Teaching a Man to Fish: Building Agricultural Resiliency to Climate Change

By Grant Potter

On June 21, 2011, Oxfam and the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a research organization designed to improve effectiveness of US national security efforts, released a joint report on the effects of climate change on humanitarian and disaster relief missions. The report, titled An Ounce of Prevention: Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on US Humanitarian and Disaster Response, states that climate change increases the need for humanitarian relief, while the economic crisis reduces the amount that governments contribute to these efforts.

Large-scale population movements from rural to urban environments will further strain food scarce countries (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

Richard Engel, a retired Major-General in the United States Air Force and director of the Climate Change and State Stability program at the National Intelligence Council, described trends that will lead to a “perfect storm” of climate-induced humanitarian disasters.  According to Engel, the demographic shift from rural to urban environments, especially in the developing world, increases the need for humanitarian assistance. These developing countries, already lacking adequate infrastructure and food security, cannot cope with the mass migration of rural farmers to cities. Poor, dense cities are the ideal conditions for starvation and violence especially in the event of an environmental catastrophe, such as drought, flood, tsunami, or earthquake. Climate change accelerates this rural displacement primarily in “South Asia and Africa, which may lose substantial agricultural land” says the report, “in regions already forming hunger’s center of gravity”.

According to the report, building long-term resilience to climate disasters in at-risk regions provides better, cheaper protection for these countries than expensive emergency relief efforts. Dr. Marc Cohen, a senior researcher at Oxfam America, emphasizes the need to make agricultural assistance the foundation of disaster relief efforts. A resilient agricultural sector improves food security and maintains the livelihoods of rural farmers, according to Cohen, keeping them on the farm instead of the cities and refugee camps where the risk of starvation and violence is greatest. “Providing conflict-sensitive agricultural livelihood support and investing in a more resilient social and economic structure are likely to reduce need for food aid over the long haul” according to the report.

Yet the current focus of international relief is decidedly prescriptive, not preventative. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) spends on average “US$60 million” on agricultural assistance in contrast to “US$1.5 billion annual in emergency food aid,”. “The skewing of US humanitarian assistance toward short-term programs and food aid, and away from emergency agricultural aid and other livelihood support exacerbates the [demographic] transition issues,” says the report. Extensive food aid disrupts agricultural resilience by giving farmers even less incentive to stay on the farm and maintain their livelihood. The report highlights that food aid represents a “short-term…response to crises and does not build the resilience and risk reduction that is needed to grapple with the humanitarian effects of climate change”

What do you think? Where should we allocate resources for humanitarian relief? Tell us in the comments!

Grant Potter is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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