Dealing with the consequences of climate chance inaction: the impact of food

In a previous article History Future Now admitted defeat: climate change is happening and there is no viable political solution which will enable us to stop it from getting worse.  Global average temperatures will rise beyond the 2 degrees that politicians have determined is the absolute maximum that it should be allowed to increase by.   We need to stop worrying about how to prevent it from getting worse and start concentrating on what governments need to do manage this new reality.

In this article we will look at the impact of global and local food shortages, exasperated by climate change, and how governments should respond.  Since History Future Now lives in the UK, the article will have a UK focused slant.

First, lets start with a basic understanding of the food situation we are in today and what we can expect over the next 25 years.  The world’s population is now over 7.3 billion.  It will be 10 billion in another two to three decades.  In the meantime, our primary food production areas are in trouble.  One third of global agriculture is irrigated using underground aquifer water, which is finite and will run out in 25 years.  Soil quality is declining as it is depleted or concreted over in new urban developments.  Fish stocks are 20% of what they were in the mid 1950s. Added to this, as countries get wealthier they want to eat more protein.  This means that much of the food that is available will be consumed by animals, or fish, before they, in turn, are consumed by humans.

Even Monsanto, with its rose tinted glasses of what is possible with agricultural food productivity thanks to genetically modified crops, does not claim to have anything in its arsenal which will offset the impacts of more people wanting more protein, with less agricultural land and less water.  We should expect to see chronic food shortages emerge as the world produces enough food for 5 billion people yet has a population of 10 billion.

That is the base case for food supply and demand over the next 25 years, and there has been no mention of climate change.

However, as we have seen this year, where corn and soya bean harvests were 30-40% lower than in a normal year, the “base case” for food supply is unlikely, due to climate change.  Climate change is not just about higher global temperatures.  It is also about wild swings in weather patterns.  Some years will be very wet, some will be very dry.  If farmers knew that they would just get drier years they could partially compensate by having drought resistant crops.  But if the next year they have record rainfall, they really need drought AND flood resistant crops that might be drought resistant.

As a result, we should expect chronic food shortages and wild swings in the prices of agricultural crops.  This is not good.  In the event of food shortages, most governments tend to restrict agricultural crop exports.  While many economists think that this is the wrong response to this kind of crisis, it is understandable why politicians do restrict exports.  If you were Prime Minster and were confronted with angry rioters parading burning effigies of you, would you be more likely to ban food exports or give a lecture about economic efficiency?

These food crop restrictions cause knock on effects.  First, a large number of countries are not self sufficient in food.  North Africa and much of the Middle East, for example, imports most of its food already.  As they are expected to add another 100 million people to the region in the next 20 years, this food deficiency is only going to get worse.  If they cannot import food because countries are restricting exports it is likely that these countries will face rapidly rising food prices, famines and starvation.

Many countries are also geographically interlinked.  The Nile flows through Egypt but most of the water that feeds the Nile comes further upstream, in the Sudan.  Turkey provides the tributaries for rivers in Iraq and Iran. China controls many of the rivers that flow into India and Bangladesh.  Water means land can be irrigated to produce food.  If the water is cut off by one country to provide water for its own people, the country downstream will have a serious issue.

So what does this mean for the United Kingdom specifically and the European Union regionally?

To start with, becoming more self sufficient in food will be important.  Why?  In some cases we may not be able to import food, due to export restrictions in other countries.  Any food that is available will be very expensive  as the overall international supply of food declines due to land and water issues and export restrictions while the demand will go up due to more people wanting more protein.

UK agricultural policies need to be enacted that ensure that the UK is self sufficient in producing a base level of food, whilst ensuring the long term health of the soil.  Crop diversity should be encouraged and license free genetically modified crops might help increase productivity in marginal lands.

Next, being self sufficient in food is linked to population size.  A larger population is harder to feed than a smaller population.  This will have an impact on immigration policies.  Small levels of immigration can be a boon to an economy.  Given higher levels of unemployment due to a waves of outsourcing and offshoring, allowing low skilled immigrants into the UK no longer makes sense: there is an expanding pool of people who could do low skill low paid work already.  Conversely, the UK should be open to high skilled migrants and migrants that bring cash that they will invest in UK businesses.  Not allowing migrants to claim any form of government benefits for a period of 5-10 years after arriving might make immigration more palatable to those who are against all forms of immigration.

The UK should expect to see a significant increase in the number of refugees of all kinds: those who are persecuted because they do not fit in for whatever reason in their home country, those who are facing starvation and those who are looking for economic respite.  Global warming might result in hundreds of millions of people being displaced.  Because of where the UK is located, the bulk of these refugees are likely to be North African and sub Saharan Africans of Muslim descent.

As the UK is an island off the north west coast of Europe, preventing large numbers of refugees from entering the country will be easier than those in the southern part of the European Union.  But, the UK has a culture of allowing in refugees.  There are serious moral implications about not allowing in people who would otherwise die if they could not move.  In addition, as the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel made clear, French authorities are more than happy to turn a blind eye to refugees leaving France and heading to the United Kingdom.

Controlling immigration and refugees will switch from being an economic (the concern about jobs) and cultural issue (the concern of others), as it is today, to being a defence issue.  If we live in a world where there are potentially hundreds of millions of displaced people in search of food and a better climate, the European Union and the UK could be swamped by refugees and immigrants.  If the UK and EU are struggling to feed their own populations, this will force national governments to go back to the very fundamental reasons for their existence – the defence of their national boundaries.

As a result, the UK’s military budget is better focused not on spending billions on nuclear weapons deterrence programmes like the next generation of Trident nuclear submarines, but on naval defence forces and weaponised drones that can stop boatloads of people coming over.  Mainland Europe will have a much harder time keeping immigrants and refugees out and will face moral dilemmas that are truly horrific to contemplate (see article).

This moral erosion will change the type of leaders that a country has.  We should expect our leaders to be more ruthless and intolerant of dissent.  Laws and systems that have been put in place over the past 11 years under benevolent governments to monitor citizens for “terrorist” activities will be used by different kinds of leaders as a means of repression.

In order to enable many of these policies to be put in place the UK government will need to take back much of the sovereignty that it has given to the European Union. This will fundamentally alter its relationship with the European Union but given the level of hostility to the EU by most of the UK at the moment, this should be politically feasible for UK politicians.

To wrap up, new global food dynamics exasperated by climate change, will significantly affect world trade in food, requiring a higher level of  national self sufficiency.  Food shortages will trigger epic waves of immigration which could potentially swamp receiving countries.  This will require a military response by national governments, which will require ruthless and immoral governments.

This does not sound pleasant.  And it is not.

But it is the price we will pay for refusing to address the problem of climate change when we had the chance.



History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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