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Capitalism and climate—the system’s recipe for disaster

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Climate change is creating extreme weather events that put food production at risk. To deal with it we have to challenge and transform a food system that is run for profit, writes Sarah Bates
Issue 2685
Extreme weather devastates lives (Pic: CSIRO/WikiCommons)

From the maize crops in China to the oil palm plantations across West Africa, the climate emergency is threatening food production.

Soaring temperatures, water ­scarcity and increased pollution are already having a devastating impact. And the system’s failure to deal with it is leaving increasing numbers to starve.

Extreme weather is disrupting food transport routes and hitting the quality of farming land. Animals and plants face extinction.

The changes start at the first rung of food production, as insects and other pollinators are at risk of being wiped out. This is part of the unfolding sixth mass extinction—where Earth loses more than three quarters of its species in a relatively short period of time.

Unpredictable droughts, floods, storms, extreme heat, snow and hail will destroy crops. The changing climate means animals and plants that depend on each other can’t access their usual sources of food and habitat.

All this will make it harder for increasing numbers of people to eat a well-balanced diet—or eat at all.

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The crisis is often portrayed as threatening the near-constant supply of exotic fruit to British supermarkets. The real story is that catastrophe is hitting the poorest people in the poorest countries.

This crisis doesn’t affect ­everyone equally—no matter where they live. In poorer countries, the rich have the resources to buy what they need, while hundreds of millions of people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Climate change is already altering temperatures and rainfall patterns, making it harder to grow crops and raise livestock.

A major research project by the University of Minnesota looked at the top ten global crops that provide around 83 percent of food.

It looked at the crop productivity of maize, rice, wheat, soybeans, oil palm, sugarcane, barley, rapeseed, cassava and sorghum over a four-year period.

The research showed that climate change is already shrinking harvests, particularly in poorer countries. That doesn’t just mean people eat slightly less. It means more people will suffer malnutrition or starve.


Important staple crops are already declining. The researchers estimated that rice harvests are falling by an average of 0.3 percent a year and wheat by 0.9 percent.

In 2018-19 global wheat production stood at approximately 667 million tonnes. A fall of 0.9 percent would be an amount of wheat as heavy as 60,000 blue whales.

Yet some other plants, such as the grain sorghum, is more tolerant to drought and has acclimatised to higher temperatures. Its crop has increased by 0.9 percent since the 1970s in some regions.

The study showed that food has been reduced by around 1 percent for the top 10 global crops. That might not sound a lot. But it’s enough to give 50 million people a daily diet of over 1,800 calories.

But it isn’t just a changing climate that’s the problem—it’s the profit-driven system of food production.

Competition means that too much food is produced overall, not too little. Trade deals and government policies designed to protect the bosses have seen food pile up unused repeatedly, creating “butter mountains” or “milk lakes”.

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Traders will hoard food to drive up prices—regardless of the impact on ordinary people.

Colossal waste is built into the system and food is destroyed rather than given away for free to people who need it.

It’s an inefficient and insecure system. Multinational firms ship food across the world, meaning any interruption to the supply chain jeopardises food supply.

Half of all food consumed in Britain is imported. And countries that export more than they import are vulnerable if crops fail, or transport routes are disrupted.

Climate change means the risks are changing.

A hotter climate is likely to produce insect colonies and pest outbreaks in regions where they have previously struggled to breed.

And hotter temperatures, ­alongside extreme weather patterns, can contribute to bacterial outbreaks such as the potentially deadly E coli virus.

An outbreak of E coli was spread through romaine lettuce in 23 US states last month.

It’s likely that unusually cold weather alongside strong winds such as blizzards makes these outbreaks more common. These conditions can break up the surface of the lettuce, making it easier for winds to transmit the bacteria into the plant.

These outbreaks don’t only cause serious illness. They can also push the prices of other leafy greens, such as spinach, to skyrocket.

Surges in food prices is one way that climate catastrophe is affecting what we eat.

When unexpected or unusual weather patterns cause crops to fail, it leads to shortages—and bosses hike up the prices of similar produce.

The Canada Food Price Report, released earlier this month, argued that Canadian families would pay an extra £280 dollars for food in 2020. It said climate change is a major factor.

The report said the future held “unpredictable crop yields, heat-wave livestock threats, pasture availability and pest and disease outbreaks”.

Changes are already happening.

A wet and cold spring in Britain last year saw farmers dipping into their winter feed stores earlier.

And an extended heatwave during the summer affected wheat and barley, leading to a straw shortage.

Farmers are forced to harvest ­earlier because hot weather ripens crops earlier. But they are smaller, because they haven’t had the necessary time to mature to a full size.

England and Wales is currently covered by around 38 percent of high-quality arable land. But research from the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the British government, indicates that this is set to shrink to 9 percent by the 2050s.

And Britain’s imports rely on a relatively small number of countries.

The Netherlands and Spain accounted for 46 percent of edible vegetable imports in 2017.

Dr Oliver Scanlan from the Oxford Research Group said simply importing more food won’t solve the crisis. He said this would leave Britain “more exposed to the greater likelihood of supply shocks caused by more regular and more extreme weather events”.

Scanlan argued for less meat consumption and for people to put an “emphasis on seasonal produce”.

But the food crisis can’t be tackled by making changes on an individual level. We need to transform the whole of our society.

What’s the real solution?

The root cause of food scarcity, poverty and malnutrition is our economic system.

Capitalism converts every human need into a commodity for the rich to profit from.

It’s a perverse world where millions starve yet firms produce too much food—and throw it away if it won’t make them enough money.

There is enough food to feed everyone.

But it is repeatedly kept from people by bosses who jack the prices up, or by governments who control borders.

Capitalism is illogical. No one company boss or government figure has control over the entire process, but simply has to fight for their own interests.

And it has waste, overproduction, competition and irrationality at its heart.

So food is flown around the globe because it is cheaper for bosses to import products rather than harvest them here.

And international trade “choke points” are so vulnerable because of the competitive nature of the food supply.

Supermarkets and restaurants provide a similar range of foods, regardless of whether it makes sense to import so much.

Managing the climate crisis in a humane way will mean fighting for a rational approach to sharing resources.

‘We didn’t have anything left to eat. Then the fighting started’

The climate emergency makes existing conflicts and inequalities worse.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said, “In 2018, conflict and insecurity were the major driver of food crisis in 21 countries.”

Somalia is a good example.

The government, backed by regional forces and the US air force, is fighting the al-Shabaab Islamist orgnaisation.

The climate emergency is exacerbating the conflict.

A drought throughout much of this year caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

In October some 273,000 people were hit by widespread flooding and heavy rains damaging farmland, homes and infrastructure.

Al-Shabaab forces farmers to pay them thousands of pounds and places demands on what crops they can grow.

Sharifo Ali Mohamud left Middle Shabelle, her hometown, in February and travelled to the capital Mogadishu with her seven children.

“The drought hit our village,” she said. “We used to grow maize in the farm but it became dry. We did not have anything left to eat. Then the fighting started.

“Life is very difficult here.

“We don’t get enough water and food and if I return to my village, I am afraid the harsh drought condition will be bitter.”

Choking off the supplies

Food is transported all over the world using sophisticated supply chains that deliver produce quickly and directly onto supermarket shelves.

But most of our food comes through a small number of ports, ocean crossings and inland train tracks.

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Disruption to these “chokepoints,” even for a short time, threatens food supply.

Storms or floods may close off chokepoints while water-related wear and tear may damage infrastructure, making it more vulnerable to extreme events.

The Chatham House think tank identified just 14 chokepoints that are critical to global food security.

And as the World Economic Forum pointed out, “The chances of coincidental disruptions occurring at different locations are likely to increase.”

It said if recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and extreme rainfall in Brazil occurred at the same time, up to 50 percent of global soybean exports could be affected.

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