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FOREIGN REPORTFOREIGN REPORT
The Food-pocalypse: Why the Future of Agriculture is Screwed
Byun Bo-Kyung  |  bokyungbyun@korea.ac.kr
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승인 2014.06.04  10:17:33
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Global warming—gasp! We feel sorry for the cute polar bear just barely staying afloat upon thawed sheets of ice, nod in agreement when reading Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and can come up with at least half a dozen ways to cut down on our contributions to global warming within a blink of an eye. The only problem is, we only feel—rarely do we act. But a recent UN report revealed something that may just catch the attention of even the most apathetic person—thanks to global warming, the future of agriculture is doomed.

   
▲ Provided by dreamstime.com

When the term “global warming” was first coined in 1975 by American scientist Wallace Broecker, it was still a hypothetical concept. Even up until the Bush Administration, the President himself tried to play down the significance of global warming by addressing it with the less negatively charged term, “climate change.” Within such a political atmosphere, the Kyoto Protocol more or less failed, as did the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and the ambitious Cap-and-Trade legislation. Though well-acquainted with the issue of global warming itself, most people remained in denial, willfully ignorant, or simply indifferent toward reality.

Now, however, there seems to be little room left for procrastination. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science and was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 along with Al Gore for its efforts to clarify the risks of climate change—released its most recent report just this March, raising the threat of global warming to a whole new level. It pierced through the global community’s general ambience of apathy and sparked an international buzz.

Contents of the Report

The thorough review, the culmination of several years of work by hundreds of authors combined, says that ice caps around the world are melting, as is sea ice in the Arctic, water is being used unsustainably, extreme weather patterns such as heavy rain and heat waves are becoming increasingly more frequent, and ocean levels are surging to the point where they are threatening the way of life of people living in coastal areas.

In addition, the acidity of oceans is also rising, as they swallow up the carbon dioxide emitted by factories and cars, which in turn is pushing to the brink of extinction countless sea and land animals, already pressured due to changing habitats caused by rising temperatures. And to make things seem even more bleak, the report also says that organic matter—that up until now remained frozen in Arctic soils since before the beginning of civilization—is steadily melting; this emits greenhouse gases that will further exacerbate global warming.

But to tell the truth, the analysis up until this point is regrettable, but not alarming. It is but a somewhat grimmer confirmation of what people have heard before. The IPCC report’s significance lies in that it projects how the current effects of global warming will affect humanity in the next few decades. It makes it clear that the world’s food supply is under serious threat, and that this will have unignorable political and economic ramifications for people all around the world. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact of climate change,” said the chairman of the IPCC Rajendra K. Pachauri.

The Situation Around the World: People Demand More Food…

Though our own country suffers from an alarmingly decreasing birth rate, the population of the world in general is exploding by 80 million every year. The problem is, ever-increasing numbers of these people desire to eat more grain-intensive meat products as their quality of life improves through economic development.

To make matters worse, the ongoing enthusiasm for sustainable energy and biofuel means that a considerable amount of what was once supplied as grain crop is now allocated to the production of ethanol. The craze in the United States for ethanol alone has contributed to doubling the global demand for grain, and along with it global prices for grain as well.

…but the World Can’t Supply It

While the development of diverse forms of agricultural technology such as better machinery and genetically modified crops has improved efficiency of production, the global production capacity is in no shape to satisfy the disproportionately increasing demand.

Roughly a third of the world’s cropland is experiencing soil erosion faster than it can be reclaimed, which brings down the productivity of the land as a whole. Current ongoing practices of unsustainable overplowing and deforestation, topped with rising global climates, indicate no signs of improvement for this continuing erosion.

The rise in temperatures is further exacerbating the global capacity for food production by depleting available fresh water reserves, such as those in the Himalayas. This in turn, will take a toll on the accessibility of water needed to support the vast production capacity of the world’s agricultural powerhouses in South Asia.

As if this were not enough, prices for essential staples such as wheat and corn will continue to rise along with the global climate, as both crops are extremely sensitive to heat. According to the report, just a 1°C increase in global temperatures would have extreme ramifications for their level of production. These conditions put all together would hit agricultural powerhouses such as India and China hard, posing large risks to food security on both a regional and global level.

   
▲ crop failures are occurring increasingly often due to abnormal weather patterns and lack of rain, as was the case of this corn field in Santa Fe, Argentina. Provided by valorsoja.com

Will Climate Change Push the World into War?

As a final shocker, the report forecasts that climate change will exacerbate global security problems such as civil wars and domestic and international conflicts. Though it may not be a direct cause of violence, it will certainly add to other various geopolitical factors to make tensions even more brittle. Extreme weather, food problems, fights over resources such as water—that are already ongoing in the international community nowadays—will become even more intense with this added factor, and further destabilize world politics.

   
▲ With the growth in the world supply of food far from matches the growth in the world demand for food, food crises are imminent. Provided by hermes-press.com

So What’s All This Buzz About?

The IPCC’s report, while given credibility by the backing of the UN, is being slammed by some climate scientists as being overly dramatic. Richard Tol, one of the original authors of the report, actually pulled out of the writing team because “the drafts became too alarmist.” Others deplored how the IPCC was losing its neutral stance as an information-providing intergovernmental panel and becoming increasingly politicized. The Yokohama Report is being condemned as an attempt to dramatize the status quo on global warming so as to scare defecting countries such as the United States into signing the Kyoto Protocol.

Still, Let’s Not Get Hasty

Of course, it is important not to fall into the fallacy of oversimplification. Though the report does link climate change to food insecurity and conflict, this is not a fixed formula that is applicable in all cases.

Professor Lee Seungho (Division of International Studies), who specializes in water development and related issues, also agrees that linking global warming to food security, and then to international conflict would be falling into this fallacy of oversimplification. The chain of links is not a fixed formula that is applicable in all cases; rather, the professor pointed out that every state has different capacities when dealing with conflicts. As a result, a cause of conflict in one country may not necessarily be so problematic in another.

 

   
▲ Professor Lee Seungho, of Korea University Division of International Studies. Photographed by Kim Na Young

For instance, Mediterranean droughts—which the report identified as a cause of conflict in the Middle East and Northern Africa—would probably not have led to such wide-scale problems in Northern European countries. States in Europe are equipped with better physical and political infrastructure to deal with such challenges, as Professor Lee explained.

But the professor did agree in entirety with the report on the point that the importance of water in the international community could not be emphasized enough. Water is a factor that must be stabilized in the effort to solve decreased food production, climate change, and international conflict—all concerns directly mentioned in the IPCC report. “Water is one of the fundamentals of social stability,” Professor Lee explained. “It provides people with their basic needs and is also directly related to human rights, poverty, education, and all other basic development issues,” he added. Without such a fundamental factor stabilized, it naturally becomes more difficult to combat other problems.

The Importance of Political Commitment

So why are reforms concerning environmental issues, including water-related issues, proving to be so difficult? This is because the effects of reforms concerning these issues become visible only after a long period of time, often long after a politician’s term in office. As a result, for those politicians whose first and foremost aim is to be re-elected, putting precious money, time, and effort into projects with only questionable future benefits is extremely risky. “Most of the time, politicians are just not willing to undertake such political setbacks,” remarked Lee.

The professor also cited the lack of global governance as a cause of difficulty in implementing reforms, especially when it comes to transboundary water conflicts. “So far we do not yet have any fresh-water-related international laws,” Lee explained. As a result, if there is a dispute between nations regarding water resources—such as the ongoing dispute for drinking water between Israel and Palestine—there are no international laws that can provide nations with justification, even if they take the case to the international court of justice.

   
▲ The Israeli-Palestine conflict is but one cross-border conflict influenced by the issue of water. Provided by helvena.wordpress.com

Though many people place their hopes in international organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank, the effectiveness of their policies is significantly limited because of their lack of direct implementation power. For instance, though the World Bank may impose guidelines on specific projects through terms and conditions that entail the loans it extends to member countries, it cannot force regimes to act in particular ways. “Without political commitment from all UN member countries in the world, the UN system will not work,” emphasized Professor Lee. This is probably why the IPCC report that followed, published a month later in April, focused on the reinforcement of international policies and institutions to take steps toward solving the various problems caused by the ongoing trend of global warming.

Whether the report’s prognoses are alarmist or prescient remains to be seen—or rather, would best remain not seen. The sure thing is that global warming is affecting people and the environment they live in, and it will continue to do so in destructive ways unless people put a stop to their unsustainable ways of living. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon once put it, “The heat is on. We must act.”

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