Oxfam – Hot and hungry

Welcome back to Digested Reads – telling you what to think about reports that tell you what to think. This week, Oxfam’s “Hot and Hungry” – How do we stop climate change making people hungry.

Context: The IPCC is preparing to officially release its 5th Assessment report on Climate Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation. Various newspapers have used leaked drafts to prophesy doom and gloom action is taken, and scientists are meeting this week to go over, line-by-line, the all important “summary for policymakers” – the bit that non-scientists can understand. In short, scientists need to check that what they really mean is going to come across when translated into layman’s terms. It’s important because its this kind of document that sets the limits of the discourse around adaptation. The way this report presents the information could shape the adaptation debate as we go into negotiations towards Paris 2015, so each line matters.


Oxfam, currently on fine debate framing form with their critiques of global and UK inequality, are pitching in on food security and climate change, summarising a load of research to support their position.

In short: The world’s food system is “woefully” unprepared for climate change, but it doesn’t need to be (if you follow Oxfam’s suggestions).

In more detail: The briefing opens up with the threat of climate change to what we eat – evidence from the IPCC will demonstrate overall decline in agricultural productivity (the last report, in 2007, suggested that losses in some places could be balanced by gains elsewhere, a fact seized upon by climate deniers). While demand for food will rise by 14% per decade, agricultural yields will decrease by 2% per decade. Food prices are predicted to “double by 2030, with half of this rise driven by climate change”, reducing calorie availability, and “putting the fight against hunger back by several decades”.

We then get 10 areas of climate policy that are determinants of hunger. It’s always going to be hard to choose 10 (a suspiciously round number) and Oxfam admit that other factors like “income levels, demographic trends and conflict”, aren’t included. There’s a bit of a problem of arbitrariness emerging here, which is sort of the underlying problem of the report. Why are these 10 picked over the many other possible areas that heavily impact food prices and production? Each policy area will get a score out of 10, to indicate “the size of the global adaptation gap” in that area.

Ghana, Viet Nam and Malawi are commended for bucking the trend compared to similar countries like Nigeria, Laos and Niger, due to their action in the 10 areas of policy. The accompanying graph shows risk to climate change against food quantity, affordability and quality, three aspects which don’t necessarily merge together nicely. High scores for quantity and affordability could hide the poor quality of the food, which can cause health problems later down the line. Nonetheless, it’s a useful graph at least for picking out the vast inequalities in food security between high and low income countries.

oxfam chart

Next. the ten policy areas and scores, including adaptation finance (given a score of less than 1/10), social protection, humanitarian crisis aid, food stocks, gender, public agricultural investment, agricultural research, crop irrigation, crop insurance, weather monitoring.

We’re OK at public agricultural investment (7/10),  African leaders committing in 2003 to spend 10% of their budgets on agriculture. We’re decent at food crisis aid (6/10) (perhaps less so as Syria unfolds), and alright at maintaining food stocks (5/10). Everything else has less than 3/10 – not very inspiring. One that sticks out for me is Gender, which gets 5/10.

Research shows that women and climate change are closely related. 43% of the agricultural workforce are women, and climate change effects them heavily. Adaptation planned with women in mind is good, boosting yields and giving us “our best change of producing good food in a warming world”. Women lose out on rights to land, making investment decisions and access to information about weather. All this is true and worth bringing attention to. But the briefing also manages to reduce women’s role in life to that of food producers and not much else. It’s symbolic of a tendency, in climate policy circles, of reducing the success of women’s integration to nothing more than increases in agricultural productivity and land ownership, and its a dangerous precedent to set for the future.

There is then a bit about the limits to adaptation, the likelihood of losing farmland permanently, and the urgency of adapting properly.

Finally, the policy prescriptions themselves. Building resilience, slashing greenhouse emissions, and securing legally binding international agreements that deliver finance. It’s interesting that “the legal right to food” dominates the resilience building aspect; enshrining it in national law and making sure adaptation policies are consistent with it. Again, the problem here is arbitrariness – why promote the legal right to food over, say, the legal right to water access, which is equally important for agriculture and resilience? The role of big corporations and hedge funds in land grabbing and food price speculating is also ignored,which is surprising given the inequality slant of Oxfam in the last few weeks. You would expect some emphasis on encouraging rich countries to reign in their cowboy investors.

However, it’s not all bad – the policy gaps identified are no less important, and it’s good that someone is keeping watch on how progress is being made. In fact, what the report does show, more than anything, is the fact of how little progress is being made to close the gap on adaptation action. Calls for more finance and fair deal in 2015 are also to be welcomed – and when there is so much that needs doing in so many policy areas on climate adaptation, you can’t blame Oxfam too much for having to pick their targets and stick with them.


The colourful illustrative bit ...

The colourful illustrative bit …