As the world gathers in Copenhagen to “get it done,” and deliver a meaningful climate change agreement, let’s hope the delegates keep in mind the catastrophic effects that unmitigated climate change will have on food insecurity. The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as "all people at all times hav[ing] both physical and economic access to the basic food they need." Today, according to the United Nations High-level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, one billion people, one out of every six, cannot lay claim to that kind of food security.
Even though we currently produce enough food to feed all the hungry people, rhetoric about the right to food as a basic human right never seems to get to the implementation stage. That is not to disparage the multi-faceted nature of the problem.
Food insecurity results from a host of interconnected political, social and economic factors. For example, in November, the USDA announced that food insecurity 2009 was the highest level since the government began tracking it in 1995. (prior post) The New York Times reports that almost 28 million people in the United States now depend on food stamps. This rise in food insecurity is clearly related to the domestic unemployment rate, and to rising food prices. But, at least they have something of a safety net, in the form of government assistance, food banks, and soup kitchens. In Guatemala, by contrast food insecurity related to low rainfalls has produced a rise in cases of acute malnutrition among children. The news is equally grim around the world.
Reaching the Millennium Development Goal of halving food insecurity by 2015 is already a daunting task. Climate change adds yet another level of complexity, one that is likely to exacerbate the already precarious food situation confronting fully 1/6 of the world’s population. Australia is already facing record drought attributable to climate change as are parts of Africa, while Britian, other parts of Africa, China and parts of the US have faced epic flooding. Unfortunately, as global precipitation patterns change, and as the ocean acidifies, the level of food insecurity attributable to climate change is likely to increase.
This is not a domestic problem, it is not a developing country problem. It is a structural problem built into the world’s carbon economy, and the existing trading and governance system. Maybe Copenhagen will mark the beginning of a new global commitment to confronting these problems once and for all. Food insecurity, and the factors that create it, are not confined by national borders. As the world warms, that will become clearer than ever.