The sustainable production challenge (3)

“... nowadays when it comes to the rains sometimes you get too much and it destroys the crops. Somtimes you don't get any at all and the crops just wilt. If that happens, you don't have any food the next year. About the rains, I don't know what we can do. ”
Killa Kawalema
farmer, Malawi

Climate changing

Climate change poses a grave threat to food production. First, it will apply a further brake on yield growth. Estimates suggest that rice yields may decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise in dry-growing-season minimum temperatures.43 Modelling has found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa could experience catastrophic declines in yield of 20–30 per cent by 2080, rising as high as 50 per cent in Sudan and Senegal.44

Second, it will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke. Meanwhile, creeping, insidious changes in the seasons, such as longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns are bewildering poor farmers, making it harder and harder for them to know when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest their crops.45

For people without the incomes, savings, access to healthcare or social insurance enjoyed in industrialized countries, shocks from climatic disasters or shifting seasons often force them to go without food, sell off assets critical to their livelihoods, or take their children out of school. Short-term coping strategies can have long-term consequences, causing a downward spiral of deeper poverty and greater vulnerability.

Despite the scale and urgency of the challenge, governments have failed to take adequate action to reduce emissions, collectively or individually. Instead they have listened to their industrial lobbies – the small number of companies that stand to lose from a transition towards a sustainable future from which the rest of us would gain (see Box 2).

Box 2: Dirty industry and grubby lobbying

Lobbying from dirty industries has kept Europe locked into low ambition on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, marginalizing its influence in negotiations and preventing a transition to a low-carbon economy. Others, meanwhile, race past – most notably China, now the world’s biggest sovereign investor in renewables.46 Some of the most intense lobbying comes from steel, oil and gas, chemicals, and paper companies and the associations that speak on their behalf,47 as well as from wider cross-sectoral umbrella groups, most depressingly of all BusinessEurope – the general European employers’ association – to which most major companies that profess deep concern about climate change belong. These faceless associations have low public profiles, allowing supposedly ‘responsible’ companies to keep their hands clean.

Companies not only lobby against greater climate ambition, they also lobby to capture regulation for themselves. For example, ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest privately owned steel company, has lobbied to secure free allowances under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The company has profited nicely from its lobbying, ending up with allowances to spare – potentially allowing it to increase its emissions in the future. All these surplus allowances depress the carbon price and remove the incentives for investment in clean technologies that the carbon market was designed to provide. By 2012 ArcelorMittal could potentially make over €1bn from these free handouts,48 turning on its head the principle at the heart of the ETS – that the polluter pays.

Climate change not only threatens agriculture, the way we now farm also threatens the climate. While not the only contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, nor even the greatest, agriculture accounts for a significant share of the damage: somewhere between 17 and 32 per cent of all human-induced greenhouse gases.49 Key drivers are emissions from fertilizer use and from cattle.50 Alarmingly, both are set to increase significantly.51

The biggest contributor by far to agricultural emissions, however, is land-use change;52 converting wilderness to agriculture can release large amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly in the case of forests and wetlands. (See Box 3)

Box 3: Palm oil – eating the world’s forests

The oil palm is a remarkable crop. It is high-yielding and fast-growing. Its oil provides a versatile ingredient used throughout the world, though few of us realize it. Palm oil can be found in chocolate, bakery products, sauces, chips, margarine, cream cheese, sweets, and ready meals. It is produced mainly by major plantation companies in Malaysia and Indonesia, and bought in vast quantities by food manufacturers such as Unilever, Kraft, and Nestlé.

Our hunger for palm oil appears insatiable. Demand is expected to double from 2010 to 2025.53 This holds terrifying implications for the rainforests of Indonesia, where every minute plantations eat one more hectare further into one of the planet’s most carbon-rich major ecosystems.54

About 80 per cent of palm oil ends up in food,55 but a growing amount is used for biodiesel. Regulations in the EU, USA and Canada that require minimum biofuels content in gasoline and diesel are further driving deforestation either directly or because palm oil is replacing other edible oils diverted for biodiesel use. Oxfam estimates that even if the EU excludes all biodiesel produced from deforested land, its mandate could raise emissions from deforestation by up to 4.6bn tonnes of CO2 – nearly 70 times the annual CO2 saving the EU expects to make by reaching its target to derive 10 per cent of its transport energy from biofuels by 2020.56