Blog Action Day 2009: Research Linking Climate-induced Conflict and Farming

Farming First is participating in Blog Action Day 2009, which brings the world’s bloggers together to discuss a common issue from their own perspectives.  More than 6800 blogs in 135 countries will be addressing this year’s topic of climate change.

For our part, we’re looking at an interesting article appearing in The Economist this week discusses the findings from a study done by two academics about the history of climate-induced warfare.

The study, by Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, and Sebastian Wagne of GKSS, a research institute near Hamburg, looked to find whether a correlation existed between climate and the number of conflicts registered over the past thousand years.

Their research concluded that until the mid-18th century more conflicts were registered during periods of low temperature.  And they think the effect on agriculture is the reason why:

Dr Tol and Dr Wagner suggest that in the more remote past the effects of cold weather on harvests led to supply shortages, and that these increased the likelihood of people fighting over food and the land needed to produce it.

However, the research found that the relationship between the two vanished in the mid-18th century, around the time that the Industrial Revolution began to take root:

These developments meant farmers could often produce reasonable yields during colder weather—and even when they could not, long-distance trade provided a buffer against crop failure. Meanwhile, the growth of cities and non-agricultural occupations meant there was money to buy such traded crops.

The lesson to be taken from this, according to the researchers, was that reliable supplies of food could minimise the instances of climate-related conflict. To ensure this, they stress the continued importance of investing in technologies which help improve crop yields and resilience.  The process of sharing knowledge and building local access and capacity for farmers is also key:

[T]he way to minimise the likelihood of climate-induced conflict in the future is to continue the process of crop improvement (for example, by taking advantage of the potential of genetic engineering) so that heat- and drought-tolerant varieties are available; to make farmers aware of these new crops and encourage their use; and to promote free trade and non-agricultural economic development.

This study reinforces the idea that political and social stability (vs. conflict) is related to a reliable supply of food and a coordinated structure of support for the world’s farmers.