Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Vulnerability to Environmental Change: Linking Local Cases with Global Models

07 February 2008 | 5:00pm | Seminar

Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre 16

Even in some of the world's most remote regions, we depend on complicated systems of food producers, processors and retailers to bring sustenance from farm to plate. Generally, these systems have proven quite good at reducing hunger over the past 50 years. But are they sustainable? After all, many of these systems require both a stable economy (with very inexpensive energy) and a productive environment. Especially as we look towards a future that may be full of environmental surprises, we need to know if our food systems will be able to adapt to new (and possibly extreme) weather conditions, or will hunger start to grow after being in retreat for most of the last half century?

To address the question of whether food systems will be able to cope with climate change, this talk will build on existing theory and historical case studies to propose a framework to identify resilience in food systems. This will be done by examining cases where relatively small environmental problems caused famine and comparing them to cases where even large scale environmental anomalies did not cause any major problem in terms of food security.

'Vulnerable cases' include the Ethiopian famine of 1984 where the rainfall record suggests the drought that triggered the tragedy was minor in meteorological terms. Social, political and agricultural changes in the decade before the famine, however, undermined local economies and led to an agro-ecosystem with little in the way of resilience. These changes created a situation where even a minor problem cascaded into a major calamity. Similarly, the Great Irish Potato Famine (1845-49) was caused when a fungal blight destroyed the potato crop.

Interestingly, fungal blights like the one that destroyed the harvest in the 1840s were common in the decades before the famine. This leads to the question, 'what was different in 1845 such that a relatively common problem caused 25% of the population to lose lives or homes?' Just like in the Ethiopian case, in the decades prior to the Irish famine we observe socio-economic changes that hurt the local economy and helped create a highly specialized agro-ecosystem that had little resilience to this environmental problem. This created 'an accident waiting to happen.'

On the other side of the coin, a major drought in southern Africa in 1992 seriously affected harvests and exposed millions to starvation. However, this natural disaster did not turn into a famine due to relatively diverse local economies, careful emergency planning, and weather forecasting. Using a comparative approach, this paper will draw lessons from these 'resilient' and 'vulnerable' case studies, and apply them to theoretical work on adaptability and resilience. This will allow us to identify the relevant social, institutional and agro-ecological variables that help characterize food systems able to withstand climate change. The framework will then be applied to Eastern China, one of the world's most vital grain producing regions where agricultural and rainfall data between 1960-2000 suggests that droughts of the same meteorological intensity are having larger impacts on agriculture today than in previous decades. The talk will conclude with some ideas for policy interventions to help promote resilience to climate change within sustainable food and agricultural systems both in China and more generally.


Dr Evan Fraser is Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Development and ESRC Rural Economy and Land Use Research Fellow. He has a PhD (2002) in Environmental Studies from the University of British Columbia, Canada, an MSc (1997) Forestry, University of Toronto, Canada and a BA (1996), Anthropology, University of Toronto, Canada.

Location Details

The Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre is located next to the EC Stoner Building and adjacent to the 'pond'.

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