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Digital reporter Daksha Rangan talks with Andrea Cattaneo to understand the global impact of climate change on agriculture.
CLIMATE CHANGE & FOOD SECURITY

Q&A: The hidden side of Earth's rising temperatures


Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Thursday, November 17, 2016, 1:52 PM - Dwindling Arctic sea ice levels, severe drought, rising floodwaters, and the shriveling remnants of countless lakebeds.

All of these events readily come to mind when discussing global climate change. What likely doesn't come to mind, however, is the impact these events have already made on millions outside of the Western World.


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Sub-Saharan Africa is feeling the lash of an excessive and prolonged drought that has threatened the food security of millions, region-wide; the impacts are only looking to worsen. Southeast Asia faces the threat of food shortage as sea levels rise near rice-production hubs.

To determine the connection between food shortages and climate change, and to better understand Canada's role in the many cases of international food insecurity, we spoke to Andrea Cattaneo, a senior economist at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), and editor of the 2016 State of Food and Agriculture report.

Here's what he had to say.

The Weather Network: How are climate change and food security linked?

Andrea Cattaneo: Just to give you a sense of the numbers by one estimate: By 2050 more than 40 millon people would be at risk of hunger relative to a scenario without climate change. So the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations is in the orders of millions of people being at risk of food insecurity.

TWN: Can you name some specific factors of climate change that pose the biggest threats to food security?

Cattaneo: [R]ising sea levels are of great concern in places like the Mekong Delta [and] other parts of southeast Asia where a lot of the rice production occurs. There’s also an issue of predictability. We expect an increase in climate variability that comes with climate change. So it’s not just an average temperature that changes. [F]armers in Africa are already seeing that rains are coming later or in a less-predictable manner. So you might have the same average rainfall over a season but it might come all at once, which is not good for crops. So in terms of there being one key element, it’s probably not there. Locally, concerns will be more specific. Certain climatic variables are more binding than others in terms of constraints. [I]t’s a number of different concerns and part of the difficulty is understanding what will be the variable that will affect crops or yields and food security.

TWN: How do these factors impact people in poorer countries differently than those in wealthier ones?

Cattaneo: [I]t’s a question of resources. Farmers in developed countries have access to more resources -- be it financial [or] institutional. We have weather forecasts: There are multiple weather forecasts in developed countries that people and farmers can rely on. So I think that's one area where it’s a big difference in terms of the resources that farmers can leverage to react to climate change, make decisions, and have choices. The other big difference is the fact of the impacts, the actual climate impacts are going to be stronger and the paradox is they’re going to be stronger in those countries that contributed the least. 

Cattaneo lists Sub-Saharan Africa and India as countries that are suffering the brunt of climate change. Naturally, this raises an eyebrow – isn’t India one of the world’s most heavily populated nations? Aren’t they responsible for the toxic smog that is choking the state of Delhi right now? The answer isn’t so obvious. Cattaneo notes that the hardest-hit countries contributed the least in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because they started their development process later on. Carbon dioxide is a gas that accumulates over time in the atmosphere.

Cattaneo: (Continued) [The] countries that started causing pollution 150 years ago, they’re going to have contributed in a disproportionately larger amount than countries like India, when one calculates per capita initiatives. On top of that, these are countries that typically have lower incomes and a larger share of the population is under the poverty line.

TWN: What does it mean for the rest of the world (and Canada, specifically) if food security plummets in parts of Africa and Asia? How will people be impacted if food insecurity becomes too dire to handle in other countries?

Cattaneo: From a purely economic perspective, one can make the argument that prices will be more volatile. There’s a projected increase in the price of food over the next 20, 30 years -- pretty much all economic models project that there’s going to be an increase in the price of food. So that will affect us in, let’s say, developed or rich countries; although, the impact -- given that, on average, we spend a relatively small share of our income on food -- is not going to be huge, it’s not going to lead to good insecurity in developed countries. Where I think there’s a bigger issue that affects the whole world is the issue of food insecurity leading to unrest, to migration, and we’re seeing that nowadays – linked to major conflicts – now climate change can exacerbate existing tensions, to the extent that food security is at risk. So that is an aspect in geopolitical terms that will be felt in a much stronger manner by the average person in a developed country.

TWN: Do you think there's the potential for us to see more climate refugees in the near future?

Cattaneo: As situations worsen over time, based on climate projections, one can envision that there will be climate refugees. I think at times it’s difficult to put a label on somebody who decides to leave their country as specifically a climate refugee. People leave for many reasons, and I think that climate will increasingly become a factor to the extent that it makes it more difficult for people to make a living, so that in the end is what pushes people to migrate.

What can Canadians do, today, to help prevent international food security linked to climate change?

Cattaneo: “[A] lot will depend on what is done today in terms of reacting to the prospect of climate change, and changing our economic path. I think countries are already moving in that direction with the agreement that was signed in Paris in 2015. The position that Canada has in the climate change negotiations and in the international fora, well, every citizen can express a view on what Canada’s position is.

Editor's Note: Some answers have been condensed.

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