5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Hot, Hungry Planet (Book Launch)

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A steadily increasing global population, growing food demand, and changing climate necessitate new kinds of thinking in agriculture but also fields like public health and energy, concludes a new book, Hot, Hungry Planet, by former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and current Senior Fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center Lisa Palmer.

“There is a real need for breakthroughs about how these complex social and environmental problems can be tackled, and I believe they can be tackled together,” said Palmer at the Wilson Center on May 3. “Part of the challenge of this book is to challenge people across the world to start thinking outside of the box.”

Palmer has written about sustainability and the environment for the better part of two decades, but began working on what it all means for policy during her time at the Wilson Center. Later, she took trips to Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and across the United States to talk to those affected by global food, climate, and population dynamics.

“My goal in writing Hot, Hungry Planet was to make these complex but critical stories come to life,” said Palmer. “The complexity has a lot to do with the convergence of climate change and a variety of global changes on one side of the equation, and on the other side of the equation, the growing population that’s wealthier and that’s hungering for a more diverse and protein-rich diet.”

The book focuses on three ways to support food security and climate resilience in a changing world: social, educational, and agricultural advances; land use changes and technical actions by farmers; and policy “nudges” that could reduce adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while providing enough to feed the 9.7 billion people expected in the world by 2050.

A Global Problem With Local Solutions

In Ethiopia, a growing population is projected to exceed 171 million people by 2050, and the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather, such as drought and rising temperatures, is prompting concerns of food insecurity.

“Climate change places a substantial danger [on] the food system for farmers who are used to working on this trying to balance timing and weather extremes,” said Palmer. “When weather extremes or temperature extremes…[are] so much higher than they’ve ever experienced, or so much more than they know what to do with, they need to have more tools in their box.”

How will we feed 9.7 billion people?
 
2010 World Bank study showed that agriculture accounts for nearly half of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product, including almost 90 percent of its exports and over 80 percent of total employment.

Development groups in Ethiopia are trying innovative ways to build resilience to changing conditions while reducing poverty. Palmer spoke to community members and advocates participating in a “population, health, and environment” project in South Omo, for example. Community health workers and “PHE champions,” working with the nonprofit Global Team for Local Initiatives, helped empower women and couples through lessons on family planning, increased access to reproductive health care, and provided training on sustainable livelihoods. (A similar PHE project was the subject of a short film by ECSP, below.)

Channing Arndt, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, described sub-Saharan Africa as “the epicenter of the development challenge.” Of the 2.4 billion people projected to come into the planet by 2050, half of them are expected to be in sub-Saharan Africa, he explained. And as population and incomes increase, so will demand for food.

Food is already a primary source of natural resource consumption, Arndt said, and other factors, such as transportation and energy use related to food production, must also be considered in its impact. The 27 low-income countries located in Africa are structural importers of fuel in large part due to the high energy intensity of their agricultural sectors, for example, Arndt explained.

This food-energy (and one could add water too) entanglement complicates policy changes, but the energy transition currently underway may actually be a boon. “Renewables will be more stable and less globally volatile,” said Arndt. Countries with few domestic sources of fossil fuels will be less reliant on energy imports, including those that support agriculture. “That’s a good thing, that’s part of the hopeful story that we can start to tell, that these technologies are not just good for reducing emissions, they have certain characteristics that make them really favorable for low-income countries.”

Palmer talks about one example in the book where she looked at adaptive measures being carried out at roughly 80 “climate-smart villages” across six Indian states. In the village of Dhundi, farmers were irrigating crops using solar pumps, which not only provide cheaper, cleaner energy than diesel pumps, but also provide financial incentives to conserve water because farmers can sell excess energy back to the grid.

“I tried to show the areas that are working towards solutions and create some of these hopeful pictures of the world we want to live in, but also a world where we may need to work a little bit harder,” Palmer said.

Hot, Hungry Planet (Book Launch)

Working Toward Comprehensive Solutions

“The good news is that there is quite a lot of scope to sustainably increase food production,” Arndt said, especially in developing countries. But solutions will not be easy – or fast. Smarter agriculture that is both higher in productivity and more environmentally sound requires higher levels of education, he said, and efforts to improve these systems take time to implement and see the results of.

To formulate and encourage meaningful progress, Nabeeha Kazi, president and CEO of the development consulting firm, Humanitas Global Development, urged policymakers to consider an integrated approach to climate change mitigation, one that not only protects, but builds the resilience of communities and takes advantage of opportunities for positive change.

“We are in an unprecedented time, and I mean that in a very positive way,” said Kazi. “At all levels, we have tremendous knowledge that we need to reconstruct our food system, that it needs need to adapt to climate change, and it also needs to reduce the harm that it’s already caused through our existing practices.”

What’s missing, Kazi explained, is accountability. No one wants to take responsibility for current problems or for those that lie ahead, which is an attitude that needs to change, she said. “This is the role of all: the role of governance, the role of companies, the role of farmers, the role of consumers. We’ve gone alone for far too long.”

“We can’t be prescriptive and sit here and force feed what we think is right,” said Kazi. “We really have to have a lot of options on the table and co-create a response with governments, and communities, and with farmers based on what their needs are.” Large-scale agriculture, for example, despite its unpopularity among some green advocates, should not be “demonized,” she said, as we cannot meet global food demands by relying solely on non-industrial sources.

Twentieth-century solutions are no longer an option, the panelists agreed. “Hot, Hungry Planet does a really good job of defining what we know, being clear also that there’s a lot that we don’t know, and [explaining] what that means,” said Arndt. “I think, in part, it means that we need these flexible, resilient systems that are able to deal with what comes.”

Event Resources:

Written by Winter Wilson, edited by Schuyler Null.

Speakers

Moderator

  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience

Panelists

  • Lisa Palmer

    Public Policy Scholar
    Senior Fellow at SESYNC, Journalist, and Author of Hot, Hungry Planet
  • Channing Arndt

    Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Nabeeha Kazi

    President and CEO, Humanitas Global