The relation between climate change and food security – December 29, 2011


Jacklyn Cock’s* informative article discusses the impact of climate change on food security, especially in Africa and Southern Africa.

Or how climate change affects the bread you eat and the beer you drink

Venezuelian president Hugo Chavez has described the global food system as “the greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model”. It is a system based on profit., one that only profits those that run it, in other words, corporations. It is a catastrophe because it means that over a billion people in the world go hungry. The reference to one billion people is the UN estimate of the number of people who suffer from chronic hunger. But this number leaves out those who suffer from vitamin and nutrient deficiences and other forms of malnutrition. “The total number of food insecure people who are malnourished or lack critical nutrients is probably closer to 3 billion people – about half of humanity”.

Food insecurity

At least half of all South Africans live in absolute poverty, and ‘food insecurity’ (meaning being hungry) is one of the worst aspects of absolute poverty. The Urban Food Security Baseline Survey conducted in late 2008 found that levels of food insecurity among the urban poor in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg is 77%. The average for the total of 11 cities surveyed in the Southern African subregion is 77%.   ‘Food insecurity’ means going hungry and it is increasing among South African children. One in 4 of our children under the age of six years are stunted due to chronic malntutrition. This means that our future generation lack the nutrients they need for growth and development

Climate change

These shocking figures will increase with climate change. Climate change means increases in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere (sometimes called ‘global warming) and the disruption this brings like less predictable rainfall and more extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. It is caused by burning fossil fuels in the form of coal, gas and oil which release carbon dioxide.

Because of climate change future food production will lack cheap energy, abundant water or a stable climate. The increase in droughts and floods will cut food production in parts of the world by 50% in the next 12 years.

Africa’s impact

The impact will be particularly severe in Africa. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that wheat production will disappear from Africa and there will be a marked decrease in the amount of maize under cultivation across the continent. Maize and bread are our staple foods. Already the price of bread has risen by 66% in the last 3 years. This is partly because we have to import one of the main ingredients – wheat – and wheat production has been affected by flooding in Australia and drought in Russia which ruined crops, and led to higher wheat prices. A report from Oxfam released last week says world food prices will double because of climate change. Rising oil prices are another factor which affect food prices, because of transport costs and that most fertilisers are oil-based . Rising oil prices are behind the shift to agrofuels like ethanol which can be made from both maize and wheat , a process which involves diverting land from food production to biofuels. This sets up a competition for food between rich people’s cars and working people.

Climate change will also affect the price of beer (and maybe even the taste). This is because hops is one of the main ingredients and is grown in the Western Cape. Rainfall in the Western Cape is expected to decrease by 60% because of climate change. And what make this especially bad is that for us in SA there is another crisis – the crisis of unemployment – now running at 40%. The increasing numbers of unemployed people who rely on social grants or the R60 a day paid by the community work programme cannot afford to buy good, nutritious food.

A political issue

Climate change is a deeply political issue in the sense that it reflects relations of power and inequality. It does so in two ways: firstly, it is the over-consumption and waste of the elites in the rich industrialised countries of the North who are mainly responsible for the carbon emissions which cause climate change but the people of the South – particularly in Southern Africa – will suffer the most from climate change. Secondly, rich people in both the north and the south have the resources to protect themselves from the impact of climate change. For example, water will become more scarce but rich people will retreat into high security enclaves of privilege such as gated communities where they have access to natural resources like water.

This retreat is already happening around the world. For example, in South Africa there are over 80 luxurious so-called ‘golf estates’, and a golf course uses an average of 1 million litres of water each day.

The global elite have failed to solve the problem of climate change. The carbon emissions that cause climate change are rising all over the world and no one expects that the international meeting in Durban in November will get agreement on binding reduction of these emissions.


This is why we have to mobilise civil society because we have to make big changes in the way we produce and consume. The food system must be transformed from the present unjust and unsustainable system of industrials agriculture which is dominated by large corporations. We have to shift to food sovereignity which is localized and aimed – not at profit – but on meeting human needs.

We have to demonstrate that the climate change crisis is caused by the expansionist logic of the capitalist system. “No serious observer now denies the severity of the environmental crisis, but it is still not widely recognised as a capitalist crisis, that is a crisis arising from and perpetuated by the rule of capital, and hence incapable of resolution within the capitalist framework”.


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