Riots, Towns Gone Dry, Soaring Prices: The Food-Pocalypse Is Already Upon Us
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The mother of all climate reports is so scary that one of its authors resigned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in protest. "Farmers are not stupid," the Sussex University economist Richard Tol said this past week, as hundreds of researchers cloistered away in Yokohama, Japan, hammering out the final wording of a document that he called "alarmist" when it comes to the many threats of global warming. The people who grow our food will find ways to adapt, said the rogue climate scientist at the most important climate science meeting in seven years.
But change isn't easy – especially not tectonic changes to the Earth. The final wording arrived today, and the IPCC report's most alarming projections make clear what many other studies have warned: the future of agriculture – of global hunger, of your grocery bill – is screwed. Or as UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon put it rather more politely when he inaugurated the first rounds of the IPCC report last September: "The heat is on. We must act."
Glaciers will continue to shrink in the Himalayas, according to the IPCC, severely impacting the availability of water for farming in vast areas of south Asia and China. Climate change will damage heat-sensitive crops like wheat and corn, and have a smaller impact on rice and soy production. Prices for essential staples will rise on the global market. Hunger will increase in large parts of Asia and Africa. "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," predicted the IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri at a morning news conference.
The new report says that all of these very bad things will happen in future decades, as climate change picks up steam. But as I found out in east Africa last month, the future is already here for too many of the world's farmers. In Tanzania, the twice yearly seasonal rains upon which so many growers depend no longer come on time – and they're sporadic, drenching downpours at that, alternating with prolonged dry spells. Heat spikes have also been withering maize crop, and wells and streams are increasingly drying up.
The area where Dephath Omondi farms in southern Kenya looks lush, with emerald maize fields bordered by towering acacias. But he tells me that appearances are deceptive.
Twenty-five years ago the weather here was predictable – the long rains started mid-March to mid-May, then the short rains started in late August, early September. In the last decade, these rains never come on time. We have had floods and week upon week, with no rain at all. Farmers are confused about when and what to plant. It is all very worrying.
Similar disruptions are already challenging farmers worldwide. In Vietnam's Mekong Delta, rural people are losing ground as higher sea levels turn rivers too salty to grow rice. In Nicaragua, rising temperatures are spreading "coffee rust fungus", a disease which is killing thousands of trees and may render 80% of its the nation's coffee-growing areas unusable by 2050. And in the central Philippines, coconut farmers are struggling to recover from November's Typhoon Haiyan, which badly damaged or tore out an estimated 33m trees.
Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few climate-change skeptics amongst those who grow the world's food – if any. Farmers don't have to read UN reports to know how radically their weather is changing. And consumers don't need academic studies or bullet points to know that food prices are steadily rising.