A hotter world is a hungrier world

The long-drawn out gestation of the latest assessment of global climate change enters a new phase today (Monday, 23 September) in Stockholm, Sweden, as scientists and government civil servants gather to discuss the first instalment of the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This section of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report focuses on the physical science basis of the climate system and climate change and after all the discussions, it will be officially published on Friday, 27 September. Crucial as the science is, Oxfam is chiefly concerned about the impacts that climate change is having on people in terms of increasing the risk of hunger and poverty, and so today we are putting out a new briefing paper "Growing Disruption: Climate change, food and the fight against hunger."

The main impact of climate change on food supplies is often considered to be how rising temperatures, erratic rainfall and climate "shocks" will directly damage crops, wiping out harvests and therefore, directly depriving poor farmers of the food that they grow to feed themselves and their families.

And indeed, we should be very worried about those impacts.

But thinking only about how climate shocks ruin crops can make us forget how most people actually obtain most of the food they eat; they don't grow it for themselves, they buy it. Even smallholder farmers rarely obtain all of the food they need from their own production. They too buy food on the market - maybe they trade what they grow for types of food that they can't grow themselves. Everyone, therefore, needs some income to buy some food (and not only food of course, but to pay for kids to go to school, to pay medical expenses and - inevitably - to pay taxes).

Shrinking income

So what happens if as a result of climate change, suddenly your income drops by a quarter, or even a half? Even if food is still as available as ever in the market, your capacity to buy it has shrunk massively.

In Pakistan the devastating 2010 mega-flood destroyed over 570,000 hectares of crop land in Punjab and affected more than 20 million people. Eighty per cent of food reserves were lost. The destruction of crops and drowning of animals meant not only that people had nothing to eat, but that they had nothing to trade to be able to buy food as it became available.

The flood caused a massive 75% reduction in income across all households affected. And more floods have followed every year since. Recently the World Food Programme warned that three consecutive years of floods mean that about half of Pakistan's population still do not have "secure access" to enough food - which is up from a little over one-third a decade ago.

Or take the current situation in Central America. There a fungal disease of coffee called La Roya has suddenly gone berserk, infecting coffee plants across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The coffee rust has been in the region for years, but its exceptional spread this year - including to higher-altitude coffee farms and plantations hitherto thought immune to the fungus - has been blamed in part on several years of above average temperatures and rainfall, creating the ideal humid conditions for the spores to spread.

The statistics are truly frightening

Big farms can invest in prevention and control, including using more fungicides. But many small farmers face ruin. Their best tactic is to uproot sick bushes and plant new ones; but the new ones will not yield coffee beans for at least three years. However, the most devastating impacts most likely will not be on coffee farmers themselves but on the 1.4 million unskilled labourers who depend on wages from coffee harvesting for much of their annual income. The statistics are truly frightening; daily income from the coffee harvest labour is likely to be up to 50% below average this year  (2013/14) and next. Oxfam programmes are gearing up to help.

Income insecurity has all sorts of knock-on effects. People may reduce their expenditure on food, and/or on other important aspects of their lives - their children's education, medical expenses, heating bills. In Russia Oxfam interviewed farmers who were hit by the extreme heat wave in 2010 and then by a less publicised drought in 2012 and found many have got into serious debt.

As one farmer said: "In 2010 we were not so bound by loans, we had fewer debts, but now the situation is completely different. We had to take money from the Mafia and now that we go to bed, we are afraid they could cut our heads off or the bailiffs could come and take everything from our homes. Today we could basically declare ourselves bankrupt and close down the farm."

There are obviously many interlocking reasons for food insecurity in Pakistan, Central America or Russia (in fact, everywhere) but climatic shocks made worse by global warming have added a potent new threat multiplier and we are only just beginning to unravel how those threats may play out.

In the jargon of food security, impacts on "access" to food - cutting incomes and spoiling livelihoods, as well as increasing the cost of food - might be more significant than simply affecting food production and simple availability. This is the theme of a new briefing paper by Oxfam "Growing Disruption: Climate change, food and the fight against hunger."

The bottom line: climate change need not - must not - further jeopardise people's right to food. There is much that must be done. Alongside the resources going into crop research we need measures that will safeguard people's livelihoods; food reserves, social protection and legal frameworks that establish and ensure implementation of the right to food.

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