CEO Blog

Climate change is the single biggest threat to winning the fight against hunger

Everyday items such as cereals, yoghurts and ice cream have a hefty climate footprint. A quarter of all emissions are coming from the food system and these emissions are growing as demand for food rises.

The main impact of climate change on the food we eat is often considered to be how rising temperatures, erratic rainfall and climate “shocks” directly damage crops.

Climate change also wipes out harvests, directly depriving poor farmers of the food that they grow to feed themselves and their families; this is the human dimension of the climate change crisis, already unfolding right across the globe.

Four years of floods have left Pakistan hungry. Now half the population suffers from a lack of available food and can’t be sure where their next meal is coming from. By 2050 climate change could create 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five and 50 million more hungry people in the world.

Above: Pakistan is suffering the impact of climate change, causing serious challenges for the country's population.

The impact on crops may prove deadly for people. But most people don’t grow food for themselves – they buy it. While the poorest and most vulnerable people are being hit worst by climate change, all of us will be affected, directly in our pockets.

When you’re eating your breakfast cereal you’re probably not thinking about climate change. But it’s not just causing temperatures to rise; food prices in this part of the world are set to increase too. For instance, Oxfam calculates that climate change will drive up the retail price of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes by as much as 44 percent over the next 15 years in major markets like the US and the UK as the cost of corn and rice increases.

Rising food prices will lead to the already growing problem of food poverty in western countries getting worse. Over half a million people (600,000) already live in food poverty across Ireland.

Food banks have been set up around the country to help families who can’t afford regular nutritious meals. Households are being squeezed between higher energy bills and rising prices for imported food. Many can’t afford to feed themselves properly.

Often overlooked, it is not only dirty coal or the oil industry causing climate change; food companies contribute too. Climate change is the single biggest threat to winning the fight against hunger – yet food companies are making climate change worse because of the emissions from their operations and supply chains.

Everyday items such as cereals, yoghurts and ice cream have a hefty climate footprint. A quarter of all emissions are coming from the food system and these emissions are growing as demand for food rises.

Together the ‘Big 10′ food and beverage companies create an amazing 264 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year according to Oxfam’s Behind the Brands research. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Companies can cut their emissions and encourage others to do the same.

Europe is the world’s biggest food importer, dependent on exports from regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change.

If Europe is to avoid rising food (and fuel) prices and play its role in tackling climate change G7 leaders must add weight to common sense, by developing an energy security plan that places energy saving, clean, affordable and renewable energy first.

Crucially, before the next – almost inevitable – price shock, we need to keep cutting emissions and fast. We need to pressure businesses and governments to stop climate change from making people hungry and help build a future where everyone has enough to eat.

Otherwise, consumers and food companies here will increasingly feel the pinch of higher and more volatile prices for their food. More frequent and more extreme storms, floods, droughts and shifting weather patterns are affecting food supplies, driving up food prices, causing hunger and poverty, and jeopardising past gains in the fight against hunger.

It is within our power to ensure that every person’s right to food is realised, both in the developing world and here at home.

We can all play a part. The food we eat does not have to feed climate change.

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Rwanda 20 years on

Twenty years ago, the world stood by and watched as over 1,000,000 people in Rwanda were killed in 100 days.  Aid agencies saw what was happening and tried in vain to persuade Western governments to fulfil their obligations and intervene to stop the killing.

Today it is sobering to remember Rwanda and think about what has changed. How is the world responding today to war, conflict and murder? 

In short, are the world’s governments any better than they were in 1994 at setting aside selfish interests – or indeed selfish lack of interest – and acting to protect civilians from war and conflict?

Clockwise from top: Rwandan refugees returning from camps in Tanzania in 1996.  Refugees pass by recently dead left at the roadside, Kitali camp, DRC.  Rwandan refugees in Tanzania collecting grain 1994. Oxfam staff member with water bucket and Rwandan refugees in DRC 1997.  Aid worker treating a head wound in DRC 1997. Photos:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

At first sight, the signs are not encouraging. While there may not have been systematic killings on the scale of the Rwandan genocide since 1994, extreme violence continues, with hundreds of thousands of people killed, raped or living in terror every year.

It’s now more important than ever to ask how well the world is doing in acting to reduce conflicts around the world.

Some things have gotten better. After ten years of NGO campaigning, an Arms Trade Treaty was agreed last year. The UN Security Council now sets about protecting civilians in its peacekeeping operations, far more than it did. 

But different countries still give arms to Syria’s conflict. Terrible violence in countries such as the Central African Republic still struggle for media attention. Despite the growth in UN peacekeeping very few rich countries donate their own resources to this effort.

And Oxfam faces growing humanitarian challenges because the world is still not as good as it should be at resolving conflicts. 

Above: Oxfam Genocide in Rwanda leaflet 1994. Photo:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

Oxfam has been with Rwanda since the 1960s and working inside the country since 1982, delivering humanitarian response, water and sanitation, conflict management, human rights and democratisation and sustainable livelihoods projects especially in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide.

Rwanda is today a country which has turned itself around and is now achieving impressive growth and stability. Yet massive challenges remain, with nearly half the population living in poverty, needing support to create work in rural and urban areas.

Oxfam is having huge success in Rwanda. We work with local organisations to support farmers to grow their own food, open their own small businesses, train other members of their communities in farming skills and create many jobs in rural areas so that they don’t have to rely on us to provide for them. 

Rwanda is a country moving beyond its tragic past to try to build a peaceful future.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide will be a painful moment for millions, especially the Rwandan survivors still trying to heal their shattered lives. 

For the rest of us, it should be a time to remember how much more there is still to be done to protect civilians in every corner of the world, from every kind of atrocity.

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Budget 2014 a step in right direction for a fairer global tax system

Oxfam has long campaigned for a more equitable tax system that would see ordinary people at home and in developing countries get a fairer deal. We have called on governments to share more information about who owns what and where, along with tightening the loopholes that allow vast amounts of taxable money belonging to wealthy individuals and companies to slip through the net. 

Key to this is greater information sharing and transparency between countries, such as the commitment to global automatic exchange of tax information supported by the new Irish International Tax Strategy unveiled in today’s Budget 2014. Minister Noonan's comments about Ireland being ‘part of the solution to a global tax challenge’ and the publication of the Irish International Tax Strategy are steps in the right direction – provided it is now followed by decisive action putting an end to tax dodging which hurts people at home and in developing countries.

Making sure wealthy individuals and companies pay their fair share of tax would help eradicate the pervasive inequalities in a world where one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night. This hidden money could provide urgent finance for essential public services like health and education both at home and in poor countries.

Above: Ashma Turay and her four-day-old daughter at a vaccination clinic in Ghana. Increased tax transparency would mean that money currently hidden from tax authorities could raise vital revenue for essential public services like health and education both at home in Ireland and in developing countries. Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

The Government’s commitments to efforts at OECD and EU level to develop a response to aggressive tax planning, along with planned legislation that includes a change to company residence rules to prevent companies from being ‘stateless’ are to be welcomed, though we await more details.

It is vital that poor countries are not left behind in tax reform. The strategy announced today commits Ireland to supporting developing countries to raise their own domestic revenue in ways that are more efficient. This promotion of trade and development will help countries to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, provided these activities are guided by the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship and similar principles that maintain a respect for human rights.

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Another austerity budget would damn future generations to life of poverty

The findings from our recent report on austerity are stark.

Austerity policies across Europe are benefiting the richest 10% of Europeans while forcing millions of ordinary people into poverty. 

And if Ireland and the rest of Europe continue along the path of austerity policies, it will drag between 15 and 25 million more people into poverty in Europe by 2025.

We have already seen the terrible impact of the recession here in Ireland being reinforced by harsh austerity measures by the Government.  Almost 14% of people are unemployed and this rises to 30.8% for young people under 25. The people who are paying the price did not cause this problem.

Above-top: Left to Right: Jim Clarken, Mary Murphy, Orla O’Connor and Nat O’Connor at the launch of the austerity report. Bottom-left: Jim Clarken and Mary Murphy. Bottom-right: Jim Clarken. Photos: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland 

Given the early budget in October, it is vital that our message is heard. The report clearly shows that if Ireland and Europe continue down the austerity route we are damning future generations to a life of poverty and lost opportunity.  European and Irish governments must row back on austerity policies now and redirect efforts towards stimulus packages to kick-start the economy, create jobs and improve education and living standards.

There are alternatives to austerity. We’re calling on Irish and European governments to champion a new economic and social model that invests in people, strengthens democracy and pursues fair taxation. Governments could raise billions for public services, such as health and education by increasing tax on the wealthiest, and also cracking down on tax loopholes and avoidance schemes.

Read about our pragmatic and positive alternatives to austerity-only policies in our report “A Cautionary Tale; The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe” launched in Dublin on the 12th September. 

Summary report, full report, Irish case study.

A big thank you to the experts in social and economic issues who joined me in a panel discussion on the day calling for an end to austerity policies; Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland; Nat O’Connor: Director of TASC; Robin Hanan: Director of European Anti-Poverty Network; and Mary Murphy: Lecturer in Irish Politics and Society at NUI Maynooth. 

Our intention is to continue work with like-minded groups, to unleash the voices of people against poverty, wherever they may be.

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We need more women in positions of power

Should we care?

Judging by recent antics in Dáil Éireann, quite a bit. Far too many Irish men and women fought for the right to our own parliament in Dublin, only for us then to exclude a whole section of Irish society. More women in the Dáil should shake up things for the better.

New quotas that ensure women make up 30% of party candidates in the next general election should make sure of this. And the experience of other countries is that this is a pretty good thing.

Countries with women in parliament pass the kind of laws that benefit everyone but are often neglected by men. Take Rwanda, where 56% of all seats in parliament are held by women. In 2009 it passed a law that criminalised sexual harassment, domestic violence and marital rape, moving the issue of violence against women to the top of the political agenda. Compare this with neighbouring Uganda, where a proposed law to stop husbands raping wives was shelved in April. Then there’s DR Congo next door, described by one UN official as the “most dangerous place on earth to be a woman”.

Closer to home, Norway, where almost 40% of seats are held by women, men can take 10 weeks leave when their babies are born. Most share the extra time with their partners, making sure that Norwegian women do not have to sacrifice their careers for families, one of the big factors cutting into women’s pay.

Above: Mary Robinson speaking at the World Climate Summit last year in Doha Photo: The Verb/Laura Owsianka flickr/Creative commons.

But it’s not just in politics that more women would give a boost to decision making. Ireland’s economic recovery could also depend on having more women in business too.

Companies with women on their boards perform better in tough times. According to a study by Credit Suisse last year, they take on less debt and don’t take as many risks as companies pumping with testosterone. Imagine where the Irish economy might be if there were more women in the cabinet room on the night of the bank guarantee?

But women represent just 9.7% of the board members at the top 300 companies in Europe and account for less than 15% of all Fortune 1000 directors.

Norway already requires that all companies have 40% of their boards made up of women. Since they passed the law for this in 1998, studies have shown the presence of more women on boards has led to more focused and strategic decision making, not to mention a good deal less conflict.

And less bluster in Irish board rooms, and the Dáil, would be no bad thing.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland and chair of Dóchas, the umbrella group of Irish development agencies.

Originally published in the Irish Sun on Sunday on 28/09/2013

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