Saturday, March 9, 2013

Climate Change, Food Security, and Revolution

Lester R. Brown was written a troubling account of the future we face as we enter an era when our food requirements are beginning to outstrip our capacity to produce food: Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute.

Brown begins his book with this statement:

"On the demand side of the food equation, population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of food into fuel for cars are combining to raise consumption by record amounts. On the supply side, extreme soil erosion, growing water shortages, and the earth’s rising temperature are making it more difficult to expand production. Unless we can reverse such trends, food prices will continue to rise and hunger will continue to spread, eventually bringing down our social system."

The emphasis is mine. Brown suggests that the sequence of revolutions in the Middle East that we refer to as The Arab Spring were partially fueled by high food prices. Could it be that Brown’s prediction has already seen its first instantiation in the Middle East? Could this be the first in a sequence of social upheavals caused by climate change and failures of countries to provide food security for their populations?

A collection of essays assembled by Caitlin E. Werrell, Francesco Femia, and Anne-Marie Slaughter provide a more explicit connection between food supply issues and the political events: The Arab Spring and Climate Change. Thomas L. Friedman provides a tidy summary of the report in his column in the New York Times.

"Jointly produced by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security, this collection of essays opens with the Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg, who demonstrates how in 2010-11, in tandem with the Arab awakenings, ‘a once-in-a-century winter drought in China’ — combined, at the same time, with record-breaking heat waves or floods in other key wheat-growing countries (Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia) — ‘contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices’ in wheat-importing states, most of which are in the Arab world."

"The numbers tell the story: "Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food," notes Sternberg. ‘The doubling of global wheat prices — from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 — thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.’ Global food prices peaked at an all-time high in March 2011, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt."

While neither source indicates food price was the prime driver for social upheaval, it certainly helped feed the unrest. Unless the food supply issue can be resolved it is also likely to contribute to continued unrest as the newly formed governments struggle to attain stability.

The entire Middle East region seems to be beset by problems associated with climate and food supplies.

"Consider this: The world’s top nine wheat-importers are in the Middle East: ‘Seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011,’ said Sternberg. ‘Households in the countries that experience political unrest spend, on average, more than 35 percent of their income on food supplies,’ compared with less than 10 percent in developed countries."

Brown’s book provides more insight into the problems that have developed throughout this region. He describes a situation where ever-growing populations have been confronted with climate change, overuse of water supplies, and increased soil erosion.

Brown lists eighteen countries that were drawing down their water aquifers more quickly that they could be refreshed in 2012. The list includes the United States, China, and India. More pertinent to this discussion, the list also includes Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

The entire region is arid and most crops must be produced using irrigation. In many countries, the only sources of water for irrigation are underground aquifers that are essentially trapped water supplies (fossilized) that do not get replenished.

"...after more than 20 years of wheat self-sufficiency, the Saudis announced in January 2008 that their aquifers were largely depleted and they would be phasing out wheat production. Between 2007 and 2011, the wheat harvest of just under 3 million tons dropped by nearly half. At this rate the Saudis likely will harvest their last wheat crop by 2016, as planned, and will then be totally dependent on imported grain to feed nearly 30 million people."

Brown relates how the grain market is becoming an unreliable source for highly-dependent countries. Traditional grain producers have nearly topped out their production capabilities, and they are also subject to changing weather conditions, including drought and rising temperatures. Brown quotes studies that indicate crop productivity is strongly temperature dependent, with each degree centigrade of temperature rise causing between 10% and 18% lower crop yields.

Rich countries such as Saudi Arabia are buying up or leasing land in Africa in hopes of being able to utilize the one remaining significant source of underutilized land to feed their own people.

Some countries have few options.

"Yemen, where population growth is spiraling out of control, is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. With water tables falling, the grain harvest has shrunk by one half over the last 40 years, while demand has continued its steady rise. As a result, the Yemenis now import more than 80 percent of their grain. With its meager oil exports falling, with no industry to speak of, and with nearly 60 percent of its children physically stunted and chronically undernourished, this poorest of the Middle East Arab countries is facing a bleak and turbulent future."

Surface water is also becoming scarcer and causing serious problems.

"Iraq, suffering from nearly a decade of war and recent drought and chronic overgrazing and overplowing, is now losing irrigation water to its upstream riparian neighbor—Turkey. The reduced river flow—combined with the deterioration of irrigation infrastructure, the depletion of aquifers, the shrinking irrigated area, and the drying up of marshlands—is drying out Iraq. The Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization, may be turning into a dust bowl."

Improper use of the land leads to soil erosion, a growing problem in some areas.

"Dust storms are forming with increasing frequency in western Syria and northern Iraq. In July 2009 a dust storm raged for several days in what was described as the worst such storm in Iraq’s history. As it traveled eastward into Iran, the authorities in Tehran closed government offices, private offices, schools, and factories. Although this new dust bowl is small compared with those centered in northwest China and across central Africa, it is nonetheless an unsettling new development in this region."

Iran has its own soil problems caused by overgrazing.

"Mohammad Jarian, who heads Iran’s Anti-Desertification Organization, reported in 2002 that sandstorms had buried 124 villages in the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, forcing their abandonment. Drifting sands had covered grazing areas, starving livestock and depriving villagers of their livelihoods."

It would seem that the peoples of the Middle East have more to contend with than just poor leaders and weak or tyrannical governments. Their political troubles may, one day soon, be the least of their problems.

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