Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on January 24, 2011 (updated: February 17, 2015)

The food (and water) crisis

Randy ChristensenLawyer

This blog post, by Ecojustice staff lawyer Randy Christensen, was originally published by the Vancouver Observer.

My first few posts in 2011 will take a look at water issues facing us over the next 12 months. First up: the looming food crisis, which is largely a water issue.

There’s trouble brewing.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently warned that in December its food price index surpassed its previous peak in 2007 – 2008.

The international community is bracing itself. The last time food prices were this high, demonstrations broke out in developing countries around the world (“the tortilla riots”), rising food prices likely pushed tens of millions into poverty and people went hungry. The scorching prices of 2008 were only cooled by the economic stumble known as The Great Recession.

The effects of the current price spikes have yet to be felt in Canada and the United States where processing and advertising costs of foods often outweigh the cost of food ingredients themselves.

But in countries where most residents purchase only basic foodstuffs and where food costs require a much larger percentage of household income, the cost of food has skyrocketed.

Some speculate that rising food prices may even have been an important triggering cause of the instability in Tunisia that drove that country’s president from office.

Faced with rising international food prices, governments around the world are cooking up measures to protect domestic supplies and keep a lid on prices at home. Russia is banning grain exports and other countries are using a combination of releasing grain reserves and big subsidies for consumers.

Food prices are being driven up in part by an increase in oil prices, affecting both fuel and fertilizer inputs to agriculture. But the primary cause is water – either too much or the lack of it. Russia’s situation was caused by worst drought in a half century. Australia suffered years of drought only to be hit by torrential flooding so that lack of water has been replaced by a lack of soil. US grain forecasts have been slashed due to adverse weather.

So is the current price spike 2008 all over again – a temporary run up followed by a reversion to lower prices? Probably not, particularly for those in the poorest countries.

Two trends — rapid population growth and the increasing diversion of food stocks into biofuels — would, by themselves, put continued upward pressure on food prices. But water scarcity and variability will almost certainly push prices dramatically higher over the longer term.

A growing population will require more food production, driven even higher by trends such as increasing levels of meat consumption. The real challenge to increasing food production is not a lack of potentially arable land; it’s the lack of available water. As the FAO says, without investments in and improvement to water management, “the prospects for improving food production are remote.”

Then there’s this little problem that a number of the world’s food producing regions are sitting atop: groundwater aquifers that are being rapidly depleted.

And the elephant in the room – climate. In a shockingly underreported story, 2010 was the hottest year ever and ended the hottest decade ever.

While some argue that climate change could potentially improve agricultural production in some regions, overall the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report concluded that “the negative impacts of climate change on freshwater systems outweigh its benefits.”

While attribution of any particular weather event to climate change is a speculative exercise, the weather patterns currently disrupting grain prices are certainly consistent with what is predicted due to climate change. Some even claim that every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent. The esteemed Worldwatch Institutes predicts that because of population and climate, higher food prices are here to stay.

So what about the argument that Canada will be one of the climate winners? Russia’s recent experience is putting that to the test.

And even if Canada suffers less than other countries, it’s certainly not immune to water scarcity and climate change. In 2010, parts of British Columbia experienced a 1-in-50 year drought threatening ecological functioning, agriculture and businesses. Every year, BC’s largest cities are placed under water use restrictions.

Currently, Canada’s water laws are just not up to the task of dealing with water scarcity. When water shortages hit, there are no provisions in BC that prioritize use of water for food production and the environment. Water use is embarrassingly wasteful and BC is in the dark ages when compared to many places when it comes to re-using water. BC and the rest of Canada need to update these laws – fast!

Canada should also be prepared for the international community to increasingly look to Canada for water, and goods and services produced with water. “Virtual water flows” are not from Farmville but rather refer to the increasing trend of water scarce countries outsourcing agriculture and manufacturing to “water-rich” nations.

It will also be necessary for Canada to raise its foreign aid contributions, even in these fiscally tight times. At the very time when initiatives like the World Food Program are needed most, the ability to assist is being hobbled by food prices.

And, unfortunately, we need to brace ourselves for, and try to prevent, the international instability that will be inevitable as more and more of the world’s population are priced out of the basic act of eating.

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