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Food security, climate change and global resource scarcity

By John Barrett09 May 2012

Global demand for food will double in coming decades, through population growth and rising levels of consumption. Ensuring the planet produces enough food for all in a sustainable way will be a real challenge, and climate change will hamper our efforts if it is not tackled.

Food security is crucial to helping the poorest countries help themselves out of poverty. This is why the United Kingdom is leading on making food security an issue that is discussed at a global level. Starting at the upcoming G-8 summit, we will help launch a new alliance to lift 50 million out of poverty over the next ten years, using private sector investment to help people achieve the food security we all take for granted in the U.K.

For nearly 50 years, there were grain mountains in Europe and North America, with prices at historic lows. Yet hundreds of millions of people still faced chronic hunger and malnourishment, which blighted generation after generation of children. One in three Africans still go hungry today, in a world of plenty, so it is vital we help the poorest people access the food that is available.

The simple reality is that people go hungry because they are poor. Perversely, poverty is deepest and most extensive among rural populations dependent on agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forests for their livelihoods and food security.

Part of the answer clearly lies in supporting wider economic growth. But rural poverty will persist unless we step up efforts to transform smallholder agriculture. Smallholder farmers in Africa can achieve much higher yields with increased use of fertilisers, irrigation and improved varieties of seeds. The key to unlocking this potential on a huge scale is political leadership combined with private sector involvement.

We must tackle difficult policy issues such as land tenure, agricultural subsidies and the regulatory environment for trade and investment. Public spending must be well targeted. When the public and private sectors work together, from the smallholder farmer to the large-scale agribusiness, trade and investment can take off. That is why the U.K. Department for International Development is supporting, for example, Aid for Trade in Africa, challenge funds that support innovative agricultural enterprise development and partnership, and land reform in Rwanda enabling women to own the land they farm.

Agriculture and climate change

When transforming agricultural practices, it is crucial we also pay close attention to environmental issues. Many parts of the developing world are already facing serious problems of deforestation, fresh water scarcity and pollution, and land degradation and desertification alongside loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity. 

The long and dark shadow of climate change means rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, which will reduce average agricultural yields by over a quarter in some African countries. More urgently, extreme weather events, particularly dry spells and periods of extreme heat, will lead to crop failure and local food crises. We must therefore build resilience to shocks and stresses at every level of the system, from livelihoods to national policies and institutions, when planning for sustainable agriculture and food security.

Climate adaptation funds must be used to help rural farmers, the majority of whom are women, who otherwise face a bleak future. The U.K.’s support for Climate Investment Funds is helping 45 developing countries pilot low-emissions and climate-resilient development to achieve growth and reduce poverty.

Finally, climate change is intimately linked to the global demand for energy, which is driven by the growth of emergent economies and projected to increase steadily. New sources of fossil fuel are being discovered and developed – but generally at higher cost than in the past. We must all drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions if global temperature increases are to be kept within a safe level. This means investing in renewable energy sources or improving the efficiency and carbon capture from fossil fuel power stations. This is why the U.K. announced its continued support for the Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program at the Sustainable Energy for All conference in London.

Global food prices are becoming increasingly linked to energy prices as the main costs of food production, such as fertilisers, transport and cold storage are all energy-related. While the prospect of food prices generally increasing is good news for farmers, this does not help the urban poor, rural landless or the hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers who do not produce enough to feed their family, let alone sell to market.

The urgency of helping smallholder farmers seize economic opportunities cannot be understated. This help needs to be underpinned by a clear vision of the looming challenges of climate change and planetary limits to land, water and energy sources. The U.K. will play a full and constructive part in the discussions at Rio to ensure a future without hunger and a world without poverty, looking at how to support the green economy, provide sustainable energy for all and recognition of GDP+. And the U.K. will continue to fight the ravages of climate change, build resilience to climate shocks and support economic growth.

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About the author

J barrett photo2
John Barrett

Stephen O’Brien is the U.K. parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development. Prior to his appointment at the Department for International Development, O'Brien was a shadow minister for health and social care – one of several leadership posts he has held within the Conservative Party. He has founded and served as chairman of the All Party Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases, chaired the Malaria Consortium, and worked with a variety of other institutions engaged in global health.


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