Ignoring Climate Change and Food Shortages

As nations awaken to the growing danger of food shortages worsened by climate change, they have started reinvesting in agricultural research and development to create greater food security for their own people. Unfortunately, some countries are focused on short-term benefits, courting investment for investment’s sake and ignoring the long-term consequences.

The news has been full of stories in the last few years about foreign nations and companies buying up farmland in developing Latin American and African countries, many of which have trouble feeding their own people. These foreign buyers use the land to grow food that they then ship back to their own countries to enhance their food security. The developing countries selling their farmland receive a little money but no improvement to their own food security.

Some developed countries are making similarly poor choices.

Between 1984 and 2010, the amount of agricultural land in Australia owned in whole or in part by overseas companies and investors nearly doubled to 11 percent nationally. In South Australia, foreign ownership almost tripled to 12 percent. In the Northern Territory, it grew from 18 percent to 24 percent.

In early 2009, Australian billionaire James Packer sold 17 cattle ranches in northern Australia with a land area larger than that of The Netherlands for A$425 million to Terra Firma, a British company.

Other foreign companies like Westchester Group Investment Management, Inc. of the United States, London-based Anglo-Australian Southern Agricultural Resources, COFCO Group of China, and Thailand’s Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation are also spending millions of dollars buying up Australian farmland, ranches, and vineyards.

Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of wheat, after the United States. Half of Australia’s 23 licensed wheat exporters are owned by foreign companies.

Why are foreign buyers and investors interested in farmland in a country that is the driest inhabited continent on the planet, one that has been besieged in the twenty-first century by drought? One viable reason must be short-term memory loss. A second is actually the decade of drought, because it sent agricultural land prices plummeting between 20 and 50 percent, depending on location, since late 2007. Cheap land prices are always appealing to investors.

Also luring buyers to Australia is La Nina, which ended the national drought last year with plentiful rains that helped beleaguered farmers produce bumper crops two years in a row.

Many of those farmers are still selling their land. Battered by drought and floods, they are often grateful for the money they receive for farms that have been in their families for generations. Their children, who watched the economic and emotional toll climate change took on their parents, are choosing different careers and leaving the land. Offered millions of dollars in exchange for back-breaking work and global warming-induced stress, they and their parents are selling.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, known as ABARES, enthusiastically supports these sales to foreign buyers and investors, as does Australia’s national government, which issued a report in mid-January 2012 insisting that foreign investment in agriculture boosts the nation’s farm production and creates rural jobs.

Unlike the buyers of farmland in many developing countries, Australia’s foreign buyers and investors are more interested in profit than shipping food back home to their own people. But, as climate change accelerates, that could easily change. These companies may soon be forced to answer to national concerns about food security. In the next few decades, foreign-owned Australian farm and ranch land could be “conscripted” to produce food for China, Thailand, Great Britain, even the United States instead of growing food for sale to Australian and international markets.

Australia has approximately 2.96 million square miles of land of which just 6.5 percent is arable land, according to the World Bank.

How much farmland can Australia sell before it finds it can’t feed its own people?

Hunger Stalks North America

The news is full of stories about the terrible spread of hunger in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The news is not full of stories about the terrible spread of hunger in developed countries, which might lead people to assume that hunger is not an issue in, for example, North America or Europe.

But it is.

Among the 25 member nations of the European Union, 100 million people suffer from hunger.

In the U.S., which is the world’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, nearly 49 million people, 15 percent of the population, are food insecure. Of those, 16 million are children. In upscale Santa Barbara County, California, one-quarter of the children are food insecure. In recession-battered Zavala County, Texas, nearly one-half of the children are food insecure.

In the five boroughs of New York City, 3.3 million men, women, children, seniors, and people with disabilities are food insecure. Equally troubling, poor New Yorkers can’t afford to buy healthy food, like fresh produce. The can only afford fat-, sugar-, and salt-laden processed foods and fast foods, which is creating an epidemic of diabetes and obesity among the urban poor.

Then there is the other half of North America, seemingly quiet and peaceful and abundant Canada, where many politicians are insisting that hunger isn’t an issue for the 34 million people in their country.

But it is.

In May 2012, Olivier De Schutter, a Belgian human rights expert and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food who is studying hunger issues in developed nations, issued a report claiming that 800,000 households (i.e., more than 2 million people) in the country are food insecure. He called food insecurity among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples a “desperate situation.

“What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and [between] Aboriginal [and] non-Aboriginal peoples,” he said in a follow-up press release. Adequate diets “have become too expensive for poor Canadians.”

Rather than going “Gosh, we really have a problem and we need to do something about it,” Canada’s Conservative politicians and administration were outraged, loudly dismissing De Schutter’s report in newspaper and television interviews.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird: “There are, what, 193 members of the U.N.? I think most Canadians would think that spending 11 days in Canada on this issue . . . his time would be better spent elsewhere.”

Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq: “I met with the individual this morning and found him to be an ill-informed, patronizing academic studying, once again, the aboriginal people, Inuit and Canada’s Arctic, from afar. I took the opportunity to educate him about Canada’s north and the aboriginal people who depend on the wildlife that they hunt every day for food security.”

In his report, De Schutter had pointed out that the country’s Nutrition North Canada program, which subsidizes retailers that serve remote communities so that they can offset transportation costs and provide reasonably-priced food to those communities, isn’t working. “The retail subsidy is not being fully passed on to the consumer,” De Schutter noted.

This was mild language for what has become a catastrophic problem throughout northern Canada, where traditional food supplies are dwindling rapidly (hunting is not providing daily food security) and retailers are charging prices that go far beyond exorbitant.

In Nunavut in far northern Canada, a province the size of Western Europe with a population of around 35,000 predominantly Inuit people struggling with low or nonexistent incomes, stores are charging $10.25 for green peppers, $19 for cranberry juice, $28 for a cabbage, $65 a pound for chicken, and $105 for 24 bottles of water (safe drinking water is a critical problem in Aboriginal communities).

Yes, those are real prices.

The stores know “we have no choice,” one Nunavut citizen told reporters. “They can just do what they want and we have no option.”

Some desperate citizens actually fly to Edmonton, Alberta to shop and fly home. The roundtrip cost is lower than if they had gone to Nunavut stores.

Nunavut retailers also stock most of their shelves with processed food, rather than healthy and nutritious food. It is cheaper to buy soft drinks than apple juice in Nunavut.

“Nutrition North was supposed to bring improvements to the availability of healthy foods in Nunavut. But we see the same unhealthy food being displayed and sold in our store,” Jakob Gearheard, Executive Director of the Ilisaqsivik Society in Clyde River, Nunavut, told reporters. With the Nutrition North program broken, “the bottom line is that healthy food is less accessible and more expensive than before.”

Ignored by the current Conservative administration, Nunavut citizens are beginning to fight back. They have launched a Facebook group called Feeding My Family (17,000 members and counting) which is helping to organize actions, like protests in front of convenience and food stores and calls for much greater access to healthy food at fair prices.

Similarly, a Change.org petition is being circulated to drum up action on food insecurity in Nunavut.