FAO ‘Unjust Climate’ Report: Size isn’t Everything

26 Mar 2024

Hereby we recommend you a very interesting article by Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia. She analysed the new Fao report The unjust climate.

 

 

 

 

 

Hereby we recommend you a very interesting article by Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia. She analysed the new Fao report The unjust climate.

How does climate affect people?

No one on this planet can escape the consequences of the climate crisis, but some of us fare a whole lot better than others. What’s the impact on ‘rural people in socially and economically vulnerable positions’ was the question the FAO asked and answered in a 120-page report[1] published in the first week of March.

The study is based on an impressive set of data: “It analyses socioeconomic data collected from109,341 rural households (representing over 950million rural people) in (…) 24 countries. These data are combined in both space and time with 70 years of georeferenced data on daily precipitation and temperatures. The data enable us to disentangle how different types of climate stressors affect people’s on-farm, off-farm and total incomes, labour allocations and adaptive actions, depending on their wealth, gender and age characteristics”. Unsurprisingly, poor households are hit hardest: “In an average year, poor households lose 5 percent of their total income due to heat stress relative to better-off households, and 4.4 percent due to floods. Floods widen the income gap between poor and non-poor households in rural areas by approximately USD 21 billion a year, and heat stress by more than USD 20 billion a year.” Based on this huge data set, the findings sound impressive and definite. But are they? How much can an average calculated from data in 24 countries on three continents really tell us? It’s as if we were to calculate the average temperature in the EU – which is nice to know, but still would mean very different things to people in Sicily and northern Sweden. Can the circumstances of rural communities in countries in South America, West and East Africa really be compared with South Asia and Vietnam?

Take the report’s conclusions regarding the importance of off-farm work: “Reductions in off-farm employment opportunities for poor households in places where temperatures are rising quickly, combined with a growing number of poor households competing for available jobs, may be driving this result. This is a worrisome finding; it suggests that climate change is pushing the rural poor to increasingly rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, a condition that is likely to increase their vulnerability over time”.

[1]https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cc9680en

Stories from South Asia

As an ag journalist I have travelled extensively in rural areas of South Asia. Where harvests were poor, men had mostly no option but to leave their farms and seek employment usually as day labourers in the construction industry, often far away from home. It wasn’t seen as an opportunity, but as an unavoidable necessity. In a study, the Indian NGO Under the Mango Tree, UTMT, showed that farmers didn’t leave their villages if they could make enough income from agriculture. UTMT trained farmers – very often women[1] – to keep Apis cerana, a bee species commonly found in India. When the hives were placed next to the fields at the right time, the bees’ pollination services increased yield exponentially (400% in chilis) and an additional crop could be grown over winter.

[1] https://beesabroad.org.uk/under-the-mango-tree-latest-from-our-project-in-india/

Suggested policy priorities

I also came across inconsistencies in the report. It claims that when drought hits, households headed by young people buy livestock. “By increasing their livestock holdings during extreme weather events, young households expand their asset base and increase their abilities to generate income in the future, enabling them to better cope with future stressors”. But in a later section the report says: “Droughts reduce the availability of feed for livestock, leading to lower productivity and elevated mortality and morbidity”.

The suggested policy priorities, too, leave me puzzled. Money is needed to address ‘specific vulnerabilities’ and: “Furthermore, given the multidimensional nature of rural people’s climate vulnerabilities, implementing multifaceted policies and interventions is critical”. An impressive statement – but how does it translate into action? “Incorporating gender transformative methodologies, which employ social behavioural change approaches to directly challenge discriminatory gender norms, is crucial to tackle entrenched discrimination that prevents women from exercising full agency over their economic lives”. Am I a cynic when, thinking of rural Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, I remain unconvinced by this proposal?

What has me really worried though are the strategies the report only hints at. The authors are optimistic that a cash payment “encourages the use of improved inputs and farm practices”. Under policy priorities they emphasise the need for “improved seed varieties”. Usually, such ‘inputs’ refer to chemical fertilisers and ‘improved seeds’ to either GM varieties and/or seeds that come with a pesticide coating such as neonicotinoids. In India I have seen the havoc such ‘improved farm practices’ wreak. GM cotton seeds have been ruinous for farmers and have caused a wave of suicides[1]. Instead, for years, many farmers in India have been doing successfully what the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity does, too: preserve seeds. In the early 1980s, Vijay Jardhari, a farmer from a tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayas, started Beej Bachao Andolan[2], a movement to save indigenous seeds in village seed banks. Today, such seed banks, mostly run by women, can be found across India. If proof were needed that seed banks are a vital tool in the fight against climate disasters, cyclone Aila provided it. It struck the Indian state of West Bengal at the end of May, 2009 with wind speeds of 125 mph, 30 to 40-foot waves flooded huge areas of agricultural land with salt water. In the aftermath, small quantities of six salt tolerant rice varieties were located in seed banks across India – it were these seeds that helped rebuilt agriculture in the flood stricken areas.

Apologies if this is the type of ‘improved seed’ the authors had in mind.

Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia.

@M_Landzettel

 

Pictures credits: @M.Kunz

[1] https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-020-00406-6

[2] https://www.comminit.com/natural-resource/content/beej-bachao-andolan-bba-india

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