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Handle with Care: Food, Climate, and Fragile States

By: Robert Lawrence

This blogpost appeared on on October 4, 2012.

As this country emerges from one of the worst droughts we’ve experienced in fifty years, my thoughts tend toward climate change. The frightening truth is that climate change and food supply are intimately linked, and as the weather events in this country and around the world become more extreme, so will our struggle to feed ourselves.

In the beginning of September, I had the honor of attending a meeting in Budapest, Hungary, of the advisory boards of the Open Society Foundations (OSF). As a member of the Public Health Program board, I found that the link between climate change and food supply was one of the burning topics of discussion there. Citizens from nations in the Global South, where climate change has had the most devastating effects so far, were especially worried. Just as concerned were members from fragile states challenged by political and economic turmoil; lacking capacity to effectively address basic public health needs such as maternal and child health, public health ministries fear the short-term and long-term impacts of climate change on feeding their populations.

In the U.S. in July, 78 percent of this country’s corn-growing regions were in drought, leading to abandoned acres, poor yields, a reduction in income for farmers, higher corn prices, the closing of some ethanol plants, a plunge in confidence, and a decline in jobs numbers. As reported by Reuters, the drought may have even produced a nitrogen imbalance in crops that are fed to livestock, making the silage toxic. We’re seeing the drought’s fallout in the supermarkets now—higher prices for meat and dairy products.

If we in the U.S. were so stymied by the drought in our Midwest, how will these fragile, low income nations manage the onslaught of severe weather events that will parch and flood croplands, and impede their harvests?

At the OSF meeting, I was fortunate to join conversations about a breadth of work going on in equally challenging areas such as humanitarian drug policy, human rights for the Roma people of Europe, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and education at all levels. Far from being discouraged by how much work is to be done in so many areas, I was heartened to know that we who work toward healthy and just food systems are in good company. All these problems are difficult, but we are all working very hard to solve them.

At the helm of the OSF meeting was its founder and chair, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Mr. Soros has been around the block a few times. An octogenarian who’s dedicated years—and billions—to progressive causes, he opened the meeting with two insights that made a powerful impression on me.  The first is that every problem is much more complicated than it seems at first, and none of us have all the answers. The second is that we are going to make mistakes, so we might as well learn from them. The climate change–food system connection is definitely complicated, and I’m sure we’ve made mistakes already.

I left Budapest with a burning question of my own. How can we, at the Center for a Livable Future and in the community of scientists, advocates and activists working toward positive food system change, use Food Day 2012 to address climate change as a critical part of food security? I’m eager to hear suggestions.

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