Looming food crisisThe state has never taken food shortages seriously because of the false security net—the Indian market.
It’s been 13 years since Home—a documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a French photographer famous for his Earth from Above footage—debuted in 2009. The documentary aimed to highlight how humanity was threatening the ecological balance on earth and show where our planet was headed in 10 years due to the impacts of climate change. The same year, the United Nations held the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, which formed the Copenhagen Accord, demonstrating a clear political intent to limit carbon emissions and respond to climate change. The accord also indicated a will to support the developing countries adapt to climate impacts. Unfortunately, over the last 13 years, we’ve been swamped by rhetoric but no concrete actions at the global level, especially by the developed countries responsible for most emissions. In a display of wilful recklessness, fossil fuel industries continue to pump resources and expand the industry for more profit. As a result, we’re now experiencing the consequences as predicted by Home.
Furthermore, climate change has been actualised with unusual outcomes across the world. The planet is undergoing an ecological emergency; we’ve started experiencing powerful heat waves, droughts, fires and record rains. The year 2022 has not only been the hottest so far, but the weather patterns worldwide, as a consequence, are actively threatening global food security, the most fundamental need of all.
In 2022 alone, droughts and heat waves have damaged crops from South Asia to Europe and North America. These regions have recorded temperatures in the high 40s, an aberrant development. Subsequently, crop production has dropped by about 30 percent. Wheat yields in Punjab, India fell by 20 percent, the highest drop in the last decade. Pakistan’s average mango production will likely drop by 50 percent this year. Heat waves and wildfires are badly damaging crops in North Africa. Tunisia’s grain output this year will fall well below farmers’ expectations. Similarly, widespread drought has affected yields in the United States. Thriving crickets and grasshoppers have destroyed swathes of crops. In Italy, the heat waves are causing rivers to dry. Irrigation is under threat in the most intensively farmed areas; the drought threatens a third of crop production. Around 125 municipalities in Italy have begun rationing drinking water.
Equally alarming trends are seen in other regions. In China, while southern provinces are battling record rains, the north is seeing unusually high temperatures, threatening to hamper corn and soybean production. In Bangladesh, over 100,000 hectares of ready-to-harvest rice crops were washed away by untimely floods in June. A similar disaster occurred in Nepal in October 2021.
As global food production continues to weather the ravages of climate change, the looming food shortages are further exacerbated by the Ukraine-Russia war; food exports from these countries accounted for about 25 percent of the global food supply. The war has also affected fertiliser exports, upping the price and seriously affecting countries that depend on imported fertilisers. Consequently, the global food crisis will directly impact countries like Nepal, which rely, to a significant extent, on imported food to sustain their food security. The UN already anticipates multiple famines this year as crops around the world face severe damage as a consequence of heat waves, fires, floods and droughts.
Two key factors have compounded food shortages in Nepal. First, we have been unsuccessful in doing the bare minimum within our reach. Weak governance emanating from everyday political wrangling, indecisive leadership, unsteady policies and a dysfunctional administration has weakened our ability to address what appears to be a solvable problem. This is illustrated by the government’s failure to import fertiliser on time for this year’s paddy, which is bound to see a fall in yield. The state has never taken food shortages seriously and planned accordingly because of the false security net, that is, the Indian market. We have deluded ourselves into believing that if domestic production fails to meet demand, we can simply hop across the border to buy more food. However, unlike in previous years, the current global situation may not be conducive to importing food. The Ukraine war has already made food expensive. Food-exporting countries have stopped exports because of falling production. There is no certainty on when the war will end. No one knows when/if crops will get a reprieve from extreme weather events. The situation is direr than any of us has been willing to admit thus far. Therefore, we must be prepared to face a severe food shortage this year.
Second, we witnessed the extent and coverage of climate impacts anomalous even at the local level. We barely experienced spring this year. A warm winter was followed by an unusually hot summer. Generally, summer temperatures would start falling with the onset of the monsoon, but this year it’s uncomfortably hot even during the monsoon in June and July. Regrettably, the government doesn’t seem concerned about the developing scenario at home and across the world or doesn’t want to acknowledge the devastating impacts it’ll have on us.
Taking note of threats
A 2008 Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) study asserted that both climate and society were changing so rapidly that the conventional style of planning remedies, which usually takes anywhere from two to three years from inception to implementation of a project, just wouldn’t work because, by the time the project, especially in the environment sector, was implemented, the ground reality would’ve changed dramatically. When reality changes, we need to change with it too. Therefore, the government must review and update its development strategies, institutional landscape, and modus operandi to work towards addressing encompassing climate impacts in this changed context. Failing to do so would only mean pushing more people into poverty. Unfortunately, the government still follows the conventional way of formulating its annual development programme, which is mainly blind to the climate threats knocking at our door.
The imminent food crisis is only a single instance of how climate change will affect everyone. We’re on the precipice of catastrophe becoming the norm. As heralded by Home, climate change isn’t solely about an increase in rain or higher temperatures. It’s about a total and unprecedented shift in how our planet functions, from the life cycle of insects to food crops to how we manage waste to how our cities are built. From the most basic blocks of life to the complex systems we’ve built over centuries, this poses a truly existential threat. Our government and politicians must accept this truth and act accordingly before we hurtle into truly unknown waters.