Climate Refugees

Food Insecurity and Food Refugees in a Changing Climate

The previous section described the proximate drivers and patterns of displacement and their prevalence, including the disproportionate experience of climate-induced migration across the Global South. It is thus clear that not all climate-induced displacement is the same and that such differences need to be accounted for within any normative framework applicable to climateinduced migration. These specific situations include persons moving across internationally recognized state borders in the wake of sudden-onset disasters; persons moving inside or outside their country as a consequence of slow-onset disasters, such as sea-level rise, prolonged drought, or desertification; and persons moving across internationally recognized state borders in the wake of their place of origin being designated as a high-risk zone too dangerous for human habitation.252

To better account for the ways that food insecurity can be the proximate cause of mass displacement through interactions with a host of other dynamics, including the climate crisis, this report asserts that “food refugee” protections need to be regarded as a useful proxy in situations where the climate crisis may have been a factor. This report defines “food refugees” as those peoples who have been forcibly displaced due to growing food insecurity caused by foreign military intervention, armed conflict, political and civil unrest, and/or environmental challenges. Yet this report recognizes that “food refugees” are a product of the interaction between these dynamics and trade liberalization, lax tariffs, subsidies, and cash crops. These trade policies set the stage for many developing countries to become importers of food crops and exporters of cash crops for consumption in the Global North. 

Between 1961 and 2002, developing countries accounted for less than half of all wheat imports to two-thirds of all wheat imports.253 Beholden to corporations, productivity pressures, and unfair trade agreements with nations in the Global North, the precarious situation facing farmers across the Global South has left them and their communities especially vulnerable to foreign military interventions, armed conflicts, political and civil unrest, and/ or environmental challenges.

Thus, this report extends this definition of “food refugees” to peoples forcibly displaced by circumstances perpetuated by land grabs, seed monopolies, natural resource grabs, global warming, the increased commodification of food, and structures and arrangements of international free trade agreements. This report elaborates on two such drivers creating “food refugees” in the context of the corporate food regime and the chronic precariousness with which communities across the Global South are faced: climate-induced environmental variability and land grabbing.

DRIVER 1: Climate-induced Environmental Variability

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the climate crisis will affect all four dimensions of food security: food availability, food accessibility, food utilization, and food systems stability.254

Concerning food availability, the FAO estimates that after 2030 the effects of the climate crisis will reduce the productivity of cropland, particularly in food-insecure areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. In the short-term, increases in global temperatures are likely to benefit crop and pasture yields in temperate climates while having negative effects in tropical and dry regions.

Concerning food accessibility—a matter of both food allocation and affordability—the FAO states that the effects of the climate crisis on productivity may cause families to allocate food differently within the household, especially within communities that rely on producing food for their own consumption. Further, increasing food prices affect low-income families more because on average they spend a larger portion of their income on food.

Concerning food utilization, the climate crisis will likely increase malnutrition in food-insecure areas that depend on agriculture due to its negative impacts on income and purchasing power. In addition, the climate crisis will change the distribution of pests and diseases, such as vector and waterborne diseases, posing risks to human health, food safety, and food security.

Finally, concerning food system stability, the predicted growing incidence of droughts and floods make it harder for communities that depend on rainfall agriculture to prepare for changes in productivity, thus threatening food stability. Increasing food emergencies and conflicts for diminishing food supplies will destabilize food systems.255

These effects of the climate crisis on food security will be especially pronounced for people whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture, wildlife, and fisheries, and who are already marginalized and food insecure. This is especially the case in the Global South, where, for example, in the densely populated areas of Asia and the Pacific, agriculture accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of the workforce, and in sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture accounts for two-thirds of the workforce.256 Yet, in the context of not only subsistence agriculture, but also a global food system premised on trade liberalization, lax tariffs, subsidies, cash crops, and vertical and horizontal integration, the impacts of the climate crisis will likely be felt more generally. Specifically, the climate crisis would likely affect market values for land; for water and agro-chemical inputs used in production; and for energy used in food processing, cold storage, transport, and intensive production of food.

Increased prices and greater price volatility have a greater impact in the Global South, where there are financial constraints to acquire such inputs and land while being locked within the global corporate food regime. Yet, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the United States (and, presumably, other nations in the Global North) appears likely to experience changes in the types and cost of foods available for import and increased demand for agricultural exports from regions that experience production difficulties yet have sufficient wealth to purchase imports. Finally, demand for food and other types of assistance from the United States could increase in nations that lack purchasing power.257 Thus, in the immediate future, the rural poor of the Global South are more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis on food insecurity, though the effects will likely also be felt by low-income urban populations around the globe as their access to food is threatened by extreme weather events, long-term environmental change, and volatile food prices. 

DRIVER 2: Climate Crisis Mitigation and Land Grabs

An emerging issue for food security at the international scale involves the transnational acquisition of land resources. The Oakland Institute defines “land grabs” as the purchase of vast tracts of land from poor, developing countries by wealthier, food-insecure nations and private investors.258 Land grabbing exacerbates food insecurity by forcibly displacing local people from their land—and thus their sources of income and food—and by globally expanding large-scale, export-driven agricultural models. This phenomenon gained momentum after the 2007– 2008 global food crisis. After adverse weather, increasing demand, and rising fuel prices combined to rapidly raise food prices around the world in 2008, many corporations and governments set out to acquire property rights in foreign countries.259 Reports indicated that between 2006 and the middle of 2009, foreign investors sought or secured between 37 million and 49 million acres of farmland in the Global South, and a 2010 World Bank analysis reported that nearly 140 million acres were acquired.260

These international transfers of property rights are expected to increase in the coming years as a hedge against unfavorable climate conditions in any one region, and they have the potential to undermine food availability both in the countries selling the land rights and in the purchasing countries. In this context, the Oakland Institute defines three major drivers of global land grabs in particular. First is the growing demand for food from food-insecure nations short on agricultural land. Gulf states in particular are among the largest players given their food import dependency and increasing food import bills.261 For example, in 2008, King Abdullah launched his “Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad,” urging Saudis to go overseas and buy land, primarily in Asia and Africa.

The second driver of global land grabs is the demand for agro-fuels and other energy needs, including the proliferation of biofuels as a supposed climate crisis mitigation solution. Initially land grabs were driven by food insecurity at the national level (i.e., food and cattle production), but as the demand for and profitability of biofuels grew, land grabs became seen as a lucrative investment opportunity, and the need to address food insecurity lost appeal.262 According to an ActionAid report, between 2009 and 2013, 98 European companies took over 6 million hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa to grow biofuel crops. Beyond Europe and the United States, nations such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China are also large purchasers of agricultural land in poorer nations.263

The third driver is the rise of investing in the land market and soft commodities market—a term that generally refers to commodities that are grown (e.g., coffee, corn, soy), whereas hard commodities are those that are mined (e.g., oil, copper, and gold).264 Traditionally, land markets have not provided the most effective returns on investment, as land presents myriad problems for investors, whether related to access, security, use, or consistency of production. However, the recent private sector push into farmland acquisition has rendered land markets and soft commodities attractive investments. Strong demand from emerging economies such as China, India, Central Europe, and South America, as well as new demands for bioenergy and other “bioproducts” from agricultural crops, are among the causes of this move toward soft commodities.265

The effects of land grabs on food insecurity are far reaching. For example, ActionAid estimated that European Union biofuel demands could increase food prices by as much as 36 percent by 2020.266 Further, land acquisitions are also water acquisitions, wherein private companies own the water sources on the land they purchased and can use them to produce biofuels. Finally, the scramble for land has been concentrated among the wealthy, causing many of the world’s small farmers to lose land ownership or witness a reduction of the land they own.

  • 252. Kälin, “Displacement Caused by the Effects of Climate Change.”
  • 253. B. C. Curtis, “Wheat in the World” (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002), http://www.fao.org/3/y4011e/y4011e04.htm
  • 254. “Climate Change and Food Security” (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2008), 1, http://www.fao.org/forestry/15538-079b31d45081fe9c3dbc6ff34de4807e4.pdf.
  • 255. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Climate Change and Food Security,” 27.
  • 256. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Climate Change and Food Security,” 9.
  • 257. “Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the US Food System” (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, December 2015), 2, https://www.usda.gov/ oce/climate_change/FoodSecurity2015Assessment/ FullAssessment.pdf.
  • 258. Shepard Daniel and Anuradha Mittal, “The Great Land Grab: Rush for World’s Farmland Threatens Food Security for the Poor” (Oakland, CA: The Oakland Institute, 2009), 1, https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/ oaklandinstitute.org/files/great-land-grab.pdf.
  • 259. Lorenzo Cotula et al., “Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in Africa” (London, UK: International Institute for Environment and Development, May 2009).
  • 260. Daniel and Mittal, “The Great Land Grab”; Lester R. Brown, “The New Geopolitics of Food,” Foreign Policy (blog), (April 25, 2011), https://foreignpolicy. com/2011/04/25/the-new-geopolitics-of-food/.
  • 261. Daniel and Mittal, “The Great Land Grab,” 2–3.
  • 262. Ibid.
  • 263. Natalia Alonso and Laura Sullivan, “Growing Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied 78 Demand for Biofuel Is a Threat to Food Security,” Politico, (July 3, 2013), https://www.politico.eu/article/growingdemand-for-biofuel-is-a-threat-to....
  • 264. Daniel and Mittal, “The Great Land Grab,” 2–3.
  • 265. Daniel and Mittal, “The Great Land Grab,” 31.
  • 266. Alonso and Sullivan, “Growing Demand for Biofuel.”