Hungry planet: past its tipping point?

By Greg Kaser


Accelerating climate change will drastically affect world food supplies. In a follow-up to his article in Socialist Correspondent issue 19 (2013) Greg Kaser looks the way chronic food insecurity can result in famine and the crucial role played by water resources.

According to the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John was granted a vision of four riders, the principal scourges of pre-industrial society. The first represented war; the second, civil strife; and the fourth, carrying a scythe, was sickness and death. But the third, riding a brown horse and carrying a pair of scales, was famine. The image of the scales symbolised the unfairness of famine: bread in return for silver. For those who cannot afford to pay there is only a lingering and pain-wracked end. As the trapped Chilean miners told us in 2010, by the time they were rescued, after 17 days, their bodies were already cannibalising themselves.

To be sure, famine arises when there is a shortage of food. But it is its unequal distribution that determines who will survive. Food scarcity or food insecurity exists all the time but for the most part people cope with it by eating less and going hungry!

The internationally recommended energy input from food is 2,100 kilocalories a day. In a large number of African countries, over 30% of the population eat less than this on average: These countries include Angola, Chad, the two Congos, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Undernourishment affects between 20 -29% of India’s population, along with Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan and Sudan. Estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that the number of undernourished people grew from 800 million in 1995 to over a billion, and it now stands at around 842 million. The peak occurred in 2007-08, when world food prices soared. Despite two decades of effort to cut undernourishment as part of the Millennium Development programme, things are little better. “In order to tackle the root causes of hunger, governments should encourage increased investment in agriculture, expand safety nets and social assistance programmes and enhance income generating activities”, the FAO has said.[i] 

Most developing country governments have tried and tested means of preventing scarcity from turning into famine. They impose price controls to prevent speculators from pushing prices up beyond the reach of ordinary people. They release food stocks onto the market. They organise special distribution arrangements to ensure that poor people can obtain staples cheaply at all times. The Indian government is enhancing existing schemes with a right-to-food programme covering 810 million people (70% of the population); up from the 310 million currently eligible for food aid. If a country cannot feed itself, governments can call upon the World Food Programme for additional supplies. There are 110 countries considered to be vulnerable to chronic food shortage. They include much of Africa and several in Asia. In addition, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water.

It is patently clear that a capitalist world is nowhere near ending the existing levels of hunger and water scarcity. The current situation is bad but it could become a lot worse as global warming proceeds apace. Even if we cannot take a peek into the future, we can look at the trends already present to get an idea of where the world is headed.

A looming catastrophe

Peer-reviewed science is cautious by inclination. As yet the evidence is not strong enough to know whether the planet has passed its tipping point and begun an irreversible rise in temperature. If the CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by industry and transport cannot be reabsorbed by plants it remains in the atmosphere and global warming will accelerate relentlessly. We can measure the increase in GHGs but the relationship between these concentrations and temperature is not understood with precision. “According to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere will raise temperature by between 1.9 o and 4.5oC, with 3oC being the most likely value” (New Scientist magazine, 23 October 2010). So “if climate sensitivity is as low as 1.9oC, then it would take centuries for the planet to warm by 7oC even if we continued pumping lots of CO2. On the other hand, if climate sensitivity is as high as 4.5oC, we could hit the 7oC point within a century”. World temperature has already risen by 0.8oC since 1750, when it is estimated the atmospheric concentration of CO2 stood at 280 parts per million (ppm). Since 1950, according to a team of scientists at Berkley Earth, land temperatures rose by 0.9oC, over which time CO2 has gone up from 315 to 400 ppm.[ii] If this reflects the actual trend, then stabilizing CO2 concentration at 550 ppm, rather than holding concentrations at 450 ppm, would push the Earth’s temperature up by 2.7oC, well above the UN targets of limiting the rise to 2oC. 

Unfortunately lack of action by governments and companies to stabilize GHGs is some leading scientists to conclude that we are actually heading for a 4oC rise by the 2060s or 2070s. Such an increase “would have disastrous effects, wiping out agriculture over large areas of the globe”.[iii]

Agriculture and climate change

There is a massive difference between a world that has warmed by around 2oC and one at 4oC and more. “Adapting to global warming of 4oC cannot be seen as a mere extrapolation of adaptation to 2oC; it will be a more substantial, continuous and transformative process” requiring a “new value orientation” that is “more sympathetic to cooperation” and is less materialistic, according to a recent scientific paper.[iv]

Farmers cannot cope with climate change on their own. Each year a farmer makes a decision on what crops to grow and will usually hedge his or her bets by planting different crops according to the season. If the change in the pattern of weather is gradual, a farmer will build up enough experience to undertake incremental changes. But let us suppose that the weather no longer has a recognizable pattern. Our farmer will go out of business over the course of a few planting cycles if nothing grows successfully for several years’ running. In fact, all the farmers in the region will be bankrupted as they will all be in the same boat. Climate change means that farmers must hedge their bets against multiple scenarios that involve significant investments such as irrigation projects or the development of hardier seed varieties, which as stand-alone small businesses they cannot afford. Furthermore, even if the government or a state-backed farmers’ cooperative are able to invest in agricultural technologies that address the strategic problems, there is no guarantee that these improvements in farm resilience will prove successful over the long term. This is because climate change implies a different pattern of land-use. The land may become so arid that only nomadic pastoralism will be successful and the arable farmers have to abandon their fields and move elsewhere if they can buy out another farmer.

In developing countries, a high proportion of people earn their living from agriculture. They are also the biggest segment of people in poverty. On their own, they cannot invest in the techniques that will help them to grow more crops and supply animal products for themselves and for sale. Nor do they have the capital and knowledge to change the use they make of land and water resources to adapt to climate change. At an international symposium last year in Vienna, the FAO stated:  “Agriculture can adapt to climate change by adopting farm management practices that minimize the adverse effects of increasing or decreasing rainfall and temperatures or other extreme weather conditions. Many management-level adaptation options are available to attenuate the effects of climate change on crop production, including zero tillage, retaining crop residues, extending fallows, increasing the diversity of production, altering amounts and timing of external inputs (fertilizers, water) as well as broader agronomic management strategies (e.g. altering planting density, row spacing, planting time, and introducing new germplasm resistant to heat or drought stress). … Conservation agricultural technologies, soil conservation measures and nutrient replenishment strategies can restore soil organic matter by providing a protective soil cover and an environment conducive to vigorous plant growth. In some cases a change in the agricultural production system may be required. Significant advances have been made in recent years in our understanding of soil carbon sequestration [to reduce GHG emission], soil nutrient transformation as influenced by different fertilizers and cropping-land use systems, and soil water storage and movement.”

As a global society we are not helpless in the face of climate change. We simply lack the political means to do what could and should be done.

Water is the new oil 

Food insecurity is increasingly exacerbated by water shortages. Water shortage is an obvious problem in semi-arid and continental climate zones, where drought conditions prevail. But droughts seem to have increased in frequency. The Sahel region of North Africa experienced serious droughts in 1974, 1984, 2005, 2009 and 2010. India suffered bad droughts in 2002, 2009 and 2012. Around 450 million Indians live off rain-fed agriculture. A drought in Central and Western Europe in 2003 was followed by one in the Iberian Peninsula in 2004 and another affecting England and France in 2006. The US corn-belt was in the grip of drought in 2012, the most severe since the 1980s and 1930s. It affected 87% of the country’s corn growing area and 85% of its soya production, according to the US Meteorological Service. Amongst the worst-hit regions of the world is East Africa. There have been severe droughts in 1984, 1992, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The Economist magazine commented (26 September 2009): “The drought cycle in East Africa has been contracting sharply. Rains used to fail every nine or ten years. Then the cycle seemed to go down to five years. Now, it seems, the region faces drought every two or three years. The time for recovery – for rebuilding stocks of food and cattle – is even shorter.” 

A similar increase in drought frequency has been seen in the Sahel. The US National Centre for Atmospheric Research forecasts a trend of increasingly severe droughts affecting the western and southern US and Mexico, the Amazon basin and the Pacific coastline from Peru to Chile, the Mediterranean region, Iran and Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia, Australia and much of Africa. Regions north of the 45th parallel should see increasing rainfall however. Roughly speaking the northern 45th parallel lies south of the Canadian-US border, through southern France and northern Italy, southern Russia, Inner Mongolia and from the north of the Korean peninsula to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The equivalent latitude in the southern hemisphere passes through South Island, New Zealand, and the southern tip of South America. The mid-latitude regions of the world appear most at risk from lower rainfall.

Water is already scarce for four months or more in many parts of the world, including Central Asia, Northern China, India, much of Southeast Asia, the US Mid-West, Southern Africa, Syria, Iraq and Arabia, the Caucasus, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. These regions will lose water resources as global warming proceeds, according to a German study. The number of people living in the worst affected zones is 3.4 billion, almost half of the total population of the world.[v] And this is not a problem arising in the far future; this “water stress”, as the experts call it, is facing us in the next 10-40 years.

By the 2030s many countries will be seeking to import water through long-distance pipelines. The Mediterranean basin, the US Southwest and California, Central Asia and southern Russia will need water supplies from the north. England will depend upon Scotland and southern Europe upon Scandinavia for much of their water. Massive water grids will have to be established – probably to be coordinated by the European Union, which has already quietly begun long-range planning for this, the Eurasian Union and the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). India is building hundreds of new dams and canals to link the majority of its river basins. China is in the middle of its huge South-North water transfer project. But bringing supplies long distance and especially by pipeline implies that people must pay for water as a commodity. Water is heavy and pumping requires energy, which can be provided from reliable hydroelectric and nuclear power plants. The traditional model whereby water was supplied from the same a river basin in which people lived will be replaced by national and international water grids.   

Agriculture uses about 70% of all water we consume (310 trillion litres a year). The proportion has fallen from 90% as a result of rising demand from industry and cities. But by 2030 it is estimated that farmers will need 45% more water or 450 trillion litres a year.[vi] At the moment, many farmers are relying on water drawn from underground aquifers. High usage rates are depleting aquifers, although there remain vast water reserves on every continent. The problem lies with unsustainable extraction which means that the aquifer cannot recharge itself. Depletion is especially rapid in middle latitudes as a result of high extraction by farmers. Water must be pumped from deeper and deeper reserves. The existing accessible, reliable and sustainable supply of fresh water is estimated as being 420 trillion litres a year. If total demand for water goes up to 690 trillion litres a year by 2030, including withdrawals for industry and households, it is obvious that we will be drawing water from much deeper aquifers and doing so unsustainably.

Access to fresh, clean, safe water is not available in many parts of the developing world, with 2.5 billion people lacking proper sanitation, especially in the countryside. In poor families, women and children collect water – sometimes waste water from drains and ditches and usually contaminated with bacteria, pathogens and parasites – and carry it home for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Among better-off urban families it is already common to pay private suppliers for their water, sometimes from illegal boreholes. Water from public utilities is subject to frequent cuts in supply.

Water is quite literally becoming the new oil – it is being extracted from ever-deeper wells and will be distributed by long-distance pipelines. As demands on fresh water resources rise, desalination will become more common in order to supplement supplies from the oceans.

The impact on the oceans

Lastly, we must not forget that fossil fuel emissions are turning the seas more acidic. At the third international symposium on the ocean in a high CO2 world, held in 2012, scientists presented estimates of the impacts on fisheries. Seafood is the prime source of protein for one billion people, especially for island nations in the Maldives, the Comoros, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon and Micronesian archipelagos. Tropical coastlines where coral reefs form part of the food chain are threatened by acidification. Fish are already an endangered resource, making fisheries especially vulnerable to collapse if the food chain is disrupted. The global fishing fleets could find their fisheries denuded of stock.

Governments are aware of the risks posed by global warming. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, representing most of the advanced industrial economies, recently stated:  “Climate change impacts on ecosystems will occur through dramatic state shifts as ‘tipping points’ are crossed as well as through gradual deterioration. Evidence from recent studies by paleoecologists suggests that climate change may not simply result in mass migration of species, but instead, reshuffle into novel ‘no analogy’ ecosystems unknown today.”[vii]

Around 90% of people in the world live between the 45th parallel to the north and south of the Equator. Human habitation at the Equator may become unbearable. The human body maintains a temperature of around 37oC, but if this rises much above 42oC we die. Keeping cool in the heat matters and this is easier in a dry atmosphere as the sweat can evaporate. The high humidity of the Tropics means that life could become intolerable during heat waves if global warming hits 7oC. People would have to migrate. Some climate models predict that the global north beyond the 45th parallel will prove to be the best refuge for humanity.[viii] New cities will ring the Arctic Ocean and colonies will settle Antarctica!  

As global warming alters the climate, agricultural production will suffer. The result, in a world where there is already huge inequality in income and nutrition, will be recurring famine. We will face problems in Britain for sure, but as we are to the north of the 45th parallel it looks like we are in one of the better placed locations on the planet to adapt to global warming. However, while we may avoid a food crisis, we will still have to tackle a water crisis.

Past lessons

To prepare a class response we should, perhaps, recall the days in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when 20% of the British population went hungry even in good times. Historian E P Thompson chronicled the direct action taken by the common folk of England to protect their access to food during periods of dearth. Through the distribution of anonymous handbills and posters, marches, blockades and ‘riotous assembly’ crowds intimidated rich farmers, millers and merchants into bringing grain to market and lowering prices to affordable levels. The crowds tried to force the lords lieutenant and magistracy to apply the old laws – the Book of Orders -from Tudor times that prohibited speculation and price rigging by engrossers, factors, forestallers, hucksters, jobbers and laders. In so doing the poor incurred the criticism of moral philosophers like of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Thomas Malthus who advocated laissez-faire. Thompson went on to describe how these liberal ideas were exported to India with pernicious effect.[ix] There, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has shown, famine was exacerbated by British reluctance to intervene in the market to prevent the export of grain and rice and to control prices.[x] We can expect a repeat of the same arguments in favour of ‘letting the market work’ from today’s neo-liberals, not to mention condemnation of any protest action by people unable to afford basic sustenance. They aim to turn water into a commodity and unless we can return the water companies to public ownership we could find ourselves paying a very high price for these essential supplies.


[i] Financial Times, 15 September 2010: p. 6.

[ii] The Economist, 22 October 2011: p. 97; The Guardian, 11 May 2013.

[iii] Financial Times, 29 November 2010: p. 10; see also The Observer, 14 April 2013.  

[iv] Mark Stafford Smith and others, 2011, Rethinking adaptation for a 4oC world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369: pp. 196 and 202. 

[v] Study by Martina Floerke and colleagues at the University of Kassel reported by the BBC on 29 September 2010.

[vi] John Parker, The 9-billion people question: A special report on feeding the world, The Economist, 26 February 2011: pp. 9-11.

[vii] OECD, 2013, Water and Climate Change Adaptation: Policies to navigate uncharted waters – A changing and uncertain future for freshwater, Paris: OECD: p. 26.

[viii] The Economist, 12 December 2012: p. 79.

[ix] E P Thompson, 1991, Customs in Common, Pontypool: The Merlin Press: chapter 4 and pages 278-287.

[x] Amartya Sen, 1981, Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlements and deprivation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

"By the 2030s many countries will be seeking to import water through long-distance pipelines.....England will depend on Scotland and southern Europe on Scandinavia for much of their water. Massive water grids coordinated by the European Union, which has already begun long-range planning for this, the Eurasian Union and the North American Free Trade Area."