Tag Archives: drought

Food Security: With Sustenance Comes Peace

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia jointly rank 1st on Maplecroft's food security index, indicating "extreme risk." Image credit: maplecroft.com

The symbiotic relationship between between food scarcity and armed conflict is perhaps not a new one, but the latest food security index released by Maplecroft demonstrates the extent of this tragic correlation. The most critical regions of the world, including the Horn of Africa and the remainder of the Sub-Sahara, have been subjected to some of the worst drought conditions in decades, exacerbated by largely stagnant economies. Yet even regions of the world with rapidly growing economies, such as those of the Indian Subcontinent, remain extremely vulnerable to effects of food scarcity. Lest we forget, almost half of India’s children are malnourished, and one in four of the world’s hungry live there. But with international food aid disbursement at its highest, are there any indications of progress in eliminating world hunger? Will tumultuous politics and economics always preclude the availability of sustenance?

Historically, the answer to that question is an unfortunate and resounding yes, but millions of revolutionaries throughout North Africa and the Middle East began writing a new history for themselves earlier this year. The sweeping demonstrations, known as the Arab Spring, have been attributed to poverty, unemployment, and social injustice, but a recent study links the revolutions to a single metric: global food prices. Indeed, the connection may be so strong that the researchers suggest a specific price threshold can be established for any given society to indicate when social unrest becomes likely:

More specifically, food riots occur above a threshold of the FAO price index of 210 (p < 10−7, binomial test). The observations also suggest that the events in North Africa and the Middle East were triggered by food prices. Considering the period of time from January 1990 to May 2011 […], the probability that the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East occurred by chance at a period of high food prices is p < 0.06 (one sample binomial test).

Moreover, the study endeavors to explain why an increasingly globalized food market has proved damaging, rather than beneficial, to regional food security:

Today, many poor countries rely on the global food supply system and are thus sensitive to global food prices. This condition is quite different from the historical prevalence of subsistence farming in undeveloped countries, or even a reliance on local food supplies that could provide a buffer against global food supply conditions. It is an example of the increasingly central role that global interdependence is playing in human survival and well-being.

One would hope that the political reforms enacted throughout North Africa and the Middle East will include efforts to invest in a more robust local agriculture, lessening dependence on the global food markets. However, some degree of integration with world markets is essential to ensuring food security, mitigating the effects of regional agricultural crises, such as the 2011 East Africa drought. It is estimated that more than 13.3 million are in immediate need of food assistance in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, alone. These countries, like others in and around the Horn of Africa, have economies largely dependent on the success of local agriculture; when the farms fail to produce, both food and capital become scarce. While over $1.12 billion in relief aid has been pledged through the UN, one wonders if there is a concentrated effort to resolve the imbalance of agricultural dependence at the heart of such crises.

At least one organization, the Somalia Agricultural Technical Group, is working to develop a more vigorous and diversified agriculture throughout the region, perhaps more resistant to the effects of extreme weather patterns. Their first large-scale initiative has been the introduction of the Filsan Mungbean, a non-GMO variety of bean characterized by higher yield potential and early maturity. Critically, however, the organization suggests that no single crop will provide for the agricultural renaissance desperately needed in the region. Greater coordination between the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN and NGOs such as SATG is essential to the discovery and dissemination of sound agricultural practices for farmers throughout East Africa, ultimately resulting in a more robust local food supply upon which its people can depend.

While attaining a perfect balance between regional and global food supply dependence may prove extraordinarily difficult, it is essential to improving the state of food security throughout the word. Food is, after all, our most basic level of sustenance, and we owe it to ourselves to ensure its equitable availability. It may require a significant investment of logistical and intellectual capital, but one can scarcely imagine a more vital cause.

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Towards a New Climate: Lowering the Skeptic Index

Drought conditions near Lamesa, TX. Photo credit: myweathertech.com

At the height of one of the most severe Texas droughts on record, Yale Environment 360 sought the local perspective and expertise of Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, in an attempt to better understand how present weather conditions fit into the larger mosaic of climate change. In the resulting interview, Hayhoe affirms the crucial point that climate is defined as the average weather over 30 years or more, while suggesting that our qualitative assessment of present conditions is not to be discounted. We may, after all, be experiencing what is to become “the new normal” for summers in Texas, assuming global warming trends continue unabated. But to what extent can these record-breaking temperatures be utilized responsibly for raising climate change awareness? Is it an opportunity to educate a newly inquisitive, and perhaps more receptive, population?

Living in the heart of the traditionally conservative Southern United States, Professor Hayhoe is acutely familiar with these questions.  She estimates that at least 65% of the evangelical community are skeptical to claims of anthropogenic climate change, compared to just 27% of the public at large. This is not to suggest, however, that faith-based communities do not have questions about what is happening to their environment. To address these questions, Hayhoe coauthored a book called A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, in which she argues for environmental stewardship. Since publication, she has been invited to speak at a number of Christian colleges, churches, and other faith-based organizations, from which she optimistically reports:

Being with people like that makes me feel there’s a lot more going on at the grassroots level than we realize, with churches and congregations retrofitting their buildings to become more energy-efficient, people really taking the stewardship message to heart, that we have this planet that we need to care for. And also just identifying things we have in common. We all want a better world for our children, we all think it’s good to conserve our natural resources and not be wasteful, we all want to be able to invest in our economy and not be held hostage to foreign oil. I think that is the way to move forward on this issue.

By identifying the innumerable shared values of the scientific and religious communities, she is able to present an apolitical case for sustainability. But while significant progress has been made on some fronts, the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarized in the United States, as demonstrated by the recent Republican presidential debates. All but one of the major contenders for the GOP presidential nomination publicly deny anthropogenic climate change and oppose all measures by the EPA to reduce carbon emissions. Texas’ own Rick Perry recently voiced the degree of his own skepticism while campaigning in August:

I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed. But I do not buy into, that a group of scientists, who in some cases were found to be manipulating this data.

Perry is almost certainly referring to the Climatic Research Unit leaked email controversy that engulfed the media in November of 2009, mere weeks before the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The purported emails mentioned the use of “tricks” for the purpose of “hiding” undesirable data points, which were said to have been taken out of context. At least six independent investigative committees ultimately cleared the researchers of any scientific misconduct, and their work was reaffirmed as credible and consistent with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Nonetheless, climate skeptics continued to cling to the leaked emails as incontrovertible proof of a widespread scientific conspiracy. Why?

At least one report, commissioned by Sir Muir Russell, criticized the researchers on the grounds that “there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of [Climatic Research Unit] scientists and on the part of the [University of East Anglia].” Perhaps more so than the horrifying politicization of science, it is a lack of transparency and dialogue that impedes the progress of raising awareness for climate change.  Too few scientists are willing to reach out to people precisely where they are, to patiently answer questions, and to find common ground.

Scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, fortunately, are working to do precisely that.