We need a bit more hunger to end poverty

Claims that climate change will cause mass starvation could actually make it harder to feed the world.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Yesterday, the UK Observer‘s lead story was ‘Millions face starvation as world warms, say scientists’. The story, by the Guardian‘s environment editor, John Vidal, continues: ‘Millions of people could become destitute in Africa and Asia as staple foods more than double in price by 2050 as a result of extreme temperatures, floods and droughts that will transform the way the world farms.’

It’s a line which is rather reminiscent of the opening to Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s doom-mongering blockbuster, The Population Bomb, in 1968: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…’

The Ehrlichs were proved utterly wrong. When they were writing, world population had doubled from two billion to four billion in about 40 years. Since then, as we know, the world produces more food per head than ever before and people are living longer than ever before. In the late Sixties, the global death rate was about 13 deaths per year for every 1,000 people. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, that has fallen to under eight per 1,000 people. In 1969-71, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 33 per cent of the world’s population was undernourished. Now, about 16 per cent of people are malnourished. That’s still far too many, but it is an enormous improvement.

According to a leaflet produced by the UN World Food Programme last month, quoting FAO stats: ‘Solving hunger requires no scientific breakthrough. Today’s scientific knowledge, tools and policies, combined with political will, can solve the world’s greatest problem. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone. In the last 40 years, per capita food availability in the world has increased by 17 per cent, to more than 2,700 kilocalories per person per day.’

So, we have made enormous strides in dealing with hunger in the past few decades. Most of those who continue to face hunger face a much broader problem: underdevelopment. As a result, they face real hardship whenever there is an external ‘shock’ – a poor harvest, bad weather or spiking world food prices. Most of those hungry people are in Asia. According to the FAO, there are over 500million hungry people in just six Asian countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. What is required is investment in agriculture, not just in growing food but in storing it and transporting it so that less is wasted.

A report in January 2013 by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) suggested that ‘due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30 to 50 per cent (or 1.2 to two billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach’. It continued: ‘In less-developed countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions.’ In China, according to the IMechE, as much as 45 per cent of rice is wasted; in Vietnam, it is as much as 80 per cent. The report cites estimates that 180million tonnes of rice alone are lost annually to waste in South-East Asia.

As the report concludes: ‘If the world population is projected to increase by about 35 per cent to a peak of 9.5 billion in 2075, and eliminating this waste has the potential to provide 60 to 100 per cent more food for consumption, then in simple terms there is a clear opportunity to provide a major contribution towards meeting the growing demand for food.’

So we already grow enough food, in theory, to feed not only the current population but the possible peak population later this century, too. Moreover, many areas of the world currently have agricultural productivity that is way below the global average. There is plenty of room to grow even more given the introduction of better methods. For example, the east African country of Malawi appeared to produce large increases in agricultural productivity in the mid-Noughties by subsidising fertiliser. While that is no long-term solution to the country’s problems, it does show that there is real potential to increase yields with access to better inputs and methods.

But could climate change ruin it all? That seems to be the argument put to Vidal by delegates to two food-security conferences taking place in Ireland. However, the claims made seem simply overblown. For example, Vidal writes that ‘the draft US National Climate Assessment report predicts that a gradually warming climate and unpredictable severe weather, such as the drought that last year spread across two-thirds of the continental United States, will have serious consequences for farmers’ including a possible 70 per cent reduction in California’s wine output.

Yet on Friday, the Guardian reported on a US government assessment of last year’s severe drought, which concluded that ‘the Central Great Plains drought during May-August of 2012 resulted mostly from natural variations in weather’ – in other words, an unusual combination of weather patterns that happens every couple of hundred years. ‘Climate change was not a significant part, if any, of the event’, said the lead author, Martin Hoerling. Even with this terrible drought, America still produced as much or even more food than in many recent years. US corn output, for example, was down over 12 per cent on the year before, but was still higher than in every year prior to 2007, apart from 2005. The US also produced its highest ever wheat yield per acre in 2012/13. Undoubtedly, American farmers could do without a repeat of 2012, but there is still plenty of potential to overcome even such extreme weather events.

As for other parts of the world, the claims made for south-east Asia seem particularly ludicrous. ‘A new study for US Aid expects most of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to see four- to six-degree Celsius temperature rises by 2050’, writes Vidal. This is an astonishing claim – particularly at a time when global temperatures rises have plateaued. Global temperatures have risen by 0.8 degree Celsius since 1850, yet gloomy predictions of food production are being built on local temperature rises that are five or six times as great occurring in less than 40 years. If land fertility is a problem in the future, they should just cover fields in copies of this report. It’s clearly bullshit.

Feeding the world is an ongoing and very serious problem. We’ve made huge strides, but there are still too many people who are chronically hungry. But the problem is neither natural – in the sense that we are beholden to the weather or other natural forces – nor technical, since we are perfectly capable of growing enough food. The real barriers are political and economic – things like trade barriers, stable governments, general underdevelopment, and so on. The real import of the claims made by Vidal is to add another barrier to the list: sustainability. Not only must we try to grow more food, it is claimed, but we must do it while producing fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. We should avoid mechanisation, artificial fertilisers, increased meat consumption and the ‘food miles’ associated with global trade. If this viewpoint were to be thoroughly embraced, it would lead to more hungry people, not fewer.

There is certainly a ‘planetary emergency’ going on at the moment, but it’s not to do with carbon emissions. It’s to do with the fact that far too many people live in poverty, even if they do have enough to eat. We should be doing everything we can to end that situation, not promoting scare stories about devastation in the future.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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Topics Science & Tech