After COP26: Lessons from the World Food Crisis

Will COP26 deliver the political action necessary to tackle climate breakdown? Probably not, says Paul Rogers, but the experience of the 1970s World Food Crisis suggests that its intense highlighting of the climate crisis and the inadequacy of political leadership can and should catalyse much more urgent pressure for radical change in the next few months and years.

The COP26 climate summit is just two weeks away and many millions of people concerned about impending climate breakdown will be hoping for a very positive outcome. At a minimum, there must be firm timetables for implementing the tentative agreements made at COP21 in Paris six years ago known as the nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

But it is now clear that even in the unlikely event of these being achieved, much more will be required to limit temperature rises even to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The acceleration of severe weather events, the rapid rate of warming of the near-Arctic and further developments in climate research all point to the need for much faster progress.

Prospects for COP26

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave its candid view that what was required was a 7% decrease in carbon emissions each year through to 2030, much higher than previously thought necessary and amounting to a 45% decrease overall by the end of the decade. Two years later that rate of decrease has been missed and a rate of at least 8% per annum is now needed to get back on track. That is in no way near being achieved under current NDCs so COP26 needs to do far better than even the most optimistic analysts expect.

On the positive side, the technology of decarbonisation, especially through the exploiting of renewable energy such as wind and solar, has become steadily more achievable, with costs tumbling down to below grid parity for electricity from coal and oil, let alone nuclear. Public awareness is far higher than six years ago, with singularly determined campaigners becoming more willing to embrace nonviolent direct action. In political terms, Biden has replaced Trump and is moving the US forward a lot faster, and some EU states are also taking a lead.

Negative elements are that far too many states are deeply against making stronger commitments, including Australia, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia. China has announced that it will continue to build coal-fired power stations. Even the UK as the host state for COP26, may appear to talk the talk; Boris Johnson told the UN General Assembly last month that COP26 must be a “turning point for humanity“. Yet the Westminster government has a major commitment to exploiting the vast new West Shetland Combo oil field, there is deep governmental resistance to onshore wind power, and there is too little support for a national programme of improved home insulation. The assumption has to be that the Johnson government will practice hype-laden public relations at COP26 and not much more.

Learning from the mid-1970s

Does this mean that COP26 will merely be a pointless jamboree? Not necessarily and it is helpful to frame this in terms of previous experience of a time, over 45 years ago during a similar period of global upheaval, where there were two crises with a global impact, both resulting in major UN meetings.

In October 1973 the Arab members of OPEC raised oil prices by over 70% in seeking to pressurise Israel into a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War. That set in motion a 400% global price rise over the following six months which combined with a more general surge in commodity prices that had developed the previous year.

Many countries in the Global North found, for the first time in a generation, that their terms of trade with the Global South were deteriorating, a damaging reversal of their previously favourable position. Because of this they were quite suddenly prepared to consider world-wide trade reforms that might favour the Global South while bringing greater overall price stability. These would be developed by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), founded nine years earlier at the instigation of newly independent countries in the Global South.A Special Session of the UN General Assembly was called for March 1974 to discuss this further.

That same year, a crisis in world food production was developing leading to fears of a famine across much of the Global South. In response, the UN called a World Food Conference for November 1974 in Rome, by which time world grain reserves had declined alarmingly and the UN reported that the 22 most seriously affected countries needed between 8 and 11 million tons of grain or grain-equivalent in addition to what they had been able to afford. At risk were around 40 million people unless the “grain gap” could be filled very quickly.

The UN Special Session on Trade

In the event, the UNGA Special Session was asked to endorse a major programme of commodity trade reform proposed by UNCTAD under the banner of a New International Economic Order (NIEO). This would improve the overall development prospects of the Global South by establishing an Integrated Programme on Commodities (IPC) that expanded the few individual commodity agreements that already existed.

The NIEO was indeed endorsed and widely seen as a success but as the detail was being discussed over the following months, commodity prices started to fall as the oil price surge affected economic activity in the Global North and demand fell. Over the two years to the next scheduled UNCTAD session in Nairobi in 1976, the major commodity importing states in the Global North lost any commitment to an NIEO, the Integrated Programme on Commodities was slowly but surely downgraded, and by 1980 the rise of neoliberalism in the UK, United States and elsewhere meant that it was a dead duck. The Special Session had appeared initially to have gone well but had minimal long-term impact.

The World Food Crisis

The World Food Conference of 1974 had a rather different outcome if initially seen as something of a failure. The immediate need at the start was to close the grain gap and also meet a shortage of fertilisers, mostly produced from petrochemicals. The long-term need was to improve food production, especially across the Global South and with emphasis on subsistence and near-subsistence farming.

The risk of famine at the time was due to several factors acting synergistically to create something of a perfect storm. They included an emphasis on urban rather than rural development and steady increase in the global population requiring increased food production in order to stand still. A further factor was increased meat-eating in the Global North requiring an increase in feed grains for animals, squeezing production of food grain production for people.

In the short term there were major weather incidents, including an appallingly bad weather-affected grain harvest in the Soviet Union in 1973, the oil price rises of 1973-74 and a parallel surge in fertiliser prices, including Morocco’s NIEO-inspired trebling of the price of its rock phosphate exports in mid-1974. Surging fertiliser prices had a particular impact on the new so-called Green Revolution grain varieties that were in many respects welcome but did require greater fertiliser inputs.

Thus the 1974 World Food Conference met at a time of immediate crisis requiring rapid action on the grain and fertiliser issues as well as a long-term commitment to greater food security for the poorest states.

The immediate results of the intense 12-day meeting were thoroughly disappointing, with little commitment on either of the immediate issues, leaving a sense of impending disaster, but the outcome in terms of the immediate crisis of need turned out rather differently. Over the following few months several countries including Sweden, Canada and the UK increased their financial assistance on both grain and fertiliser issues and some of the newly enriched Gulf oil- and gas-producing states did much to complete the filling of the gaps. The longer-term proposals made little progress but the prospect of transnational famine in 1975 was avoided.

Much of that immediate action was the result of individual state leadership but it was in the context of world-wide concern and insistent campaigning by NGOs and development activists. The Congress appeared to fail but the very publicity around it combined with intense campaigning and some good leadership had a substantial positive impact.

Conclusion: What comes after COP26

One cautious lesson from this is that COP26 may well be hopelessly inadequate compared with what is needed but it will provide the biggest focus ever on the core global issue of preventing climate breakdown. It is what happens in the months and first year or two afterwards that may turn out to be more important than the conference itself. Whether that is so will depend very much on the determined actions of people across the world, hopefully aided by an element of political leadership here and there.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Image by Filmbetrachter from Pixabay.

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