The Right to Food: Climate Change

While some politicians continue to deny either the existence or the importance and urgency of global climate change, as seen recently in the US, it is evident that climate change is having a tangible, present-day impact on food production, and may in the future lead to greater food insecurity. It is therefore vital that contemporary leaders and policy makers recognise the importance of addressing that human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to climate change.

Climate change is defined by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a “change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” Human activity, such as burning coal, oil, and gas, contributes to global warming by releasing abundant amounts of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The resultant global temperature increase has diverse implications for the planet’s ecosystems and climate – so much so that some scientists now argue that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, whereby human activity is the principal influence on climate and the environment. Certainly, the effects of climate change are diverse: melting ice, rising seas, extreme weather, shifting rainfall, flooding, drought, and the increasing challenge of survival for many species.

However, it is probably easy to disregard climate change when the only image that ‘climate change’ conjures is a picture of a polar bear standing atop a piece of ice. It is reasonable that many might ask, “What has this got to do with me?” Others might ask, “How does this really impact my world, or the world of my grandchildren?” Moreover, some may argue that they are not responsible for the effects of climate change owing to the lack of tangible effects or relevance to themselves and on their local area (and, in the case of politicians, their voters). Yet, there exist numerous real-world, present-day effects, manifested in places seemingly unconnected, from Karamoja in Uganda to Miami Beach in Florida. Global climate change affects us all the world over, but especially so in poorer nations, where climate change poses a huge issue in that it can impact food security and thus the right to adequate sustenance.

‘Food hit by climate change: Oxfam campaigners highlight the effects of climate change on food’ Photo credit: Oxfam International

One of the most basic and essential human rights is the right to food, outlined by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur as “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”

Climate change is already threatening this right to food for many people, especially those in the poorest parts of the world. In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, warned that “increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, rising temperatures and sea levels, as well as floods and droughts have a significant impact on the right to food.” She added that “those who have contributed the least to global warming are the ones set to suffer the most from its harmful effects.” This alludes to how those in the poorest regions, typically in regions which rely on agriculture as the centre of their economy, will suffer far more than those in wealthy nations. Certainly, the production of a harvest for a farming family who already live with scarce food supplies means the difference between sustenance and starvation, and so the climate directly affects the food supply of the poorest people. While it may be easy to consider how human-influenced climate change does not affect one’s own life or society, modern-day warnings of what climate change can do to human food security weighs forebodingly on the future. Indeed, climate change can gravely impact food production, as a study from Stanford University, reported in the Guardian suggests; the study found that ‘”increases in global production of maize and wheat since 1980 would have been about 5% higher were it not for climate change.”

Extreme weather, whether severe heat or cold, can harm crops and livestock, while drought and flooding also impacts food production. For example, the unpredictability of rainfall, as well as its increasing volumes, has meant that in the Karamoja region of Uganda food security is being put under increasing strain. A recent study found that “the rainy season is now longer by two months” there, and rising temperatures threaten water supplies for crops and animals. Similarly, in parts of the African continent climate change has added to the existing food insecurity caused by military conflict. This is occurring right now, with Horn of Africa countries such as South Sudan and Somalia facing a “third consecutive year of drought.” Such sudden climate changes are therefore frightening reminders that the right to food is dependent upon the weather, and so if human carbon emissions are partially responsible in driving these sudden weather patterns, action ought to be taken to decrease carbon emissions.

‘A section of crops destroyed because of water stagnation after rainfall, in Karnal, Haryana, February 2013’. Photo credit: Nirmal Sigtia

Furthermore, changes in weather patterns also mean that harvest times are changing, sometimes put forward or backward by a month. This uncertainty also affects the amount of food available, whether for consumers or for the farmer and his family to eat or store. Having less choices and access to diverse food sources means that many of the poorest people in the world are directly impacted by sudden changes of climate. Especially for those who are unable to afford higher price items, the impact of climate change on food production harms both consumers and farmers who have less produce to sell, impacting their livelihood and families. This lack of food production, impacted by a changing climate, is compounded by the way in which a farmer is tied to the land; they cannot move their land to a location where there is more clement weather, and so the fate of many farmers and their families is bound up with the climate.

This does not only affect farmers but also the rest of the population. We ought not to have the view that if someone else’s plight does not seem to affect our own lives, then therefore it is not of any interest. What hurts farmers hurts consumers and especially hurts the sustenance of the very poorest. This is everyone’s issue – we are all involved in the interplay between the climate, weather, agriculture, and consumption.

It ought to be highlighted how climate change, and especially its impact on food production, is a global problem. As the world is so interconnected (especially with the recent technological developments of cheap travel and the Internet), the often negative effects of climate change upon populations other than our own is not to be dismissed; in a connected world, where space has arguably shrunk, what is another nation’s problem will often have effects upon your own country. Indeed, climate change is a global issue, not a national one, and so requires international cooperation and solutions. We saw an attempt at such multinational cooperation in 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and so it is hoped that the agreements delivered from this are borne to fruition.

It therefore seems evident that global climate change is everyone’s issue. Climate change has huge impacts on people’s lives in that it can affect the very essence that sustains our lives: food. We all eat, and so the climate directly impacts on all our lives. It is all our issue, especially so if one values human rights and aims to protect them. While in wealthier nations food security may not be noticeably impacted as of yet by climate change, this is not a reasonable argument for dismissing the plight of those affected by climate change, nor ignoring the possibility that we humans can actively prevent further drastic climate change (for instance, via investing in renewable energy).

If you would like to find out more about the ratification of the Paris COP 21 agreement, the science on the relationship between climate change and food production or ways to help people experiencing famine, please click on their respective links.

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