Today, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak officially announced his resignation after 30 years in power. The uprising in Egypt has been the number one global story for the past two weeks.
The latest spikes in global food prices are at least partly responsible for the Egyptian uprising, according to a recent article by Climate Progress, which cited numerous media reports around the world supporting that claim.
The piece concluded: “Energy insecurity and climate instability have now become key factors in food insecurity, which in turn has become a key factor in toppling governments.”
Last November, The Nature Conservancy’s Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations, also blogged on this site about climate change being a factor in rising global food prices. He talked about the impact on a place like Egypt.
In his piece, Deutz discussed last year’s record-breaking heat wave and drought – symptoms of global climate change – in Russia. The extreme climate events caused massive forest fires in Russia and resulted in an approximate 33 percent decline in the country’s wheat production. As a result, the country imposed restrictions on wheat exports, and the global price of wheat spiked.
This spike in the cost of wheat had a serious effect on countries like Egypt. In Egypt, bread is the principle staple. The government has subsidized bread for 78 million Egyptians. The last time there was a dramatic spike in wheat prices (during the oil price spike in 2008), there was a bread shortage in Egypt, causing riots in the streets of Cairo. During the Russia fires last year, the Egyptian government was prepared to pay more to maintain its bread subsidies, so riots were avoided. But it came at a cost: approximately $5-6 billion that could have otherwise helped pay for other programs like education and childhood immunization.
And it looks like the threats to wheat prices aren’t going away. The New York Times reported this week that droughts in China will cause problems for the cost of wheat once again. And just last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the January food price inflation index was at its highest level ever.
The bottom line is that the reliability and cost of food is becoming an increasing concern in light of a spate of natural disasters that are having dramatic effects on farming worldwide. Climate change stands to exacerbate these kinds of events and the widespread impacts on agriculture.
Faced with changes in temperature and rain patterns, farmers will need to adjust their practices to be more resilient. An interesting report, partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published recently by the Worldwatch Institute recommends several changes that are needed to protect food supplies, especially in countries most vulnerable to climate change.
The report proposes expanding urban farming into Africa’s cities, improving storage to reduce food spoilage, and providing financial incentives to poor farmers that help them keep their crops in the ground longer and diversify their farming practices.
One example of how The Nature Conservancy is working on this is in the area of “grassbanking.” As Discovery explains it, grassbanking is a “relatively new practice where property owners lease land to ranchers at a discount in exchange for ranchers to carry out conservation-related projects on their pastures. The agreement enables ranchers to stay in business by providing their cattle with fresh sources of grass and their heavily grazed land with a much-needed rest.”
Grassbanking is simple and effective, and something the Conservancy has done in areas such as Montana, and in Kenya, where the grassbanks helped both wildlife and people get through the 2009 drought there.
In light of the uprising in Egypt, it will be interesting to see if agricultural links to climate change – and potential solutions – are more closely examined this year. The next big UN climate conference – this coming December – will be in Durban, South Africa, closer to where some of these issues are real day-to-day matters of survival for people, and possibly governments as well.
Matt Barrett is marketing manager for climate change at The Nature Conservancy
Photo by: Flickr user Nasser Nouri (Egypt/bread). Used under a Creative Commons license.
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