A Global Community & Resource Centre for Sustainable Business
Food security and climate change:
Is it possible to get joined up thinking?
(“the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”, Oscar Wilde)
Greg Masters, Lead Consultant Earthshine Solutions.
This is the first of two blogs examining food security. Here the issues are considered particularly in terms of growing population size, climate change and biofuels. The second blog will examine the business case, though considering the “so what” question.
At a time when 1 in 7 people are suffering starvation, our ability to produce food is becoming increasingly compromised, of which climate change and loss of agricultural land to other uses, particularly biofuel crops, are the greatest challenges. Threats to agricultural production lead to escalating food prices, which in turn lead to a greater level of hunger and ultimately starvation as people cannot afford food.
Crop losses are increasing but demand for grain and commodities such as palm oil and sugar is increasing. Additionally, climate is changing with, for example, the unprecedented incidence of extreme climate events in 2012. The result is chaotic commodity markets and increasing food prices.
Any food we can produce is threatened by extreme events, pest outbreaks, poor growing conditions, increasing levels of soil erosion and lack of (or too much) water. All symptoms of increasing impacts of climate change. Add to this the pressure on land for alternative uses, particularly biofuel crops. Taken together it is hard not to conclude that food (and fresh water) security is heavily compromised.
We seem to be blinkered and carrying on as usual. There seems to be an underlying assumption that agricultural adaptation and global sourcing can cope with problems as they happen. This sadly seems to be true for consumers, distributors, retailers and producers.
The Threat from Climate Change
Initially climate change was believed to have a positive impact on agriculture. The fertiliser effect of CO2 and generally warmer growing conditions should lead to better plant growth. Although that is true it ignored the ecology of the situation. For example, it does not take into account the increased demand for water that a crop in a warmer high CO2 world needs. Such resulting plant stress is an increasingly common cause of yield loss and crop failure as seen with the USA corn crop recently.
Extreme events are linked with climate change and droughts, floods, storms all disrupt agriculture. Harvests can not be completed, supply roads are destroyed, crops do not ripen, seeds and seedlings are washed away. In the UK there was the catastrophic disruption of the 2007 floods and now the double whammy of the 2012 floods. Although extreme events have always occurred, they are linked to climate and climate change will be affecting the severity and frequency of events.
What this means for food is becoming clear by considering one example. Retailers often source produce from a limited number of suppliers, often in a single area. For example, peaches in the UK and across western Europe generally come from the Ebro Valley in Spain; which has become increasingly prone to warmer winters (that affect peach development), late frosts (that destroy peach development and fruiting) and droughts that stress the trees to the point of not producing peaches. So, there could be very few peaches in the future at very high supply-driven prices? What is the back up plan? How about a longer term strategy that will provide security in provision and supply, and will include adaptation strategies for climate change?
In 2012 we have witnessed the near destruction of the corn crop in the USA due to drought. The global wheat markets have been chaotic due to the uncertainty over global production, again due to drought. China is now the global leader in wheat production, followed by India with the USA third. Wheat is generally irrigated in China and India, but not (yet) in the USA. What happens when the water levels are low, when there is little or no water for irrigation? How vulnerable is the global wheat supply to drought? Recent events give an indication that it is extremely vulnerable.
India and China also dominate for rice production, which again is generally reliant on irrigation and seasonal flooding. It is accepted that a 1°C rise in average temperature during the growing season leads to a 10% reduction in rice and wheat yields. A heat wave or just the chronic increase in temperature from climate change could lead to a severe grain shortage.
The fate of wheat, rice, maize (corn) is of global concern. China and India together support over 37% of the global population (the USA is the third most populated country, with less than 5% of the global population); those people need food and the countries need global trade in commodities. What is the back-up plan if the wheat crop in India fails (as we have seen with the US corn crop), or the rice crop in China suffers two consecutive crop failures?
Rightly or wrongly, there is an integrated global food/ commodity market and economy. Food market dynamics, just like stock exchange rates after failures in the banking sector, will crash and become chaotic. Food prices will increase dramatically as food supplies become short, as the global supply of wheat for example has recently shown. A reduction in yield in a single location will drive up food prices everywhere.
The Biofuel Challenge
Biofuels can be a means of reducing dependency on fossil fuels, and as a green energy for vehicles. The oil companies, such as BP in Brazil, have invested in biofuel technology and markets. Biofuels can contribute to the green economy and be a climate friendly technology. But, whether it is a sustainable way of producing fuel is still debatable. There is no doubt though, that the market for biofuel has increased dramatically in recent times. Many food producing companies are now producing biofuel as well. For example, European sugar beet processors have developed a highly efficient, profitable operation and bioethanol is a growing sector of their business.
However, agricultural land can be used to grow high yielding biofuel crops; the better the land quality then the better the biofuel yield and return. That land though, is not being used to grow food. There is also the increasing pressure to convert land that was not in agricultural production to grow biofuels. Such land-use change has a considerable negative effect on greenhouse gas emission – changing sinks into sources. This will out-weigh any benefit biofuels have on reducing emissions as an energy source.
Sugar cane is the world’s largest crop with about 24M ha under cultivation in over 90 countries producing about 1.7 billion tonnes. Brazil is the worlds’ leading producer, accounting for over 50% of global production. Of this, over 55% of Brazilian production is used to produce bioethanol. This is good for the Brazilian green economy (half the cars in Brazil run on ethanol) and for exports (Brazil is the worlds’ second largest exporter of ethanol behind the USA). But, the land could be used for sugar or other food crops.
Palm oil is another commodity increasingly being used for biofuel, with Malaysia and Indonesia announcing they would reserve 40% of their production for biofuel in July 2006. However, palm oil can be found in half of all consumer products (about 50% of all the products on a supermarket shelf in the USA or the EU contains palm oil) and production in the tropics has expanded rapidly as consumption has increased – Indonesian oil palm production increased 400% between 1994 and 2004.
Cargill and other large multi-national commodity based corporations that trade in palm oil promote biofuels as being important in meeting energy needs, but should be balanced with the food provision for the growing global population. Unfortunately, expansion of palm plantations including illegal land grabs, are being justified through meeting the biofuel targets. Additionally, it is increasingly difficult for companies such as Cargill to avoid dealing with suppliers who are linked with the illegal land grab / logging trade. Shortly after Cargill’s assurance of supplying the US market with certifiable sustainably sourced palm oil, it was discovered that one of their suppliers, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) was involved in illegal logging of natural rainforests in Indonesia. Land grabs to sustain the palm oil supply.
Recently, EU policy on biofuels has been linked with land grabs in Africa by the EuropAfrica platform. The EU is the world leader in the green economy, renewable energy and environmental sustainability. The targets for reducing emissions and tackling climate change are very stringent and progressive. The EU does though import about 40% of the biofuel it uses, as part of its renewable energy policy. EuropAfrica estimate that two thirds of all land grabs in Africa (just less than 19M ha) are for the production of biofuels and are indirectly backed by investment from some EU companies. In Senegal, for example, Jatropha (a well known biofuel crop) was grown in favour of food.
Expanding biofuel production will challenge water, land and biodiversity resources, all of which affect food production. Joined-up policy revision needs to be urgently implemented; to make the connections among biofuels, food and the response to climate change. A key question about the expansion of biofuel cultivation is whether new land is used (land grabs, deforestation) or whether food crops are replaced by biofuels. The first response is detrimental to climate change, the second to food security.
One possible area of policy development is the use of marginal or degraded land. The practice of having field margins for conservation benefit could be re-examined as areas for biofuel production, or the utilization of road-side verges, for example. And the economic viability of such schemes needs to be considered in the medium to long term.
So What Next…
In order to feed 9 billion people in 35 years time, food production has to be increased, somehow, by another 50% compared to productivity today (FAO). That is going to involve technology, economic development, sustainable agricultural practice and rethinking dependence on a few countries and a few commodities. Combined with the need for more food, there will be a greater need for more energy. But energy has to be controlled, regulated and made greenhouse friendly to mitigate climate change. Biofuels will be part of the solution and part of the problem.
This could be the time for the green economic revolution. Sustainable practice and strategic development, as being promoted and as needed in the business, political and economic sectors can be applied to this ecological and agricultural issue. Looking at the best economic and social fit for a particular agricultural scenario and location (biofuel vs. food vs. both) through sustainable business principles may join the dots.
Production of food and also where feasible biofuel crops, as cash commodities trading on an open, but green, new economy, market, could produce essential cash flow in developing countries. That cash can then be used to intensify (sustainably and ecologically) crop production, to supply energy at an affordable price to help with intensification (which will involve mechanization) and ultimately improve resource efficiency.
Ecological and sustainable principles applied to the clash between food and biofuels. Is that a strategy for joining the dots?
In the second blog on food security, the sustainable business case is considered, particularly supply chain and procurement issues. Forward thinking policies, that include adaptations to climate change, maintain food delivery and keep food prices as slow as possible need to be developed.
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