World Food Supply Under Threat from Environmental Factors

The global food supply is facing major security challenges, as warming global average temperatures and the destabilization of climate patterns and natural services undermine dependable agricultural cycles and threaten resources. The food supply is the most direct and visible connection between the breakdown of global climate systems and human health and wellbeing, but not the only link. The possible collapse of a major part of the human food supply means the collapse of agriculture, i.e. the breakdown of the human habitat.

Habitat is something we tend to associate with non-human animal life. Most species are evolved to function in highly specialized habitats, and complications common in neighboring natural environments can pose a direct threat to the fragile natural systems on whose balance a sustainable habitat depends. Human beings, however, like mountain lions, ants and a number of bird species, have shown near universal adaptability in terms of diverse range of climates. But the human habitat is more than temperature and precipitation: it’s sustainable agriculture.

The breakdown of global climate systems means a much less certain probability of being able to intelligently select good arable land, and little likelihood of being able to expect it will remain so. When agriculture breaks down, human civilization itself is under threat. Chronic food scarcity logically provokes mass migration, armed conflict, the scrambling of political borders and political systems, something very different from what we expect of the organized structures of human society.

But long before we need to talk about the total collapse of global human civilization, we can talk very really and very much in the present, about the direct and immediate threat to food supplies on which hundreds of millions depend for sustenance. As the Himalayan glaciers retreat, they first create untimely excessive flooding, then prolonged drought, draining entire river systems and threatening all of southeast Asia with chronic drought.

Rising sea levels then reclaim low-lying land from humanity, putting as much as 20% of Bangladesh’s land-area at risk over the next few decades. The resulting loss of cropland could deprive up to 2 billion people of a sustainable, affordable supply of life-sustaining nutrients. And the lesson of Hurricane Katrina must be taken into account: deny human beings the basic needs to sustain life—like food, water, shelter and basic communal security—and the normal order of society quickly breaks down.

The collapse of specific river systems and the cropland they feed, coupled with the disappearance of some of the most fertile land in Asia under the waves, will cause a mass migration of unprecedented proportions. Demographers and economists speculate the effect could make political borders throughout the region virtually meaningless for an indefinite period of time, as hundreds of millions seek shelter and sustenance.

For most of the last decade, the world stores of surplus grain have been depleted, as demand far outstrips supply, and major grain producers like China have gone from being vital net exporters to significant net importers of grain. The situation has been gravely exacerbated by the global financial crisis and the paralyzation of credit across the world. Writing for Nigeria’s Daily Champion newspaper, Chima Obbuji reports:

Amid global concern over food insecurity situation, which continues to impose serious threat for humanity, the world leaders have designed a summit to stem the tide of the insecurity. With food prices remaining stubbornly high in developing countries, the number of people suffering from hunger has been growing relentlessly in recent years. The global economic crisis is aggravating the situation by affecting jobs and deepening poverty. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that the number of hungry people could increase by more than 100 million in 2009 and will surpass the one billion mark.

With chronic shortages of safe drinking water on the rise, and more than one-third of the world’s population lacking dependable access to safe drinking water, there are concerns the crisis in food security could begin to spiral. If water supplies continue to be depleted, and warming trends continue to rob the world of arable land and reliable annual harvests, the food crisis could become a global economic catastrophe.

The FAO estimates that 923 million people around the world suffered persistent hunger due to extreme poverty during 2007, while a further two billion slip in and out of chronic hunger due to less severe, but persistent poverty. In total, more than half the world’s population could experience some period of food shortage this year. Even in the United States, the most agriculturally productive nation in history, often called “breadbasket to the world”, one in eight are going hungry.

World grain stocks are now at their lowest level in thirty years. The human population now consumes more food than farmers can produce. Sea-borne food like fish are now produced primarily by way of industrial aquaculture, with oceanic fisheries across the world in collapse. Europe has had to mandate a freeze on fishing for certain species in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, in hopes the natural fish stocks can replenish themselves.

The rate of increase in farming productivity by way of hybridization and other growing techniques or chemical treatments has slowed, so the hugely successful “green revolution” of the 1960s, which deployed new strains of rice, wheat and maize, to stave of famine and save hundreds of millions of lives across India, is unlikely to be repeated. Genetic modification may pose dangers to both human health, to the long-term sustainability of specific crop varieties, and to ecosystems verging on the land where GM seeds are planted.

Environmental factors that erode the supply of productive arable land and deplete natural resources like fresh water, fertile soil and specific species of animal life—like bees that pollinate crops—, are making the global food supply less sustainable. That mounting insecurity in the food supply is fast becoming the most immediate and comprehensive challenge facing nations around the world, and so will be instrumental in deciding the approach to climate danger response that will emerge from Copenhagen.

UPDATE—July 2, 2011: Severe famine is mounting in Somalia and other nations in the Horn of Africa region, and the UN may be preparing to declare a famine, to mobilize major shipments of food aid. There is spreading hunger in south Asia, including Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. And there is concern that the democratic revolution in north Africa may be undermined by scarcity of water and arable land.

The Nile is no longer providing enough fresh water for all of the people in all of the nations that depend on it for sustenance. 

UPDATE—July 21, 2011: The United Nations has declared a severe famine in Somalia, and a humanitarian emergency. Somalia has been stricken by war and anarchy since the early 1990s, and much of the country is now controlled by an Islamist militia that has forbidden foreign entities to deliver food aid. It is believed that prohibition is partly responsible for the inability of international agencies, like the World Food Programme, to prevent the ongoing famine. As many as 5 million children may be at risk throughout the region. 

Tens of thousands have already succumbed to starvation, and at least 3 million Somalis are in need to immediate, emergency food aid, to prevent death from extreme malnourishment. As many as 8 million peope across the region are considered to be at risk for severe malnutrition, and there are concerns about the potential for an epidemic, as millions of people with degraded immune systems become refugees and take risks to stay alive. 

UPDATE—July 28, 2011: World grain stocks have not rebounded since the first version of this article was published in late 2009. In fact, while there have been modest increases in production, carryover stocks are still below 100 days of consumption, with a rapidly growing global population and renewed risk of record high food prices, stemming from a 2010 shortfall and expected 40 million ton increase in global grain demand in 2011

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Originally published December 10, 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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