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Climate change and agriculture: a serious concern

Sea gypsies living in temporary housing, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Sea gypsies living in temporary housing, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Agriculture is not a major user of energy but it is likely to be a major victim of the continuing rapid rise in energy consumption. As climate change, caused by profligate energy consumption, affects seasonal cropping, pest distribution and, most critically perhaps, rainfall and the availability of water for irrigation and livestock, falling food production will be an early and critical consequence. The rise in sea level will also impact on low-level, coastal flood plains, while rise in sea temperature is predicted to disrupt nutrient-rich currents such as the Benguela, the basis of important fisheries off Namibia and elsewhere. As a number of eminent scientists have said repeatedly, climate change is a more serious threat to the world than terrorism, a threat prejudicing the world's capacity to feed itself.

The issue of climate change, and the need to develop renewable energy sources, was the topic for the President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, when he gave the Greenpeace Business Lecture in May at the Royal Society of Arts in London. "Clean fuel or renewable fuel for our planet is something that is not just an option but in a time frame is mandatory, in terms of dislocation of people, water, in terms of changing weather patterns," he said. And, throughout his presentation, he stressed that he personally, and the World Bank, are well aware of the urgency of the need to change industrial, commercial and personal attitudes in order to introduce more sustainable energy options. "We agree that not only is the environment fundamental to development," he said, "but that without dealing with the questions of environment we cannot make anywhere like the progress that is necessary for the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals)."

Restricting energy not an option

Mr Wolfensohn stressed that denying people energy is no option when there are 2.3 billion people, the majority in rural areas, who do not have electricity, and who essentially degrade forests and use biomass for cooking. And, in answer to a question from ITDG, he said that there was little chance of small-scale provision of energy through local solar power, for instance, and that the only answer was to deliver energy, largely from renewable sources, through the national grid. This may be achieved either through the private or public sector, or a mix of the two. However, this demands political awareness and action, not only among donors and low income countries, but also those undergoing rapid industrialisation.

Governments are sensitive to what they perceive as outside interference in national affairs, and this clearly inhibits actions proposed by institutions such as the World Bank. Further, there is the element of corruption that distorts policy planning and implementation. So, despite its undoubted influence, the World Bank appears impotent to change the priorities and perceptions of policy makers and media, whose preoccupations remain the high drama and threats of Al Quaeda, and political and economic self-serving.

Personal choice

The general public also contributes to the developing crisis by, for the most part, remaining unaware or uncaring of the consequences of their individual choices and actions. This was highlighted at the recent conference "Food Miles 2004", organised by the UK organisation for carbon reduction, CRED. Consumers are generally unaware of the food miles involved in the transport and cost of the goods they buy at the supermarkets, particularly with the demand for all-year provision of fruit and vegetables. In 1998 fruit and vegetables made up 13 per cent of airfreight, and for every tonne of food transported by air, delegates were informed that 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced. A carrot exported from South Africa to the UK will have been flown almost 6000 miles and, by 2050, it is estimated that aviation will contribute almost one-fifth of climate change gases.

Richard Howitt, MEP for the UK Eastern Region, publicly signed up to a pledge for CRED to "promote, within the European Parliament and the EC, measures designed to decrease food miles, thus reducing carbon dioxide emission and stimulating local production and local markets." Good news for the climate and, undoubtedly, for UK farmers with a promise of a return to local production. But what are the implications for developing countries keen to enter export markets? Policies to tax aviation fuel, raise landing charges and perhaps even back-track on free trade would surely be seen as yet more barriers to trade, although Mr Howitt stressed that developing countries would have to be supported to develop in environmentally-friendly ways.

Ultimately, people are reluctant to make choices and believe that science will provide solutions. Very few appreciate that once the 'buffering' in natural systems is exceeded, it takes millennia for climatic and marine systems to revert to previously long-established norms. For those involved with and dependent on agriculture, there seems little choice but to develop coping strategies for the uncertain times to come.

Date published: July 2004


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