global assessments and implications for food security and trade. Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome Italy, 2015

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -A solution to combat climate change: an agriculture that stores carbon in the soil, 2015

  2. -Researchers show that organic agriculture generates more economic value than conventional agriculture, 2015

  3. -Research and biodiversity can help us reduce the negative impact of climate change: the case of beans, 2015

  4. -Biodiversity or GMOs : how to increase plant resistance against drought?, 2014

  5. -Water and Hunger, The ‘‘all-out irrigation’’ strategy has led to a fragile, wasteful and inegalitarian system, 2013


Last update:    June 2015

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