August 15, 2011

Climate change and food security vs. famine

Image courtesy of Adrianne Daggett.

I'm back to blogging after a week-long road trip to move from Michigan to Arizona for my second year of graduate school. While I'm catching up on my news  and getting my brain back into academic gear. One thing I can tell you is that I'm really excited to write my research proposal. A recent conversation with a professor and a series of other academic readings on agriculture and climate change have prompted me to frame my research around "food security." What does food security mean to different people (scientists, farmers, policy-makers), and how to we envision a "food secure" future in a changing climate? This also allows me to explore some foreign policy themes that I hope to trace back to the Green Revolution era.

But for now, I will leave you with some articles/blogs that better articulate what I'm trying to say! First is a blog by Ed Carr, which I'm mentioned before, called "Open the Echo Chamber." Here are some excepts from two recent posts.
From "Stories, Development, and Adaptation":
My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being. Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.
From "Early Warning for Climate Tipping Points":
...people seem to forget that agricultural systems are ecosystems; radically simplified ecosystems, to be sure, but still ecosystems. They are actually terribly unstable ecosystems because they are so simple (they have little resilience to change, as there are so few components that shifting any one of them can introduce huge changes to the whole system), and so the sort of nonlinear changes I am describing have particular salience for our food supply. I am not a doomsday scenario kind of guy – I like to think of myself as a hopelessly realistic optimist – but I admit that this sort of thing worries me a lot.
Finally, the famine situation in Somalia is heart-wrenching, but what can social science tell us about policy responses? Here's an article that helped me better understand the context. You'll hopefully be hearing a lot more riffs on these themes over the next few weeks and months.

UPDATE: I just found a few more interesting articles that relate to this post. One is an interview with some agricultural/environment/development experts and public figures on NPR about climate change. Then I found this brief article interesting: "Singapore to address global food security through R&D."

While these articles hit on all of the main themes that have come up in the agriculture/climate change discourse, I find their definition of "food security" quite limited. Food security invokes a range of factors in people's livelihoods, the market, and the environment. Food security is not just higher-yielding rice. It's amazing to me how the narratives of the Green Revolution ("miracle rice," technological fixes, the scientists swooping in to save the day) are perpetuated in climate change adaptation efforts.

It's a lot easier to break problems into small bits- I know this as someone who studied biochemistry for five years! But problems like the impacts of climate change on agriculture are, like I mentioned last week, "wicked problems." They won't be "solved" anytime soon. On the other hand, technological innovation is a major factor in agriculture and our global economy. The problems we face today will be categorically different in 50 years because of changes in technology and society. So I somewhat easily dismiss Lester Brown's warnings that the "agricultural system that we have today has evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability.... But now that climate is changing, with each passing year, the agricultural system is more and more out of synch with the climate system, and that's presenting a challenge." I did background research this summer on regional climate change, such as the American dust bowl, or how farmers in Nepal adapt to varying levels of rainfall and soil quality. It's true that overall, we have lived in a "climate stationary" period for the past thousands of years. However, when you increase the resolution of the picture, you see that farmers are incredibly innovative in adapting to changes in technological, economic, and environmental conditions.


  1. I really think you're on to something with the definition of food security. If it were all about high-yielding rice, then Monsanto or some company like it would be the wave of the future. But I think food security doesn't just have to do with addressing world hunger, but empowering the workers who make the food, treating the land right, and creating self-sustained eco/social systems that don't require massive food imports from beyond their borders -- and don't need to get their seeds like that either.

  2. This graphic is becoming famous!

    Memorize ALL the diseases/pathogens/drugs/everything?


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