LAST November, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released
its annual flagship publication, the Human Development Report, themed
"Fighting Climate Change - Human Solidarity in a Divided World".
It positioned climate change as the defining human development challenge of this century.
escalating environmental risks and human health hazards, the report
predicted food scarcity and widespread malnutrition in large parts of
the developing world.
It warned about the breakdown of
agricultural systems from increased exposure to drought, rising
temperatures and more erratic rainfall.
For example, in
Indonesia, climate models simulating the impact of temperature changes,
soil moisture content and rainfall on agricultural productivity showed
a wide dispersion of results, with yields falling by four per cent for
rice and 50 per cent for maize.
In January, I talked to a friend about the grouses of flour
millers, widely reported in the press. He said, "Imagine if this were
Fast forward another three months and we are witnessing the most severe
food crisis of this generation, including skyrocketing prices of
essential grains. Every international, regional and local news outlet
has carried an angle or analysis on the issue consecutively in the last
While price spikes are not unusual in agricultural
markets, what is unique is the rapid pace and consistency with which
prices have risen.
Almost all major food and feed commodities
are now much more expensive. It is more worrying that even the record
cereal production levels of the last few years are unable to keep up
with the sustained high demand.
In Asia, home to two-thirds of
the world's poor, the price of rice has more than doubled in the past
year. The Asian Development Bank has cautioned that the region will see
the worst inflation in a decade.
Of the many factors that have
contributed to the world's food woes, at least three are environmental:
recurrent bad weather in major food producing countries, environmental
degradation and an overdependence on fossil fuels.
foretells humanity's common fate should we continue to chalk up carbon
debt while dragging our heels on the necessary mitigation and
adaptation measures needed to put us on a path to sustainable
development, expensive and painful as they may be in the short run.
Most of us in Malaysia will not feel the true emergency of the global
food crisis. But what is almost certain is that it will quickly
exacerbate inequalities between the haves and have-nots in society.
As the crisis continues to unfold, it would be foolish to expect that
Malaysia will be impervious to its various socio-economic,
developmental and political impacts.
A couple months ago, I
spoke to a young mother in a village in Sabah. Her husband tapped
rubber for a living and earned less than RM400 a month.
told me that when things were tough, she fed her child rice-water
instead of milk. At the time, the family had just one main meal a day.
For people living hand to mouth, even a small rise in prices of essential goods leads to a struggle for survival.
For most of us, adjusting to the price hikes may mean temporarily switching to cheaper options or cutting down on eating out.
However, for the two million or so Malaysians living in deprivation, it
may mean skipping meals or pulling children out of school. These
families will be haunted by the ghost of malnutrition.
living below the poverty line in Malaysia are associated with a large
number of children. For these households, escaping from the
inter-generational poverty trap will become increasingly difficulty if
prices continue to rise or persist at higher levels.
to a UNDP study, a poor household in Sabah, where poverty rates are
highest, takes an average of eight years to free itself from poverty,
assuming a five per cent increase in income per year.
tends to take up a smaller percentage of a family's bills as income
levels go up. The Household Expenditure Survey 2004/2005 revealed that
for households that spend an average of RM380 a month, food comprised
about half of the total consumption basket.
In contrast, households in the RM4,000-RM5,000 expenditure bracket spend about 23 per cent of the total on food.
The international consensus is that our first priority must be to "feed
the hungry". Interventions and budgets should be targeted towards these
Our immediate approach to the problem should be to
ensure that we take measures to shield the poor, including the urban
poor. At current levels, food prices are higher in cities such as Kuala
Lumpur and Penang, and in East Malaysia, compared with the rest of the
In rural areas, the poor tend to be small-scale
farmers. There is no real shortage of food in these areas. The answer
lies in improving their livelihoods so that poor farmers can raise
their incomes and cope with market fluctuations.
Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has warned that the food crisis is
threatening to roll back progress to achieve the Millennium Development
Goals, which are aimed at creating a better life for millions of people
in the developing world.
Given the complexity of the issue,
governments face a tricky balancing act between the urgency of
responding to the immediate problems and taking enough time to
adequately understand and analyse the challenges involved and the
potential consequences of their actions.
makers would be wise to spare a thought on how we are going to address
the wider issue of increased vulnerability of climate-sensitive sectors
such as agriculture and fisheries in the face of climate change.
The food crisis has revealed how, in this interdependent world, a bad
harvest in one corner of the globe and persistent diversion of crop
land for biofuels on the opposite side can tip the equilibrium of the
world's food supply in just a matter of months.
What is often
overlooked is that as a result of our past actions, the world is
already committed to further global warming for the first half of the
21st century. In our lifetime, we have no choice but to cope with the
effects of climate change.
As global temperatures rise, climate
shocks such as droughts, floods and storms are forecasted to become
more frequent as well as intense. In the short run, climate disasters
have been shown to push up food prices, wipe out crops, reduce job
opportunities and destroy assets.
In the long term, however, as
the UNDP Human Development Report states, climate change could result
in fewer opportunities for education, reduced productivity and
diminished human capabilities.
The writer is with the United Nations Development Programme and can be reached at email@example.com.