Curious Cook: The new F-word of the future?

Climate change appears to be the cause of the severe drought in Madagascar, which in turn has caused severe food shortages. — AFP Relaxnews

I know it is hard, probably very hard, to imagine, but the world is possibly sitting on the edge of a series of severe famines which will affect many hundreds of millions of people. For most people now, a famine would be unthinkable, especially when we stroll through supermarkets with aisles heaving with many varieties of food. Also, people tend to have the wrong idea about famines. A famine is not the sight of empty shelves in the shops, which may have happened due to panic buying and therefore there is a lot of food at home.

But the risk of real, serious famines is not zero, and in fact, they are happening now and/or approaching significantly high levels of probability in many parts of the world. There are several factors causing this, for example, economic losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic, bad governance, armed conflicts, natural disasters, etc. However, what may be worse is that the situation is being badly exacerbated by climate change and environmental destruction.

To be clear, the official Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) of a “famine” is when an area has (i) 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, (ii) 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and (iii) 2 people out of every 10,000 dying each day due to starvation or the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

Looking at famine from the official definition, one can see that several regions around the world are already experiencing famine, and many other places are not too far from it.

However, note that “famine” is the worst phase of the general IPC categories of food insecurity, defined as follows:

Phase 1 – None/Minimal: Households can meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical and unsustainable strategies to access food and income.

Phase 2 – Stressed: Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies.

Phase 3 – Crisis: Households either have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition or are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.

Phase 4 – Emergency: Households either have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality or are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation.

Phase 5 – Catastrophe/Famine: Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies. Starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.

During the pandemic, huge numbers of people around the world experienced higher phases of food insecurity than normal, even though most people remained mostly at Phase 1. Due to other issues, primarily climate change, this sanguine situation is unlikely to continue forever.

Changes around the corner?

Around the world, there is currently a shortage of the durum wheat used to make pasta, and several supermarkets in various parts of the world now have empty pasta shelves, even in the UK. This global shortage of pasta was mainly caused by a searing summer heatwave and extreme drought in Canada which destroyed 40-50% of the huge durum wheat crop there.

Global food supplies are dependent on consistent weather patterns. This year, there has been a huge pasta shortage caused by severe droughts in Canada, which destroyed 50% of the durum wheat crops. — KLAUS NIELSEN/PexelsGlobal food supplies are dependent on consistent weather patterns. This year, there has been a huge pasta shortage caused by severe droughts in Canada, which destroyed 50% of the durum wheat crops. — KLAUS NIELSEN/Pexels

To compound matters, the durum wheat crops in the EU (especially France) were also badly affected but by the opposite problems of Canada; persistent torrential rains in Europe meant that the harvested wheat grains were waterlogged and unsuitable for milling into flour. The result was wholesale flour prices rising by 90% to 100% and shop prices increasing by 50% or more.

The current global shortage of pasta and wheat flour is not classed as a significant source of food insecurity in much of the world, except that it is stern reminder of how global supplies of food are hugely dependent on consistent weather patterns.

The good news, of course, is that there are still other options for food staples other than pasta, eg, potatoes, rice, other root vegetables, various beans, etc. The bad news is that there are not really many other options. Climate-related shocks which affect several staple food crops at the same time will cause millions of people to move up into other phases of food insecurity. The issue then is not whether people will run short of food, but how BAD the situation will become for various countries and populations.

Is it too late?

It is not pleasant to think of such negative situations, and most people still do not link them with global climate change for various reasons. Also, many people still believe famines are random events caused by natural disasters, pest invasions, economic incompetence, or bad political/human interference. And there were probably some plausible justifications for this attitude, until perhaps the events of this year.

Apart from the disastrous wheat harvests, a Time magazine report in July 2021 claimed that the severe food shortages in Madagascar were not caused by any of the usual factors affecting crops. The only factor claimed to cause the current famine affecting the southern part of the country was climate change, which had appeared to permanently alter seasonal weather patterns, resulting in persistent droughts turning previously arable land into deserts.

The same changes in weather patterns are now observable around various parts of the world, though they may be currently less profound or persistent as in Madagascar. For example, there are very few other plausible explanations for summer temperatures in Vancouver, Canada, being higher than summer temperatures in Dubai. And London has been flooded twice already this year, not to mention the catastrophic floods in parts of Europe and China.

Correlation Is not proof of causation

At this point, climate change deniers and even some mathematicians and statisticians may point out that such events are not necessarily proof that (i) there is climate change happening, or (ii) climate change was the actual cause of such issues. Correlation is not necessarily proof of causation.

This argument can be addressed in several ways. For example, imagine a road where there are many accidents involving pedestrians crossing the road, and the accidents involve cars and bicycles colliding with people. One sensible option would be installing traffic lights on the road. Another option may be painting a zebra crossing on the road. Perhaps an even cheaper option is to put up signs on the pavements warning people to be careful when crossing the road. Maybe the road can be changed to a bicycle-only road, or the traffic speed limit reduced.

In many parts of the world, famines are a reality and this is likely to only get worse with climate change. Pictured here is a mother and her family in drought-hit Madagascar, who only have some boiled cactus (which has no nutrients) to eat. — AFP RelaxnewsIn many parts of the world, famines are a reality and this is likely to only get worse with climate change. Pictured here is a mother and her family in drought-hit Madagascar, who only have some boiled cactus (which has no nutrients) to eat. — AFP Relaxnews

All these options have plus and minus points and varying degrees of effectiveness in preventing accidents. However, all these options have ONE thing in common: They address the issue of people having a lot of accidents and deaths on the road in the first place. None of the options involve doing nothing if the intent is to reduce the rate of accidents on the road.

Therefore, using the same analogy, when there are severe events happening in the world involving severe climate events, it would simply be irresponsible to not do anything about the most likely cause of such disasters, which is climate change caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere.

Changes in human behaviour?

The effects of food insecurity and famines are not only terrible for the people affected, but they also cause largescale changes in population patterns of behaviour. It is highly probable that severe food insecurities will increase migration, conflicts, food hoarding and economic chaos even in countries not directly affected by the famines as migrants swamp over borders and strain resources.

I genuinely hope that such events do not happen, but the world is like a road with an unusually high number of “accidents” occurring, and these events are increasing every year. Therefore, it is not an option to avoid doing something about this, especially if one has children or grandchildren.

And for most of us, the best (and often only) things we can do are reducing our emissions of GHG and looking after our environment in the best ways that we can manage. Our planet is already at an important crossroad now and it is up to us to guide it back to a good place, or let it burn and destroy a good future for our children and humanity.

There is a question which is also valid: What are the downsides if we made a lot of effort, and we discover eventually that we are wrong about global climate change? Well, we end up with a better environment, we are healthier if we ate less GHG-producing meat, and our children will inherit a greener, more pleasant planet for their children.

Yes, some might suggest those are the worst-case outcomes if we all did something now, even if we are wrong about climate change. However, all the science to date indicates that it is only a very small statistical possibility that we are wrong, and it is not worth betting our futures against such odds.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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