World “woefully unprepared” for climate change’s impacts on food, warns Oxfam

By Ben Grossman-Cohen

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California droughts sign of food system vulnerability

Climate change could put the fight against hunger back by decades, but our global food system is woefully unprepared to cope with the challenge, said Oxfam today. The warning comes as governments gather in Japan to release a major new scientific report, which is expected to show that the impacts of climate change on food will be far more serious and will hit much sooner than previously thought.

Oxfam’s briefing paper, Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change from derailing the fight against hunger analyzes 10 key factors that will have an increasingly important influence on countries’ ability to feed their people in a warming world. Across all 10 areas, Oxfam found serious gaps between what governments are doing and what they need to do to protect our food systems. The results also show that while many countries – both rich and poor – are unprepared for the impact of climate change on food security, it is the world’s poorest and most food insecure among them who are least prepared and most at risk.

“California’s searing drought should show us that unless we change course, no country or company is immune to the havoc climate change will pose on what we eat,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America. “Hunger is not inevitable. If companies and governments get serious about slashing carbon pollution and preparing for rising temperatures, we can overcome this challenge.”

The 10 gaps, “failing” policy areas that will undermine the world’s ability to feed itself in a warming world, are:

1. International adaptation finance (score: <1/10): Rich countries promised to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate but have only provided around 2 percent of the money poor countries need.

2. Crop insurance (score < 1/10): Just 1 percent or less of farmers in poor countries such as Malawi have crop insurance compared to 91 percent of farmers in the US – making it harder for them to survive when climate shocks destroy their harvests

3. Crop irrigation (score: < 1/10): In California irrigation covers over 80 percent of arable land. In Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, where farmers are confronting cyclical droughts, irrigation covers less than one percent of arable land.

4. Agricultural research and development (score: 2/10): Global seed diversity has declined by 75 percent in the last 100 years, depriving farmers of crop varieties better suited to changing weather patterns. Poor countries spend a sixth of the amount that rich countries spend on agricultural R&D.

5. Social protection/Safety nets (score: 3/10): Just 20 percent of people across the globe have access to adequate safety nets, such as free school meals or cash transfers, when food is unavailable or too expensive.

6. Weather forecasting (score: 3/10): Information from weather stations helps farmers avoid crop failure. In California, there is one station every 2,000 square km. In Chad there is only one station every 80,000 square km – roughly the size of Austria.

7. Gender discrimination (score: 5/10): Women make up 43 percent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries but discrimination makes it hard for them to adapt. For example, women rarely own the land they farm so it's hard to change their farming methods to deal with a changing climate.

8. Food stocks (score 5/10): World grain reserves are at historically low levels. If extreme or erratic weather wipes out harvests in key producing countries, food prices could skyrocket, triggering major food crises.

9. Agricultural investment (score: 7/10): Only four of the 20 African countries Oxfam looked at have delivered on their commitment to spend 10 percent of their national budget on agriculture.

10. Humanitarian aid (score: 6/10): Climate change could mean more food crises but humanitarian aid is already failing to keep pace with demand - the difference between the amount of aid which is needed and the amount provided has tripled since 2001.

Oxfam’s analysis also highlights that a number of countries such as Ghana, Vietnam, and Malawi are bucking the trend by taking action in areas such as safety nets, crop irrigation, and agricultural investment. This is helping them to outstrip countries such as Nigeria, Laos, and Niger on food security, despite sharing similar levels of income and climate risk. 

“Building our preparedness for climate extremes need not break the bank,” said Offenheiser.  “The total adaptation needs of poor countries are estimated to be approximately $100 billion per year - equivalent to just five percent of the wealth of the world’s richest 100 people.”

Already this year, the worst drought in a decade has ruined crops in Brazil’s south-eastern breadbasket, including the valuable coffee harvest.  In California the worst drought in over 100 years is contributing to rising food prices, decimating crops across the state, which produces almost half of all the vegetables, fruits and nuts grown in the US. 

Without urgent action to cut dangerous carbon pollution, the impacts will become more serious. It is estimated there could be 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five in 2050 compared to a world without climate change – that’s the equivalent of every child under five in the US and Canada combined.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation, due to be published on 31 March, is expected to warn that climate change will lead to declines in global agricultural yields of up to 2 percent each decade at the same time as demand for food increases by 14 percent per decade.  It is also expected to warn of higher and more volatile food prices - Oxfam estimates world grain prices could double by 2030, with half of this rise driven by climate change.  While temperature rises of just 1.5 degrees Celsius will have serious impacts on our food system the IPCC is also expected to highlight a global temperature threshold of 3 – 4 degrees Celsius beyond which we will experience runaway global food crises - we are on track to reach this threshold in the second half of this century.

Oxfam is calling on governments and business to act now to stop climate change from making people hungry by building communities’ resilience to hunger and climate change, slashing dangerous carbon pollution and securing international agreements to tackle climate and hunger.  Individuals can join the global campaign to stop climate hunger at www.oxfamamerica.org/grow

Notes to editor

Oxfam’s media briefing ‘Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger’ can be downloaded from: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/hot-and-hungry-how-to-stop-climate-change-derailing-the-fight-against-hunger/

The full data set on which Oxfam based its scores for the 10 gaps can be downloaded from: http://oxf.am/iwb