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The “New Normal”: Food in the 21st Century

By Baskut Tuncak

The global food system is broken.  Worldwide, 925 million are undernourished.  The Asia-Pacific region ranks highest in terms of number of people that are hungry and sub-Saharan Africa leads on a percentage basis.  In Niger, for example, one in two children suffers from malnutrition and one in six dies before the age of five.  In July of 2011, the UN declared Somalia’s food crisis a famine, triggered by the country’s worst drought in 60 years, killing tens of thousands of Somalis from malnutrition-related causes and forcing mass exodus to neighboring Kenya.  Aid agencies estimate that 3.7 million people in Somalia and millions more in neighboring Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya are close to starvation.

Climate change stands to make a bad situation even worse.  Even assuming success in limiting global warming to two degrees, the target that Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have resigned themselves to, changes in precipitation patterns, droughts, extreme weather events, ocean acidification and other effects will drastically change the availability of food in the future.  Moreover, factoring in climate change and adjusting for inflation, the cost of food will increase 120-180 percent for key staples by the year 2030, which will affect the accessibility of food to the poor.

During a debate last week on the role of the UN Security Council in the climate change debate, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said:  “mega-crisis may well become the new normal.”  On the current famine in the horn of Africa, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah, states:  “There’s no question that hotter and drier growing conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced the resiliency of these communities…Absolutely the change in climate has contributed to this problem, without question.”

Depressing and frightening as the reality of these statements may be, potential solutions are available but challenging, requiring collective, global agreement on a course of action.  The International Council for Human Rights Policy (ICHRP), a Geneva-based forum to working to translate human rights principles into policy, published a study by CIEL.  The study, Technology Transfer in the UNFCCC and other legal regimes, explores how isolated areas of law—such as economic, environmental and human rights law—can work to achieve a shared objective through the ‘systemic integration” of a shared principle.

The UNFCCC, human rights instruments, World Trade Organization agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other agreements and institutions all play a role (some more than others) in the international transfer of technologies.  They recognize these technologies are essential to food sovereignty, a concept that embodies both the human right to food and food security.

In late 2010, G20 leaders requested eight international institutions work with key stakeholders “to develop options for G20 consideration on how to better mitigate and manage the risks associated with the price volatility of food and other agriculture commodities, without distorting market behaviour, ultimately to protect the most vulnerable.”  A key recommendation:  that G20 governments end national policies that subsidize or mandate biofuel production or consumption.  Certain biofuels have placed strains on the environment, food production, and local communities, sometimes even resulting in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, the strategy of USAID (page 11) and others for climate-resiliency emphasizes technologies that, like certain biofuels, also carry significant environmental, social and economic costs, such as a new generation of genetically-modified seeds that generally require pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers to realize their advertised “benefits”.  These are all expensive consumables in terms of price and environmental harms.  The Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food’s 2010 Report on Agroecology outlined many of the benefits of Agroecology, a knowledge-intensive form of technology where ecological concepts are applied to the design, development and management of sustainable agricultural systems.  Among several long-term benefits are increased yield and nutritional content, reductions in rural poverty, and—last but not least—adaptation to climate change.

CIEL’s recent study for ICHRP shows how a systemic approach can ensure the right technologies are developed, promoted and adopted in the context of climate change, averting the “new normal” on the horizon for food production in the 21st century.

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