Most famines, as is by now axiomatic knowledge, are man-made. These days, there is more than enough food to go around, but the problem is distribution, which is usually choked off by war or as a product of deliberate cruelty. Sometimes it is a matter of poverty, but that too is a choice we’ve made: that food should be a function of your economic status. We’ve successfully removed natural laws from the ability to generate food; it is only market laws and political decisions that allow countries like Yemen to starve.
But now, according to Chatham House thinktank, we’re taking that to the next level. The Guardian sums it up.
Increasingly vulnerable “chokepoints” are threatening the security of the global food supply, according to a new report. It identifies 14 critical locations, including the Suez canal, Black Sea ports and Brazil’s road network, almost all of which are already hit by frequent disruptions.
With climate change bringing more incidents of extreme weather, analysts at the Chatham House thinktank warn that the risk of a major disruption is growing but that little is being done to tackle the problem. Food supply interruptions in the past have caused huge spikes in prices which can spark major conflicts.
The chokepoints identified are locations through which exceptional amounts of the global food trade pass. More than half of the globe’s staple crop exports – wheat, maize, rice and soybean – have to travel along inland routes to a small number of key ports in the US, Brazil and the Black Sea. On top of this, more than half of these crops – and more than half of fertilisers – transit through at least one of the maritime chokepoints identified.
Droughts lower the water level in the Panama Canal. Most of the water comes not from the ocean, but from a lake, which is the same ones where most Panamanians get their drinking water. Drought means shipping suffers or people thirst. Or both! The Suez Canal keeps getting choked by sandstorms and is also vulnerable to terrorism. Intensifying hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico hurt vital ports and limit the prime shipping seasons.
The issue here is that we’ve globalized food, which to me is a positive thing. In theory, our ability to easily send food from Nebraska to Somalia means that there is no reason anyone should go hungry. It is one of the benefits of globalization, and in theory, that’s something we should celebrate.
But it is a little more complicated than that. Global capitalism and local conflict combine to almost ensure that people still starve, as famine is a tool of bad actors everywhere. What’s more, the system that could generate a level of food security in the world is reliant on a few areas, and because we’ve globalized foodchains, disruption to those means instability everywhere. And one of the outcomes of this globalized planet is climate change, a byproduct of converting the environment into capital.
Which means that theoretically beneficial cross-dependencies can become vulnerabilities, either by choice or circumstance. And those vulnerabilities can spiral from local problems to global ones. We’ve talked about how drought played a huge role in the epoch-defining Syrian civil war, but The Guardian takes causality further, and farther.
The Middle East and North Africa region is particularly vulnerable, the report found, because it has the highest dependency on food imports in the world and is encircled by maritime bottlenecks. It also depends heavily on wheat imports from the Black Sea.
In 2010, a severe heatwave in Russia badly hit the huge grain harvest, leading the government to impose an export ban. As a result, prices spiked in 2011 and this was a significant factor in the Arab Spring conflicts. Other factors were important too, said Wellesley, but she said: “At the start, it was about the price of bread.”
Weather and climate are not incidental to politics, even in our mechanized and digital age. We’re still vulnerable to them, and any vulnerabilities are made instantly global. Conflict in Yemen heightens (and is exacerbated by) the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which draws in other local actors, shifts alliances (like with Qatar), changes the calculations of Russia and Turkey (which changes the consideration of smaller players like Azerbaijan) and changes the fate of millions.
There are no small issues. There are enormous ones, and the biggest one of all is how we will deal with the changed and changing climate. Because it isn’t something that will happen in the future. We won’t wake up on New Year’s 2100 and be like “dammit, climate change happened last night. Just like those eggheads said!” It’s effects are already changing the world, and it will take a concerted, global effort by responsible and far-sighted leaders to mitigate its worst impacts.
Here are the Chatham House recommendations.
- Integrate chokepoint analysis into mainstream risk management and security planning – for example, government agencies should assess exposure and vulnerability to chokepoint risk at the national and subnational levels.
- Invest in infrastructure to ensure future food security – for example by agreeing on guidelines for climate-compatible infrastructure through an international taskforce established under the G20.
- Enhance confidence and predictability in global trade – for example, through a process under the World Trade Organization (WTO) to continually reduce the scope for export restrictions
- Develop emergency supply-sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage, e.g. an emerging response mechanism among major players in the global food trade, modelled in part on that of the International Energy Agency in oil markets and led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) or the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).
- Build the evidence base around chokepoint risk – including through the collection of data on real-time food trade and infrastructural capacity to aid in assessing risks to food supply chains.
Try to imagine these happening in the next four years, and laugh bitterly at how 70,000 hippie-punching votes and an 18th-century slavery-supporting compromise made it impossible. It’s a perfect encapsulation of local decisions with global consequences. A few pissed off jokers outside of Milwaukee will make responding to this changing world impossible, which will lead to more conflicts, more deaths, and more spiraling disasters.
I always thought 2 + 2 = 5 by Radiohead was a little over-the-top, even for the Bush years,but it seems like the international anthem.