Social Vulnerability And Food Security

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Agriculture in the tropics is more often than not constrained by widespread poverty in rural areas, poor levels of investment in agricultural research, and limited access to markets and improved production technologies (IPCC, 2001; Reilly and Schilmmelpfenning, 1999; Ribot et al., 1996). In many countries, the distribution of fertile land is highly inequitable. Large-scale industrialized producers coexist along with subsistence farmers or semicommercial smallholders, who may contribute little to a country's gross national product, but more often than not represent the majority of a country's farmers. The percent of gross national product coming from agricultural activities in the tropics tends to be far higher than in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries (Table 12.1). This necessarily increases the sensitivity of the national economy to environmental and/or economic shocks in the agricultural sector.

This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where regional drought often severely constrains economic growth. The 1992 drought in Zimbabwe, for

Table 12.1 Agricultural GDP and Labor Force, Selected Countries (1993)

Percent of Percent of GDP from Labor Force in Agriculture Agriculture

Table 12.1 Agricultural GDP and Labor Force, Selected Countries (1993)

Percent of Percent of GDP from Labor Force in Agriculture Agriculture




Costa Rica



Cote d'Ivoire



























Organization for Economic Cooperation



and Development Countries

Source: Data Distribution Center, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at:

and Development Countries

Source: Data Distribution Center, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at:

example, reportedly resulted in a 5.8% drop in gross domestic product (GDP) (Benson and Clay, 1996). The same drought in Malawi was viewed as the driving force behind a 6% rise in the fiscal deficit, a 25% drop in agricultural output, and an 8% contraction in the country's economy (World Bank, 1996). By some accounts, the 1992 drought cost the southern Africa region over $4 billion, and had lasting implications for national debt and economic growth.

More significant, however, is the percentage of national populations dependent on agricultural production as a central livelihood activity. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the population involved in agricultural activities varies from 25% to as much as 80% of the national labor force (Table 12.1). These large rural populations are also often the most impoverished, the least likely to have reliable access to health care and educational services, and the most likely to be isolated from new sources of information and technology. Climate impacts thus can have a significant impact on national economic growth by affecting the capacity of a population to meet its basic needs. They also directly affect the livelihoods of millions of people through impacts on agriculture yields and productivity.

Discouragingly, during the 1980s and 1990s, income disparities between rural farming populations and urban groups in many developing nations did not significantly improve, and in some cases they actually worsened (Dixon et al., 2001). Although some countries, such as China, have made remarkable improvements in reducing poverty levels since the early 1980s, most other problematic regions have remained so. A report commissioned by the FAO and the World Bank claims that GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 61% of the total population is dedicated to agricultural activities, was lower at the end of the 1990s compared to the 1970s (Dixon et al., 2001). The same report indicated that 90% of the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa are from rural areas.

Between 1980 and 1998, the percentage of Latin American rural households classified as indigent increased from 28% to 31% (CEPAL, 2000). The World Bank reports persistent income inequality across Latin America, with many countries reporting GINI coefficients of 50% or higher. (The GINI coefficient measures the extent to which income is less than perfectly distributed across a population. A coefficient of 100 is perfectly inequitable; a coefficient of 0 is perfectly equitable. The United States has a GINI coefficient of 40.1, France 32.7, and Germany 30.0, according to the World Bank's 2002 development indicators. In comparison, the GINI coefficient for Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Bolivia, and Paraguay are 55.8, 56.3, 53.1, 44.7, and 57.7, respectively.) Poverty in Central America by many accounts has worsened, particularly since the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch (FAO, 2001).

These statistics suggest that calculations of potential future food production in a country, or the impact of climate on simulated future crop yields, may say relatively little about future food security. Any discussion of food security is by definition a discussion of public policy, resource distribution, access, and power (Sen, 1981, 1990). Food insecurity and famine risk are driven not simply by climatic variability and hazards, but also are dictated by political instability, armed conflict, changes in land tenure and/or food pricing policy, changes in income and purchasing power, and progressive degradation of resources available for production (Blaikie et al., 1994; Dreze and Sen, 1989; Sen, 1990). As Reilly and Schimmelpfennig (1999) note, while climate change studies have tended to focus on food supply, food security is generally a question of food access.

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