Climate Action

Blind spots and converging agendas: climate change and food security

With the tendency towards ever-increasing specialisation, it is becoming easier to be blind to situations in which the actions that taken within one subject area could converge with those being applied by other people working on seemingly different subjects. Because of this blind spot, we are quite likely even to end up acting in opposition to those with whom we should collaborate, especially if we see ourselves as competing with them for scarce resources or for political attention. The tendency to concentrate on quite narrow goals, combined with a widespread failure to identify possible areas of convergence between different initiatives, could perhaps be one of the causes for the disappointing performance of many programmes and projects. With this in mind, it is instructive to look at Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme and consider its relevance to approaches towards meeting future food needs, improving human health, preventing the degradation of natural resources and slowing down the processes of climate change.

  • 29 November 2011
  • William Brittlebank


The Zero Hunger Programme

When President Lula da Silva launched Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme in January 2003, many people claimed that it was fiscally unaffordable, that welfare would compete for funds better applied to development, that it would fuel inflation, and that it would increase the dependency of the poor on ‘handouts’.

Their blind spot prevented them from being able to see that emancipating the poor from hunger and resultant social exclusion would, besides guaranteeing their human right to food, actually open the way for development; and that there was, in fact, a convergence between the hunger reduction and the economic development agendas.

The idea that better nutrition can accelerate economic growth is not a new one. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert William Fogel claimed in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death (2004) that “the combined effect of the increase in dietary energy available for work, and of the increased human efficiency in transforming dietary energy into work output, appears to account for about 50 per cent of the British economic growth since 1790.”

The largest component of Zero Hunger and the one which drew most criticism is its conditional cash transfer programme, currently known as Bolsa Familia. It provides over 12 million poor families with modest monthly grants, that enable them to meet their basic food needs. Funds are transferred by electronic card, wherever possible to an adult woman in the recipient family. Beneficiaries are required to keep their children in school and to have regular health checks.

Eight years on, it is clear that the transfers are generating high returns in terms of better health, lower child mortality, less stunting, and higher levels of participation in the labour market. The programme is stimulating economic growth where it is most needed, in the poorest communities; the wide income gap between rich and poor is shrinking, and there have been massive reductions in the number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty.

Moreover, through these grants and expanded school meals programmes, Zero Hunger is translating the food needs of the poor into incremental demand which, in turn, induces growth in food production by small-scale farmers. For many participants, Bolsa Familia represents a modern-day form of emancipation, not from slavery but from dependence on water-lords, landlords and money-lenders.

The experience shows that, contrary to the views of the prophets of doom, who included many distinguished economists, hunger reduction and economic growth are mutually reinforcing processes with convergent agendas. The Brazilian entrepreneur Eliane Belfort, commenting on estimates that US$1 spent on Bolsa Familia led to a growth in Brazilian GDP of US$22 in 2005-06, claims that such social protection programmes boost the economy and strengthen internal markets, and that “to invest in the quality of workers’ lives is an investment in business competitiveness” (Desenvolvimento Social, March 2010).


Three issues in isolation

If we turn our attention to the issues of meeting future global food needs, the conservation of natural resources, and climate change mitigation, we shall see a rather similar picture.  Each issue seems to have been pursued largely in isolation from the other.

Thus, at least until quite recently, it has been taken for granted that the world’s expanding food needs could only be met by the intensification of agriculture, using the input-intensive technologies applied in industrialised countries after the Second World War and subsequently promoted in developing countries through the ‘green revolution’.

The need to end hunger was trumpeted as the justification for the genetic modification of crops and livestock as well as for mono-cropping and ever-increasing scales of farming, underpinned by greater mechanisation, higher rates of fertiliser application and the use of pesticides. In order to justify the further expansion of such approaches to agricultural growth (which generate huge benefits for the handful of corporations that dominate the farm input and food commodities trade), a blind eye was conveniently turned to the environmental costs of the damage to soils, water resources and biodiversity caused by these systems, with the result that we are effectively leaving it to future generations to pay for it.

These costs are not accounted for in estimates of GDP, nor are they factored into food prices. Yet, as the recent European Nitrogen Assessment shows, they are massive, with, for example, nitrogen pollution damage, partly from fertilisers and intensive livestock farming, amounting to a staggering €70 billion to €320 billion per year for the whole of Europe.

Technology and innovation are as crucial for agriculture as in other areas, but if our food production is not sustainable we will deplete irreplaceable natural resources and will not manage to eradicate hunger.

It is also important to bear in mind that most input-intensive technology and the proposed solutions to increase productivity are not accessible by farmers in the poor and developing world and, in some cases, may not even be particularly useful either, since they respond to different climatic and geographic conditions.

New technologies can benefit farmers in poor and developing and poor countries if they address their needs, for instance, seeds of varieties that are drought resistant and adaptable to tropical conditions.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s forecasts show that, if we continue ‘business as usual’, the population will rise by 30 per cent but demand for food will grow by 70 per cent by 2050 – and 370 million people will still be chronically hungry! (Global Food Losses and Food Waste, 2011). To close the food gap faced by the billion people who are now hungry requires less than 3 per cent of global food production. This means that most of the forecast extra demand is generated by people who shift, as their incomes rise, from traditional diets to the food consumption patterns of Europe and North America. Yet the latter involve widespread over-consumption of food that is resulting in an obesity epidemic, expected to induce an explosion in the future incidence of non-communicable ailments such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. And they are also characterised by massive wastage of good food, with the amount of edible food thrown out by households in industrialised countries after its purchase being more or less equivalent to the annual net food consumption of sub-Saharan Africa.

There is an emerging consensus that agriculture and the clearing of forest mainly to make room for farming together account for between one-quarter and one-third of all the greenhouse gas emissions that drive the processes of global warming and climate change. The main sources are fossil fuels used by farm machinery and in food transport and processing, as well as in fertiliser manufacture, and methane that is released from flooded paddy fields and intensive livestock systems. Farmers in some regions may benefit from better conditions, but, in general, climate change will play havoc with agriculture, significantly altering crop growth conditions and unleashing more frequent extreme weather events.


Convergent, reinforcing techniques

What is abundantly clear from the above is that to blindly insist on approaching the expansion of food production, consumption and wastage, following conventional systems, is a recipe for future disaster. This course will amplify the already serious degradation of natural resources, create huge human health problems and accelerate the processes of climate change, making it increasingly difficult to meet future food needs.

Instead, humankind must explore ways in which the pursuit of the goals of increased food production, better human health, environmental conservation and a slowing down of climate change processes can converge and be mutually reinforcing. Briefly, from the agricultural and food security perspectives, the following actions could maximise the extent to which food production and consumption contribute to the attainment of health, environmental and climate change goals.

Food production

  • Promote a shift to sustainable intensive farming systems (FAO, Save and Grow, 2011): systems that use much less energy, build up soil organic matter (sequestering carbon, raising fertility and enhancing water infiltration and retention), improve water use efficiency, engage in biological nitrogen fixation and integrated pest management
  • Recover degraded land to increase production without advancing into new areas
  • Support sustainable small-scale production in poor and developing countries to supply local markets.

Food consumption and nutrition:

  • Encourage widespread adoption of a good mixed diet in order to bring down the average level of food intake in over-consuming countries
  • Provide targeted social protection grants to enable poor families to meet their nutritional needs.

Food wastage:

  • Discourage wastage by food and nutrition education programmes.

Shifts in the ways in which food is produced, consumed and wasted can contribute importantly to the achievement of global and national health, environmental and climate change objectives and should be encouraged by incentives related to the achievement of the latter.