Clearing the Smoke: Food, Trade, and the Climate Crisis

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Clearing the Smoke: Food, Trade, and the Climate Crisis

By Jennifer ClappProject Map

The forest fires that have been covering Indonesia in smoke over the past month are a stark reminder of the linkages between the increasingly globalized food system and our changing climate—and the need for strong action on climate change.

The fires have strong connections to the rapid growth in the international trade in palm oil – a product that has become a staple ingredient in most processed and packaged foods that are increasingly being consumed around the world. The expansion of palm oil production has resulted in widespread deforestation to clear lands for plantations, and the associated fires and forest loss have been major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

It is imperative that we cut through the thick haze of the fires to see more clearly the links between the global food trade and the changing climate.

The UN climate talks, set to take place in Paris in the first two weeks of December, and the WTO Ministerial meeting in Nairobi, which takes place the following week, should take greater note of the deeply interconnected and complex nature of these issues to ensure that the agreements that result do not exacerbate the problem.

To date, much of the attention in these forums has focused on the ways in which a warmer world is likely to have a negative impact on food production and access, particularly in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. Many Sub-Saharan African countries, for example, are already prone to drought and rely on food imports.

Climate change is expected to lead to both more volatile food prices due to greater weather variability and higher demand for imported food in this region.

Given these dynamics, many call for greater international food trade as an adaptation strategy to cope with climate change. A more liberalized agricultural trade regime, many advocates of this approach argue, can ensure that food moves more easily from surplus to deficit regions, leading to more efficient use of resources by concentrating production in areas with greater natural resource capacity, and by extension smoothing out both prices and availability.

While international food trade may be needed in some cases to address short-term food shortages due to climate change, it is misleading to focus efforts only on this side of the equation. As the recent palm oil-forest fires in Indonesia makes clear, the linkages between increased international food trade and climate change also need to be addressed, even if they are much more complex.

The forest fires aren’t the only problem. According to some estimates, the agricultural sector accounts for around one-third to one-half of all human generated greenhouse gas emissions. This includes more generalized deforestation from land clearing for the establishment of large-scale farms as well as industrial agricultural production methods that rely heavily on fossil energy (not just to run farm machinery, but also petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides). The rearing of livestock is particularly carbon intensive—it is, in fact, the largest contributor to food sector related emissions. Added to this are emissions related to food processing, packaging, storage, waste and transportation.

Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in the global trade of some of the food items most associated with industrial agricultural supply chains, including not just palm oil, but also soybeans, meat and dairy, and processed and packaged foods. Not surprisingly, a growing number of studies show that trade in these food items contain huge amounts of embedded carbon.

The global agrifood companies that dominate supply chains for these foods have attempted to address their environmental impact by signing onto sustainable supply chain initiatives that have emerged for a number of these foods in recent years, including for palm oil, soy and beef. But as the fires in Indonesia highlight, these initiatives, at least so far, have too little coverage, and are too weak, to reverse the environmental impact of the production of these global food commodities.

It is clear that food trade will play an important role in warmer world, especially in the face of short-term food crises in the most affected countries. But locking in a more liberalized agricultural trade regime, without first fixing the agricultural system on which it is based, is likely to only exacerbate the problem of climate change.

It is important that Canadian policymakers take these complex issues seriously, including consideration of how they relate to our own food imports and exports.

Jennifer Clapp is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. She wrote this article on behalf of the Foodgrains Bank. This article originally appeared in Embassy magazine.