[Marxism] Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 8 07:45:41 MDT 2019

NY Times, Aug. 8, 2019
Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns
By Christopher Flavelle

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The world’s land and water resources are being exploited at 
“unprecedented rates,” a new United Nations report warns, which combined 
with climate change is putting dire pressure on the ability of humanity 
to feed itself.

The report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and 
released in summary form in Geneva on Thursday, found that the window to 
address the threat is closing rapidly. A half-billion people already 
live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost between 10 
and 100 times faster than it is forming, according to the report.

Climate change will make those threats even worse, as floods, drought, 
storms and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over 
time shrink, the global food supply. Already, more than 10 percent of 
the world’s population remains undernourished, and some authors of the 
report warned in interviews that food shortages could lead to an 
increase in cross-border migration.

A particular danger is that food crises could develop on several 
continents at once, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist 
at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead 
authors of the report. “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure 
is increasing,” she said. “All of these things are happening at the same 

The report also offered a measure of hope, laying out pathways to 
addressing the looming food crisis, though they would require a major 
re-evaluation of land use and agriculture worldwide as well as consumer 
behavior. Proposals include increasing the productivity of land, wasting 
less food and persuading more people to shift their diets away from 
cattle and other types of meat.

“One of the important findings of our work is that there are a lot of 
actions that we can take now. They’re available to us,” Dr. Rosenzweig 
said. “But what some of these solutions do require is attention, 
financial support, enabling environments.”

The summary was released Thursday by the Intergovernmental Panel on 
Climate Change, an international group of scientists convened by the 
United Nations that pulls together a wide range of existing research to 
help governments understand climate change and make policy decisions. 
The I.P.C.C. is writing a series of climate reports, including one last 
year on the disastrous consequences if the planet’s temperature rises 
just 1.5 degrees Celsius above its preindustrial levels, as well as an 
upcoming report on the state of the world’s oceans.

Some authors also suggested that food shortages are likely to affect 
poorer parts of the world far more than richer ones. That could increase 
a flow of immigration that is already redefining politics in North 
America, Europe and other parts of the world.

“People’s lives will be affected by a massive pressure for migration,” 
said Pete Smith, a professor of plant and soil science at the University 
of Aberdeen and one of the report’s lead authors. “People don’t stay and 
die where they are. People migrate.”

Between 2010 and 2015 the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala 
and Honduras showing up at the United States’ border with Mexico 
increased fivefold, coinciding with a dry period that left many with not 
enough food and was so unusual that scientists suggested it bears the 
signal of climate change.

Barring action on a sweeping scale, the report said, climate change will 
accelerate the danger of severe food shortages. As a warming atmosphere 
intensifies the world’s droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires and 
other weather patterns, it is speeding up the rate of soil loss and land 
degradation, the report concludes.

Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a greenhouse 
gas put there mainly by the burning of fossil fuels — will also reduce 
food’s nutritional quality, even as rising temperatures cut crop yields 
and harm livestock.

Those changes threaten to exceed the ability of the agriculture industry 
to adapt.

In some cases, the report says, a changing climate is boosting food 
production because, for example, warmer temperatures will mean greater 
yields of some crops at higher latitudes. But on the whole, the report 
finds that climate change is already hurting the availability of food 
because of decreased yields and lost land from erosion, desertification 
and rising seas, among other things.

Overall if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, so will food 
costs, according to the report, affecting people around the world.

“You’re sort of reaching a breaking point with land itself and its 
ability to grow food and sustain us,” said Aditi Sen, a senior policy 
adviser on climate change at Oxfam America, an antipoverty advocacy 

In addition, the researchers said, even as climate change makes 
agriculture more difficult, agriculture itself is also exacerbating 
climate change.

The report said that activities such as draining wetlands — as has 
happened in Indonesia and Malaysia to create palm oil plantations, for 
example — is particularly damaging. When drained, peatlands, which store 
between 530 and 694 billion tons of carbon dioxide globally, release 
that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a major 
greenhouse gas, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the planet. Every 
2.5 acres of peatlands release the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning 
6,000 gallons of gasoline.

And the emissions of carbon dioxide continues long after the peatlands 
are drained. Of the five gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions that are 
released each year from deforestation and other land-use changes, “One 
gigaton comes from the ongoing degradation of peatlands that are already 
drained,” said Tim Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources 
Institute, an environmental think tank, who is familiar with the report. 
(By comparison, the fossil fuel industry emitted about 37 gigatons of 
carbon dioxide last year, according to the institute.)

Similarly, cattle are significant producers of methane, another powerful 
greenhouse gas, and an increase in global demand for beef and other 
meats has fueled their numbers and increased deforestation in critical 
forest systems like the Amazon.

Since 1961 methane emissions from ruminant livestock, which include cows 
as well as sheep, buffalo and goats, have significantly increased, 
according to the report. And each year, the amount of forested land that 
is cleared — much of that propelled by demand for pasture land for 
cattle — releases the emissions equivalent of driving 600 million cars.

Overall, the report says there is still time to address the threats by 
making the food system more efficient. The authors urge changes in how 
food is produced and distributed, including better soil management, crop 
diversification and fewer restrictions on trade. They also call for 
shifts in consumer behavior, noting that at least one-quarter of all 
food worldwide is wasted.

But protecting the food supply and cutting greenhouse emissions can also 
come into conflict with each other, forcing hard choices.

For instance, the widespread use of strategies such as bioenergy — like 
growing corn to produce ethanol — could lead to the creation of new 
deserts or other land degradation, the authors said. The same is true 
for planting large numbers of trees (something often cited as a powerful 
strategy to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere), which can push 
crops and livestock onto less productive land.

Planting as many trees as possible would reduce the amount of greenhouse 
gases in the atmosphere by about nine gigatons each year, according to 
Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University and 
one of the report’s lead authors. But it would also increase food prices 
as much as 80 percent by 2050.

“We cannot plant trees to get ourselves out of the problem that we’re 
in,” Dr. McElwee said. “The trade-offs that would keep us below 1.5 
degrees, we’re not talking about them. We’re not ready to confront them 

Preventing global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius 
is likely to require both the widespread planting of trees as well as 
“substantial” bioenergy to help reduce the use of fossil fuels, the 
report finds. And if temperatures increase more than that, the pressure 
on food production will increase as well, creating a vicious circle.

“Above 2 degrees of global warming there could be an increase of 100 
million or more of the population at risk of hunger,” Edouard Davin, a 
researcher at ETH Zurich and an author of the report, said by email. “We 
need to act quickly.”

The report also calls for institutional changes, including better access 
to credit for farmers in developing countries and stronger property 
rights. And for the first time, the I.P.C.C. cited indigenous people and 
their knowledge of land stewardship as resources to be tapped. 
“Agricultural practices that include indigenous and local knowledge can 
contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change, food 
security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and 
land degradation,” the report’s authors wrote.

It comes at a time when indigenous people are currently under threat. 
According to a report released this year by the nonprofit organization 
Global Witness, which looks at the links between conflicts and 
environmental resources, an average of three people were killed per week 
defending their land in 2018, with more than half of them killed in 
Latin America.

Overall, the report said that the longer policymakers wait, the harder 
it will be to prevent a global crisis. “Acting now may avert or reduce 
risks and losses, and generate benefits to society,” the authors wrote. 
Waiting to cut emissions, on the other hand, risks “irreversible loss in 
land ecosystem functions and services required for food, health, 
habitable settlements and production.”

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