A DEBATE about the responses to the growing food crisis due to climate change is raging across the globe. The direct cause of the crisis is the severe drought this year that has affected 80% of the US, and hit Russia and Australia as well.
The drought has shrivelled key crops like corn, wheat and soybeans, causing global prices to jump 6% in July after three months of decline.
Last week, three United Nations food agencies urged governments to take quick action to prevent a repeat of the 2007/08 food crises that sparked bread riots in some 30 countries.
The indications are that 2013 will be another year of global crisis, according to commentators like author David Frum, although others are not so pessimistic.
More contentious, however, is the approach taken by international institutions, including the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to address the issue of food security.
Critics of these institutions argue that they promote an industrial model of agriculture that "threatens the viability of ecosystems and contributes massively to climate change". Some 120 civil society groups said as much in a statement of concern issued ahead of the 2nd Global Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change that began in Hanoi last Monday.sdasd
The groups, from both the North and South, argued that the central themes of the Hanoi conference were heavily contested. They pointed out that the approaches had not been sufficiently considered from the perspective of peasants, small-scale producers and indigenous peoples, who are suffering the worst effects of climate change.
The groups were also concerned at the lack of transparency, participation and consultation with many governments in the preparation for the conference. Moreover, they said, the roadmap from the previous conference, held in the Hague in October 2010, was neither endorsed by attending governments nor accepted as a binding outcome.
The impact of industrial agriculture on climate change was highlighted in a briefing note for the Hanoi conference, based on information from the Climate Justice Now! group. The note, released by the Third World Network, stated that developed countries, with 17% of the world's population, are responsible for 26% of global nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from soils, 30% of methane (CH4) emissions from enteric fermentation due to the digestive processes of ruminants, and 52% of CH4 and N2O emissions from manure management.
Yet, market-based approaches are being promoted by the international institutions, allowing developed countries to continue rather than change their unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Furthermore, this forces emissions reduction responsibilities onto peasants and small producers in developing countries.
Instead of focusing on the protection of agriculture from climate change, the groups said, the conference programme appeared to endorse a greater role for the private sector to invest in schemes that would commodify natural resources and disenfranchise local and indigenous communities.
The priority should be to work with local food producers to help them conserve, store and further develop their own varieties and breeds. "It is clear that the best hedge against the increasing instability of local climates in the future is a diversity of varieties and breeds to address the threat of increasing floods, drought and storms," the civil society groups said.
Instead, industrial agriculture has reduced the number of farmers' varieties and breeds drastically and has therefore dangerously reduced the basis of food security for the future, their statement said.
There is also a critical need to reverse the economic concentration of global markets — particularly for grains, livestock and food processing — that has led to unsustainable forms of industrial agriculture worldwide and are responsible for the bulk of the emissions from the agriculture sector.
Moreover, carbon market mechanisms actually finance the emissions reduction commitments of developed countries through "offsetting" projects in developing countries. This not only increases the threat of climate change by allowing developed countries to continue rather than change their unsustainable production and consumption patterns, but also forces emissions reduction responsibilities onto peasants and small producers in developing countries. Developed country mitigation and "offsetting" priorities should not and cannot drive discussions on the nexus between climate change, food security and agriculture, they emphasised.
The upshot is that nothing less than a system change — towards ecological agriculture, based on principles that create healthy soils and cultivate biological diversity, and which prioritise farmers' and traditional knowledge — is needed.
The landscape approach, promoted by the World Bank, had a high profile in the conference agenda.
Using a market-based approach to convert large tracts of landscape that include water, land, agriculture and forests into commodities is unethical when it comes to the question of food security. Further, land-grabbing in the developing world had become an ever greater concern since the first conference, particularly as financial assets become unreliable and both state and private actors secured land for financial gain and food security.
This point finds resonance in a news analysis last week on commodities and financial instruments, in which Jennifer Clapp, a Canada-based academic on global environmental governance, noted: "NGOs have highlighted the strong correlation between financial market deregulation, increased financial investment in agricultural commodities and food price volatility. Reports such as the World Development Movement's Broken Markets, Oxfam's policy brief Not a Game and Friends of the Earth's Farming Money, have made this case."
Quoting a recent report in the Financial Times, she said that most financial institutions are in fact deeply involved in much more sophisticated financial products linked to the agricultural sector that reach deeper into agricultural commodity chains than the index funds that simply track prices of commodities. They are getting into investments that track the performance of agricultural commodity-related firms, and also directly into farmland.
This converges with the concerns expressed by the civil society groups about the food and climate conference last week. But climate change has merely precipitated the mounting crisis that is engulfing the global financial system. The time has come for economies to be organised once again as if people mattered.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge. This story appeared in The Edge on Sept 10, 2012.