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Rising food prices may be climate call to action, author says

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 16 Feb 2011 11:33 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) – Moves to address climate change are slowly gathering speed around the world. But one looming problem may be about to focus new attention on the urgency of dealing with climate impacts: rising food prices.

Over the past year, erratic weather – particularly soaring temperatures in Russia and crop-flattening flooding in Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka and Brazil – have combined with rising demand to push up food prices around the world. China in January saw its inflation rate hit a worrisome 5 percent, largely on the basis of rising food costs. Food price hikes have contributed to government-toppling protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and helped spark unrest from Bolivia to Jordan.

With cash-rich China likely to enter world wheat and other grain markets as a major buyer for the first time in 2011, and with world grain stocks already at low levels, food prices are poised to surge, leading to hikes in the number of the world’s hungry, greater poverty, huge new demand on food aid organizations, growing unrest and potentially even an increase in failed states , predicts Lester Brown, head of the Washington-based non-profit Earth Policy Institute, in a new book.

“I think food is the weak link. The economic indicator that will tell us more about our future than anything else is grain prices,” argues Brown, a widely respected U.S. sustainable development pioneer and the author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

If researchers, policy makers and advocacy groups can effectively show how more erratic weather is leading to less predictable harvests, “food prices could become the selling point for action on the climate front,” Brown believes. “People might not understand atmospheric CO2 levels rising, but they understand when food prices go up 5 percent or 20 percent.”

Americans may be in for a particular wakeup call, he said, as China – which holds a hefty share of the United States’ large debt burden – begins buying a growing share of U.S. grain production.

“It’s a nightmare for American consumers, the prospect of a billion Chinese with rapidly rising incomes competing with us for our grain harvest,” he said in a telephone interview. “And we can’t restrict exports to China because they are our banker.

“That threat could be a wake-up call for this country and could completely change the way we think about things,” he said.


Brown’s book argues that the world, as a result of climate pressures, growing population and rising demand for resources, may be on a path to the kind of environmental collapse that ended the Mayan and Sumerian civilizations, felled in large part by salinity-tainted soils and deforestation, respectively. The difference is that this crisis is worldwide, he says.

Around the globe, water tables are falling, hikes in crop production are approaching their limits, demand for resources – from timber to fish to food– is rapidly outstripping supply and climate pressures threaten to make most of the problems worse.

That could leave many countries “with potentially unmanageable stresses,” he said, and may force a redefinition of what constitutes “security” in the 21st Century.

“The threats now are climate volatility, spreading water shortages, continuing population growth, spreading hunger and failing states,” he writes.

How can the problems – which will hit the world’s poorest first and hardest – be headed off?


A first step, Brown argues, is to put a tax on fossil fuel use that reflects the full costs of relying on that energy source, including climate change.  Hikes in the cost of coal and oil – admittedly hugely politically challenging to implement – would drive investment in solar, wind, geothermal and other sources of renewable energy.

“The fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that evolved in western industrial societies is no longer a viable model – not for the countries that shaped it or for those that are emulating them,” he writes.

The world also needs what Brown terms the “sandwich model of social change,” which involves a combination of mounting grassroots pressure for change and committed national leadership.

As an example of the kind of change possible in a short time, he points to the American move to a war footing in the aftermath of the World War II bombing of Pearl Harbor. Almost overnight, new car sales were banned, residential and highway construction was halted and people began recycling, planting victory gardens and coping with fuel and food rationing. Over three years, the country saw its biggest expansion of industrial production in history, aimed at building weapons for war.

The point, he says, is that dramatic restructuring of economies is possible in a very short time, with the right incentives and commitment.

That level of commitment to act on climate and environmental pressures clearly has not yet been reached. But there are signs of progress, he says. The UK and Germany have put stiff taxes on air travel, particularly long fuel-guzzling trips. The United States has stopped approving construction of coal-fired power plants, and has seen coal use drop 8 percent over the last three years. China is building huge wind farm complexes, with capacity that will be equivalent to the addition of a new coal plant every week for the next two and a half years.

“We have a lot of things happening,” he said. “The real question is, ‘Are we moving fast enough?’”


So far, the answer is no, he said. He believes U.N.-backed climate negotiations, aimed at reaching a global treaty on curbing climate change, probably will not work.

“My own sense is that internationally negotiated climate agreements have become obsolete and we haven’t realized it,” he said. “It takes time to negotiate and ratify them and before we know it the game will be over.”

The other problem, he said, is that negotiators are largely diplomats and lawyers, whose goal “is to make sure you don’t commit to do more than anyone else has done.”

“What was the last time you saw a big group of diplomats and lawyers come up with a new bold approach to anything?” he asked. “My sense is we’re going to have to win this in one way or another without international agreements.”

 It is progress outside the negotiating rooms that most encourages him, he says, from Californians voting in November to continue ambitious carbon cutting goals, even in the face of a persistent U.S. economic downturn, to Russia’s president undergoing “something akin to a deathbed conversion” on climate change after a devastating heat wave and fires struck Russia last summer.

“What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wakeup call to all of us,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in July, announcing he was abandoning his scepticism about climate change and his opposition to carbon cutting efforts.



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