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Hunger-climate connection

November 7, 2011

As populations grow, climate change may make the hunger issue worse. Droughts and heavy storms will have an impact and so will our efforts to stop climate change itself.

A sack of World Food Program food on a truck in Somalia
The least-developed world looks sure to suffer from climate changeImage: AP

"The hunger crisis and the climate crisis can only be overcome together. They are two sides of the same coin," said Klaus Töpfer, the former German environment minister at a reception at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam this summer.

A founder in Malawi
Liberalization has meant less cash for agriculture in poor countriesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The institute, which is lead by Töpfer, opened in early 2009 with federal and state financing. Fifty of the world's top researchers have come together here to work on the issues of climate change, sustainability and energy security. They work in a beautiful, old villa.

At the reception where Töpfer spoke, fine wines were served alongside fancy appetizers in the villa's garden. Yet Töpfer's thoughts were far away in the poor countries of the southern hemisphere. He was also thinking of the future.

"Soon there will be 9 billion of us on this planet," he said, "Climate change policy and the fight against hunger will thus be more and more important in global efforts for peace, whether we like it or not."

An unfair burden

Klaus Milke, from the environmental group Germanwatch, agrees with Töpfer, and told Deutsche Welle he's noticing a changed perception of climate change in least-developed countries.

"For a long time the fight against hunger was the most important thing in many countries," he said. "They said climate change was a first-world problem. What we need is growth and we can't let climate change protection limit that." Now, according to Milke, these countries are thinking differently and see a strong connection between rising global temperatures, deforestation, increasing droughts and hunger.

Neglected agricultural development

"The main reasons for the growing hunger disasters are droughts and floods, and these will be exacerbated in the extreme by climate change," said Bärbel Höhn, a parliamentarian from the Greens and a former agriculture minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "The poor countries are once again not the ones responsible for the root of the problems they have to fight."

Cattle in Brazil
The developed world's taste for steak has led to deforestation in BrazilImage: AP

In fact Africa contributes only about 3 percent of global greenhouse gases produced, and yet an unfair share of the world's hungry live there.

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals have made the fight against hunger a top priority. Yet the amount of aid for agricultural development given by wealthy countries has decreased, as have the allotments for agricultural developments in the poor countries' budgets.

Liberalization has been the magic word, with government interventions seen as unproductive. Even the Doha Development Round, which seeks to lower trade barriers around the world, has not been able to give the poor countries a fair chance to compete on the world market.

The dark side of biofuel

On top of all that, now these countries face climate change, and, sometimes even worse, the things rich countries do to try and prevent climate change. Hoping to reduce their own carbon footprints, many countries in Europe and the US have invested in biofuels. They've turned to developing countries to grow the plants they need for these new fuels, such as corn, sugar cane or palm oil. The poor countries exports then worsen their hunger situation.

"It's always about our consumption habits," said Höhn. "This debate over biofuel or food, or dinner plate or gas tank, should really be thick, juicy steak or dinner plate."

In Brazil, Höhn said as an example, eight million hectares of sugarcane are grown for biofuels. But there are 200 million hectares of grazing land for cattle that are raised to provide steaks for the markets of wealthy countries. These grazing lands are often former rainforests.

Töpfer, Milke and Höhn have all put their hopes on small-scale farmers. They must be provided with infrastructure, technical knowledge and funding, they said. If you support the small farmer, they agreed, you can fight hunger and climate change at the same time.

Climate change must be thought of globally, they said. That Europe is one of the biggest exporters of grains, meat and dairy products to Africa, squeezing local farmers out of the markets, is one insight from thinking this way, they said.

A second conclusion? That not every type of biofuel is good for the climate.

"We know enough about these connections," said Milke. "What we need to do now is finally start acting."

Author: Jens Thurau / hf
Editor: Nancy Isenson