SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 131 - September 2009

The threat to global food supplies

THE RECENT G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, saw Silvio Berlusconi head a push to adopt a new method for delivering (cutting) aid to developing countries. The discussions came as Oxfam reported that a triple threat of economic recession, rising global food prices and climate change are having devastating effects on some of the world’s poorest people.

Sub-Saharan Africa stands to lose $245 billion this year alone – almost $5 billion has been promised by G8 nations to help plug the gap! The G8 are set to fall $23 billion short of their 2005 promise to increase aid to the world’s struggling nations by $50 billion over five years. Berlusconi proposed a ‘whole country’ approach where money provided by charities, philanthropists, companies and trade links, counted towards a country’s national target, effectively robbing underdeveloped nations of additional funds.

Looking to the mainstream media it is difficult to get a handle on the real cost of the global recession. One year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the economic crisis is usually discussed in terms of quantitative easing, bank balance sheets and FTSE points. For the working class in the developed nations, the crisis translates into job losses, price rises and a more strained existence. In some of the world’s poorest countries, it manifests itself in malnourished children and anaemic expectant mothers. According to AMREF UK (Africa’s leading health development organisation) one in five Kenyans now cannot afford two meals per day.

After an initial fall, world food prices have risen 26% since December 2008, translating into a price rise in staple foods of up to 50%. For many families, the food budget takes up around 60% of household income. This can mean an extra ten hours of work a week to feed a family of five, children being taken out of school to save money, and less diverse diets having detrimental effects on health.

Climate change is also beginning to take a devastating toll on local economies in developing nations where seasonal weather has been disrupted. Rains coming too late or lasting too long can dramatically reduce crop yields as traditional farming methods are found unsuitable for new, more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. The monsoon in India this year, for example, began later and with less intensity than expected. Between 1 June and 15 July, the rains in the northwest, ‘grain bowl’ region, were 43% lower than normal. The worst hit crops are rice oilseeds, especially groundnut, soybean and sugarcane. Coincidentally, these are the crops which have seen sharp price rises in the last year. (

The cumulative effect of these three major issues can be seen in figures provided by The Economist in June: between 1990 and 2007 the amount of ‘hungry people’ in the world rose by 80 million. In 2008 the number rose by 40 million to 963 million in total.

The threat of a world food crisis has led a number of developing nations to attempt a land grab of arable land in underdeveloped countries to try and safeguard their own food supplies. In the last two years, as much as 20 million hectares (the size of France) of farmland, worth approximately $20-30 billion, has been handed over to countries such as Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait and China from some of the world’s poorest nations such as Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia and Pakistan. The plan is usually to ship workers in to work the land, growing biofuels or staple crops for export home. Earlier this year, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held a ceremony to receive a batch of rice, the first to be imported into the country through such a land grab scheme, which sees Saudi investors spending $100 million to grow tax-free produce in Ethiopia, up to 100% of which may go to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme is spending $116 million to provide food and aid to the 4.6 million Ethiopians it estimates are at risk from hunger and malnutrition.

Supporters of these sorts of schemes claim they can bring ‘modern’ farming methods into underdeveloped areas, fulfilling the potential of the land and reducing malnutrition. The reality, however, is that these schemes damage local economies. They are often motivated by alarm over rising food prices, export bans and the fear of a repeat of the widespread food riots in 2007-08. We should not forget that the majority of revolutions throughout history have been fought by hungry people. Apparently, the governments of many of the world’s developing nations have not forgotten!

Climate change has had other more extreme manifestations across tropical areas. In an eerie echo of the world economic crisis, climate change will bring misfortune on those who bear the least responsibility for causing it. Developed nations, which produce approximately 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, look likely to be the last to suffer the ill effects of the earth’s changing climate. They may even benefit in the short term with seasons becoming more temperate.

In tropical areas, however, populations are suffering from drought as mountain glaciers, the melt waters of which supply much needed drinking water to arid regions, are failing to form during the winter months causing major water shortages during the dry seasons. In areas where water is particularly scarce, it has been suggested that water wars may break out over declining natural resources if decisive action is not taken soon. Many low-lying areas, such as the flood planes of Zambia and Bangladesh, are seeing the displacement of large portions of their population as salt waters from rising sea levels encroach on arable and residential land.

Tropical diseases are beginning to move further north and south than they have previously, attacking populations which have no immunity to them and in states which lack the infrastructure to cope with mass outbreaks of disease. Finally, so-called natural disasters are becoming more frequent as a result of changing weather patterns. Wild fires, flash floods, cyclones, hurricanes and other devastating tropical storms are not only becoming more frequent but are affecting areas which do not normally experience them.

The areas which are most affected by climate change are also those which are least well placed to adapt to it. It has been estimated by an Oxfam report that it would cost around $150 billion to mitigate the major effects of climate change in the developing world and allow the people there to continue with their lives as normal. That is less than the amount used to bail out the US insurance giant AIG.

Many scientists are questioning whether the small targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be met. Governments involved in the Kyoto agreement set the ‘economically acceptable’ target of reducing emissions enough to keep the rise in global temperature to 2c.

Many in the scientific community predict that if developed countries continue with business as usual the global average temperature could rise by 4-5c by 2100. (Suffering the Science, Oxfam, 6 June) In the same predictive model, a rise in global temperature of 5c could lead to a drop in the world’s population to only one billion as drought, famine, fire, flood and other extreme events wreak havoc on the human race. Even if governments manage to keep to their target of 2c this could wreck the lives and futures of 660 million people.

Without socialist planning it is difficult to see how the majority of the world’s population, predicted to number nine billion by 2012, could be adequately prepared for the changes which challenge our society as a result of climate change. Yet it would be possible to make changes which could help to lessen the effects of climate change. It is even possible to plan to make the most of predicted changes in weather patterns. For instance, areas in South East Asia are expected to experience massively increased levels of rainfall. Provisions need to be made to safeguard against flash flooding. But provisions could also be made to trap the water in dams to provide future sources of water, or generate hydroelectric electricity.

There are changes that can be made to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperature and adaptations that can be made to adapt to the already changing climate. Without the genuine involvement of the majority of people in running society, however, this sort of long-term planning is just not possible. The capitalist system’s need to cut corners in order to line the pockets of the few at the expense of the many shows through in every level of the world we live in. The effects of climate change will become more and more apparent in the months and years to come, devastating the economies, societies and lives of some of the world’s poorest.

Leah Jones


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