One of the great tragedies of failing to act boldly to restrict greenhouse gases is that it will turn the great abundance humanity has known into scarcity. As part of our series on climate change and food insecurity, our Climate Progress Intern, Tyce Herrman, takes a look at some predictions on the rising price of food.

The international aid and development organization Oxfam has released some startling figures: Food prices may jump by as much as 180% by 2030, driven by poor policies and a changing climate. Already, the FAO estimates 1 billion people are starving and another 2.5 billion are malnourished. With food prices climbing, yield productivity flat lining, and the global population on track to hit 9 billion by 2050, it appears we are on the brink of major catastrophe.

Ironically, current agriculture and food delivery practices – which are touted as the only way to feed a rapidly-expanding population – are actually preventing people from accessing food, while also exacerbating climate change.

As renowned author Frances Moore Lappé declared at an event yesterday to unveil Oxfam’s latest report, current policies “are turning abundance into scarcity.”

Oxfam was founded in 1942 to bring food relief to communities victimized by World War II. The organization calls the current crisis a “product of a grotesque global injustice” caused by bad energy and agriculture practices, inefficient food aid and poor government oversight. Here are some specific problems highlighted in Oxfam’s report:

India: Despite doubling the size of its economy between 1990 and 2005 the number of hungry people in India increased by 65 million – more than the population of France – because economic development excluded the rural poor and social protection schemes failed to reach them. Today one in four of the world’s hungry people live in India.

United States: US policy ensures 15 percent of the world’s maize is diverted to engines, even at times of severe food crisis. The grain required to fill the petrol tank of an SUV with biofuels is sufficient to feed one person for a year.

Traders: Four global companies control the movement of most of the world’s food. Three companies – Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill – control an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s grain trade. Their activities help drive volatile food prices and they profit from them. In the first quarter of 2008, at the height of a global food price crisis, Cargill’s profits were up 86 percent and the company is now heading for its most profitable year yet on the back of further disruptions to global food supplies.

Further compounding the crisis is climate change: a problem created by bad agriculture practices, and one that will also hurt agriculture. As Oxfam put it: “Climate change not only threatens agriculture, the way we now farm also threatens the climate.”

The agricultural sector contributes between 17 and 32 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most of those emissions come from “too big to fail” industrial farming, which encourages homogeneous, fossil-energy laden crops that often don’t make it to the people who need them most.

So how do we feed 2 billion extra people within our ecological limits by 2050 when we’re not feeding the 7 billion we have today? And how do we do this while reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

The answers are not in current inefficient practices, but in a comprehensive suite of solutions, according to Oxfam.

The vast imbalance in public investment in agriculture must be righted, redirecting the billions now being ploughed into unsustainable industrial farming in rich countries towards meeting the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries. For that is where the major gains in productivity, sustainable intensification, poverty reduction, and resilience can be achieved.

Yesterday, Oxfam announced a campaign to tackle food insecurity and climate change to avert the potentially dramatic price increases on the horizon. The Grow Campaign, Oxfam’s largest to date, is an international collaboration in 37 countries to address inequalities and failures in food systems. The campaign includes five action points to begin to shift agriculture:

Invest in small scale farmers

A few hundred companies – traders, processors, manufacturers, and retailers – control 70 per cent of the choices and decisions in the food system globally, including those concerning key resources such as land, water, seeds and technologies, and infrastructure. By setting the rules along the food chains they govern – for prices, costs, and standards – they determine where most costs fall and where most risks are borne. They extract much of the value along the chain, while costs and risks cascade down onto the weakest participants – generally the farmers and laborers at the bottom.

End excessive speculation in agricultural commodities

Excessive speculation … distorts the function of futures markets by disconnecting prices from market fundamentals like supply and demand and by amplifying food price volatility. Excessive speculation also undermines the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by reducing their ability to effectively manage risk and participate in the marketplace.

Modernize food aid

Such aid takes longer to reach those in need. During 2004–08, US food aid to Africa required an average of 147 days for delivery, compared with 35–41 days for food from the African continent.113 And in situations where shipping food aid from the USA would be an appropriate response, Oxfam estimates that procuring transport on the open market would allow the American taxpayer to provide 15 per cent more food,enough to feed an additional 3.2 million people in emergency situations

Stop giveaways to the corn-ethanol industry

The US federal biofuels mandate and industry tax breaks, which cost taxpayers $6 billion a year, are driving up food prices, contributing to increased price volatility, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions all while having little to no impact on US oil dependence.

Regulate land and water grabs

The increased drive by investors, companies, and governments for valuable farmland in developing countries is posing a serious threat to the rights and livelihoods of small-scale food producers, especially women, who often lack legal rights and can be forced off the land without any means to support their families.

And, of course, we must quickly start down the path of greenhouse gas reductions, or risk an unimaginably worse situation post-2030.

The top-down system enabled by abundant fossil fuels and a relatively stable climate is ending. In order to create meaningful change in our agriculture system we’ll need to radically re-think how we incentivize and distribute food. As this new report points out, a reliance on the status quo will only result in more price volatility, more inequity and a crippled environment.

— Tyce Herrman with Stephen Lacey