The insecure future: Food and climate crisis

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Rice farmers at work - Photograph: salafiyunpad.wordpress.com

We need politicians and the media to declare a climate emergency and start taking emergency action so that we can face the future with some confidence, says Sonia Randhawa.

I have a small garden, where I grow a variety of vegetables.

I love that my kids think they’re transgressing the rules when they pick and eat veggies straight from the garden. It means I’ll never get an actual harvest, but the point of the exercise is healthier, happier children, so beneath my sham anger, I’m grinning.

But there are problems here in suburban Melbourne this year. The sugar cane and pea crops haven’t done very well, so there isn’t enough sugar cane or pea straw mulch.

The suggested substitute was rice hulls, but it seems that the rice crop was also poor this year, and the local manufacturer has put them on hold. So no rice hull mulch either, unless you have a supplier who has some in stock from last year. I don’t think that’s going to last too long.

This unfortunate series of events disturbs me: Peas, sugar cane and rice? That’s a pretty hefty series of crops to have failed this year. It turns out that it isn’t just this year, it isn’t just Australia and it isn’t even just the result of climate crisis.

The world is facing massive food insecurity with five billion people, largely in Asia and Africa, likely to face food and water shortages by 2050. By then, my children will be about the age I am now.

This date comes from a new model, which looks at nature’s contribution to human wellbeing. Humanity depends on nature in several ways, but this model looked at just three services humanity doesn’t pay cash for: clean water, the protection of coastal areas and crop pollination. (Nature, of course, provides several other services; perhaps clean air is the one closest to Malaysian hearts at the moment. But the model just looked at those three.)

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It is interesting, if you can suspend your emotion, to look at how these three indicators are going to affect Malaysia.

The water quality indicator was the first I looked at. Across both East and West Malaysia, the map is a mess of black and red. In other words, we are going to be losing nitrogen at a huge rate, up to 1,000% more in 2050 than 2015.

You can then switch to the impact that this will have on the population. Coastal populations are uniformly moving inland, with up to 100% of populations affected, and massive rises in inland populations.

By 2050, nature’s contribution to our water quality will have fallen from around 75% in 2015 to around zero, or worse, it will be contributing to degrading water quality.

Our exposure in West Malaysia in terms of coastal protection doesn’t change overly much. We are already fairly exposed, and that’s not going to change much. But in East Malaysia, the impacts of storms, coastal erosion and floods are going to increase by 20-50%.

And we’re marginally affected by crop pollination. The areas where we rely on natural crop pollination will be experiencing crop loss of about 100%, but fortunately those areas aren’t huge in Malaysia in comparison to elsewhere in the world.

What does this mean for Malaysian food and water security by 2050? I don’t honestly know. We import a lot of our food, but if you look at the global scenarios being painted in this model, nothing looks particularly optimistic.

And the model is what they call fine-grained: You can examine every patch of ground to a 300 metre by 300metre square. So there is no escape due to lack of data; we can see to a fine scale just how bad things are going to get.

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However, this future isn’t written in stone. We can both avert and mitigate the impacts. We need to start protecting our future by protecting our natural heritage, both by stopping polluting practices and practising carbon drawdown.

We need to be putting resources into ensuring the most vulnerable in our society, particularly our farmers, are able to continue putting food on our tables as conditions change.

And we need politicians and the media to declare a climate emergency and start taking emergency action so that we can face this future with some confidence.

Dr Sonia Randhawa is a graduate from the University of Oxford, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne. She has been actively involved in commenting on Malaysian politics for over two decades.

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