Guest Article #10

Food Insecurity and Climate Change: Uncertain Times and Tough Choices

Throughout the world, poor people are becoming poorer as a result of failing food systems and changing climates. For many more, the buffer provided by regular employment and a steady income is being eroded by the worst economic recession since the great depression. As millions more become poor, they are vulnerable to volatility of food prices and of the cost of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs needed to grow food.

We should not be misled by the recent fall in global commodity prices. The structural causes of hunger in developing countries are still there and will be dramatically aggravated by the current economic downturn: about one billion people are unable to produce or afford enough food and this number will increase if nothing is done.

Governments and the international community are responding by feeding the hungry while seeking longer-term solutions to increase the resilience of farmers and their capacity to grow more food. At the same time there is a growing call for better functioning social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable.

Shocks are buffeting poor households at an ever-increasing rate: the UN system responds in ways that reflect the learning of lessons from the past.

The first lesson is that increasing hunger is a political liability. It caused food riots in 2008 and will contribute to discontent and frustration as long as it persists. As a greater number of people become uncertain about their access to food in the face of climate change, they will increasingly expect to be protected by their government, and will express frustration if they perceive that their interests are not looked after.

The second lesson is that a comprehensive response is essential. The UN system's High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF) – set up in May 2008 - has brought together international agencies concerned with humanitarian action, development and trade. The Task Force's challenge is to prioritize investment in food systems that support smallholder production and markets, and back them with world trading systems that respond to the interests of poor people. Specialists in food security, agriculture, trade and international law, development and emergency relief from HLTF member organizations worked together to elaborate a Comprehensive Framework for Action: this is the basis for the UN system's collective engagement with countries and helps combine responses to both immediate and long-term needs.

The third lesson is that the response must be generated from within communities and – ideally – be led by them. This means investing in the empowerment of communities affected by uncertainty and at risk of food insecurity. It implies providing support to local, regional and central governments and facilitating their links with community organizations and the private sector. The response should tie urgent life-saving needs with long-term solutions that address structural causes of food insecurity.

The fourth lesson is that multi-stakeholder partnerships are a vital platform for resilience, confidence and empowerment. Most food in developing countries is produced by poor farmers. Because of uncertainty in energy markets, and lack of clarity as to when global economic growth will resume, these farmers cannot be confident year-on-year about the costs of their inputs in the next growing season or the price of their harvest. Smallholders are the engine for recovery during the recession and now need to be linked effectively to sources of finance, technology and to markets. The goal is to increase their resilience and productivity, especially at a time when remittances to developing countries are being reduced.

The fifth lesson relates to the interconnectedness of the major global challenges. Climate change will impact food price volatility. Increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather and climate-driven water scarcity have already affected food prices. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming may cause agricultural production to decline by 25% by 2080, increasing the number of malnourished people by another 200 million. In addition, climate change's impact on production is expected to be negative in lower latitudes - where most developing countries are located and liable to be hit hard by rising seas. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture will also affect food production and prices. It is clear that the era of low and stable food prices is over.

Responses to people's concerns about food security, public health, climate change or impending disasters help them prepare for a future in which the only certainty is that poor people will be the most affected by such threats. Working closely with different stakeholders, the international system – represented by the HLTF- serves as a facilitator for action and a platform for a global movement against hunger that focuses on poverty reduction through investments in smallholder agriculture. The world has sought to make hunger history before, and failed. This time vulnerable people must be heard and their needs prioritized before our inability to help them is reflected as statistical evidence of collective failure and opportunities foregone.