Thursday, July 4, 2013

Climate change, limits to growth, groupthink and other threats to food and nutrition security

A talk I gave on July 31, 2013 (University of Canberra). It was recorded and may be posted to You Tube.

Climate change, limits to growth, groupthink and other threats to food and nutrition security  ("FAO and IPCC dreaming")

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued forecasts for world hunger in  2080, taking account of climate change. In three of four scenarios, world hunger would greatly improve, falling to 100-380 million. Only in the scenario showing the worst case of the worst case, was hunger considered likely to be higher in 2080 than in 2007 (rising to 1300 million). Yet, in 2009, only two years later, the FAO estimated that the number of hungry topped 1 billion. Then, in 2012, the FAO revised its estimates, not only claiming that the 1 billion was an error, but that the Millennium Development Hunger Goal for 2015 was almost within reach.

In 2012 the FAO also tried to change the definition of the MDG hunger target (1c) - the original text is clear: to halve the percentage of hungry (in 1990) by half. But in 2012 the FAO claimed it is to halve the percentage of hungry in the developing world (in 1990) by half. Of course, FAO has no authority to do this; the MDGs were set by an intergovernmental agreement. Comment added April 24, 2014: In SOFI 2013, the FAO reverted to the original (correct) MDG definition, without explanation, admission of error, nor apology.

The percentage of hunger in the world in 1990 (at least until the 2012 FAO revision) was estimated as 16%. Global population in 1990 was about 5.3 billion. Therefore the original MDG target - to halve this - from 16% to 8% of the world population in 2015 - about 585 million (8% of about 7.3 billion). In 2012 the FAO claimed that the % of hunger in the developing world in 1990 was 23.2%. Depending on how the population of the developing world in 2015 is measured, this means that the new FAO definition of this target is 11.6% of it (23.2/2), which is about 700 million, (11.6% of about 6 billion, assuming 1.3 billion are not in developing countries). The difference between 700 and 585 million is 115 million. That is, changing the denominator (the bottom number) in the definition  makes a big difference - and also introduces a lot of uncertainty.

World hunger estimates are a black art, subject to political influence and wishful thinking. Additional evidence of FAO incompetence is that it procrastinated until 2003 about climate change, implicitly assuming that the issue was trivial for global food security. The FAO still refuses to consider other aspects of Limits to Growth, such as the rising cost of energy and the falling supply of phosphate. Most agricultural forecasters in the IPCC (and before that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) appear infected by the same optimistic viral groupthink.

It is important for think tanks such as the FAO and the IPCC to not rob people of hope. But it is even more important that their thought processes are grounded in reality. A wildly incorrect message that “all is well” delays corrective action, frustrates activists and leads to more of the same groupthink. Who can say the emperor is naked?

PS. I am not the only person bemused by the FAO report.  So is Frances Moore LappĂ©, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and now working with the Small Planet Institute. I haven't yet read their  report carefully enough to see if they also have spotted how the FAO has unilaterally altered the MDG hunger target (in a way which makes it seem easier to reach).

Finally, Prof Ken Cassman, editor of Global Food Security has repeatedly asked me to write this up for possible publication. I hope to do that in 2014.


Prof Colin Butler is an ARC Future Fellow. The topic of his 4 year research grant is “Health and Sustainability: Australia in a global context”. He is a minor contributor to the current round of the IPCC (nutrition in the health chapter) and was a somewhat  dissident member of the working group on future scenarios for human well-being in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2002-2005). He is trying to help reposition the issue of Limits to Growth as central to global public health.