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Empty shelves and wasted vegetables: Two sides of a supply chain problem

24 April, 2020
Georgina Gustin, InsideClimate News

Empty shelves, market, food, groceries, crisis

Empty shelves, market, food, groceries, crisis
Grocery store in Florida, US, during the COVID-19 pandemic | © Mick Haupt/Unsplash.com

Between food losses and critical shortages, COVID-19 and climate change are testing a food system that critics say has lost its resilience to crises.

[Reprinted with permission of InsideClimate News, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the free ICN newsletter here.]

In Florida, farmers are tossing away thousands of pounds of zucchini and leaving tomatoes to rot on the vine. In California, they're plowing under squash. In Wisconsin, dairy producers are dumping milk down drains. And in at least eight states, the coronavirus has sickened and killed workers at meat processing facilities, forcing operations to a halt. A single pork processing facility, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is now the biggest Covid-19 hotspot in the country, with more than 600 workers ill. 

With no place for their livestock to go and unable to afford feed, farmers are being forced to euthanize animals they raised for slaughter. "They're going back to their farms to kill birds because they can't process them," said Mary Hendrickson, an expert in food systems with the University of Missouri. "No farmer wants to do that." All this at a time when food insecurity is on the rise.

As the coronavirus pandemic rips through the food system, the supply chain—from farm to supermarket—is showing signs of distress and sending up warning flares about the fragility of the world's food production system. Many analysts, farmers and researchers are now examining with fresh urgency how supply chains might be retooled or regionalized to handle disruptions, including those projected to increase with climate change. 

"What this immense public health crisis has done is exposed really sharply the cracks in so many of the systems we're living with, the food system among them,"

said Melissa Leach, a member of the Brussels-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). "Disaster as it is, it might be an opportunity to rethink food systems fundamentally." A decades-long trend toward mega-mergers and corporate consolidation across the food system—from seeds to processing to consumer staples—has led to a sprawling supply chain that's more easily upended when disasters hit, critics say. "Our food systems are highly vulnerable because they're so globalized," Leach added. 

Last week IPES-Food published a report calling for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward a more diversified system, based on principles of agroecology, in which a greater variety of crops are grown, using fewer chemicals, and often on a smaller, regional scale. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other UN organizations have said those principles will be critical for sustainable food production as the climate continues to change.

"A highly specialized, centralized, concentrated agri-business food system is never resilient, so it's vulnerable to anything that comes its way," Hendrickson said. "Farmers have to be able to make decisions; they can't be beholden to these centralized supply chains. That's going to make us better prepared for climate change and ongoing pandemics."

Eating 100 Percent of Meals at Home 

Since the onset of the pandemic, consumers have flocked to grocery stores, stripping shelves of pantry staples like flour, dried beans and canned vegetables. Economists say that Americans typically eat 50 percent of their food away from home. But with the closures of workplaces, entertainment venues and restaurants, that changed suddenly, and shoppers descended on grocery stores and swamped online retailers.

"At first I thought it was strictly hoarding," said Joe Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "But once you start forcing that 50 percent of consumption into the house, you're going to have a big switch."

The supermarket supply chain, Glauber explained, is set up to minimize waste, with inventories calibrated to a "just-in-time" concept, meaning the stores don't keep big inventories. "That's part of the reason you see this problem with grocery stores right now," he said. "Plus, people don't want to go to the store every day, so they're buying larger quantities. All of that is pressuring grocery stores. It's still hard to get staples. Everybody's making bread and posting pictures of what they ate last night."

Most producers are set up to provide food for either the retail or the institutional side of the supply chain. So, as restaurants and huge institutions, from universities to cruise lines to theme parks, have closed down and stopped buying food, producers who supply them are either scrambling to find new markets or just dumping their products or plowing them under.

"Fewer school lunches are being served. People aren't eating at restaurants. Other institutions have closed," said Mike Stranz, vice president of advocacy for the National Farmers Union. "Those supply chains are still there, but they can't adapt as quickly. It's not a seamless transition to go from supplying institutions to retail."

Even before the coronavirus arrived, the American farm industry was facing economic hardship. Low commodity prices, worsened by President Donald Trump's trade war with China, and a series of natural disasters made 2019 tough. Now Covid-19 and projections for early flooding across the Midwest are shaking the industry again, making 2020 look increasingly dire. 

But farmers who sell into shorter supply chains—directly to farmers markets, for example—seem to be faring better during the Covid crisis than others. Many are hand delivering produce boxes to peoples' houses, doing "drive-by" markets or inviting shoppers to pick up pre-made boxes at their farms for contact-less shopping. 

"In terms of resilience and nimbleness, they seem to be able to pivot and figure out new supply chains quickly," said Gail Feenstra, deputy director of the University of California-Davis Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). "They're always struggling because of the competition that comes from the global food system. It puts many of them at a disadvantage. But now that system is in complete disarray. It allows these regional food systems to emerge. They're the ones that are bringing relief to communities."

This ability to pivot, some researchers say, underscores the dangers of a food system that's become too centralized, with individual farms producing just one or two things, making them overly reliant on a narrow market for their products. "People who grow corn and soybeans for the market, they have fewer options," Stranz said, referring to the United States' two biggest commodity crops. 

The same goes for livestock producers who now have only a handful of places for processing and selling their animals. Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest producer of pork, announced Sunday it would close down its Sioux Falls plant, which processes 4 to 5 percent of the country's pork.

"These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation's livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals," said Kenneth Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield, in a statement. But with more processing facilities and a distributed system, livestock producers would have more options and the interruption to the supply chain would be limited. 

"If you had four plants rather than one, you could isolate the problem plant," Hendrickson said. "Redundancy is actually essential for resilience and it's critical to something like this pandemic."

Relocating California to the Mississippi Delta

Over the last 30 or 40 years, global agriculture has instead moved toward a system that critics say has become too large and focused on economies of scale, losing the redundancy that's important for food security — either in a time of pandemic or natural disaster. "The big systems become non-resilient," said Marty Matlock, executive director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center and a professor of ecological engineering. "We need more than one supply of vegetables, of fruits, of protein."

Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Fund released a report called the "The Next California, Phase 1: Investigating Potential in the Mid-Mississippi Delta River Region." With help from government and academic researchers the group—as the report's title implies—investigated a potential new growing region that might partially replace the output of California, which currently produces one-third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.

"California's becoming a more difficult place to produce. You have winters that aren't cold enough and freak freezes in the spring," said Jason Clay, the senior vice president of markets at WWF. "Is there a way to find places to take the pressure off?"

The group settled on an area in the Mississippi Delta that has some ideal characteristics, including fertile soil, ample rainfall, low land costs and a labor force. In the next phase, the group plans to work with universities to set up a pilot project. The idea, ultimately, is to create a model that can be reproduced elsewhere in the world, replicating regional food systems everywhere. "Every country has a California in their food system, and they're trying to find out where their next California is going to be," Clay said.

Matlock, who worked on the report, said these smaller, regional food systems are especially critical with the likelihood for more disruptions. 

"We need to be decentralizing production to the areas that have the ecological resources," he said. "With big systems you lose redundancy. When one thing goes down, the whole system goes down."

Leading Senate Democrats Target Agricultural Mergers and Monopolies

Over the last several years, the issue of consolidation in the global food and agriculture industries has grabbed the attention of law and policy makers who increasingly say that placing most of the food supply—and political power—in the hands of just a few companies is bad for consumers and the planet.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have advocated for the break-up of agricultural monopolies, and Sen. Cory Booker introduced legislation last year that would place a moratorium on agricultural mergers and bolster antitrust enforcement. In January, Booker introduced legislation that would put a moratorium on large factory farms. Advocacy groups say these efforts to shrink farm systems are more critical now, but recognize the challenge ahead. For starters, the Trump administration in late March resumed a process allowing expedited mega-mergers.

"It's really poor timing because everyone's eyes are on the pandemic," said Amanda Starbuck, a senior food researcher and policy analyst at Food & Water Watch. "We saw, after the recession of 2008, even further consolidation in the food industry. My worry is, with smaller farmers and businesses going under because of the economic strain, bigger players are going to buy them out."

Chart: U.S. Farms Are Getting Bigger

 

Advocacy groups are also keeping an eye on the recent stimulus funds approved by Congress, which directed $23.5 billion to farmers. Over the last two years, the Trump administration has given $28 billion to farmers to compensate them for the losses they've suffered from his trade war with China. Most of that money went to larger operators, suggesting to critics that the same will happen again with the latest infusion. That could continue to make the big bigger and push smaller operators out of business.

"This is more than a dress rehearsal. This is it," said Feenstra, of UC-Davis, referring to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. "This is going to be here for a while and it isn't the last time this will happen.This is an opportunity for our policy makers to invest in small and mid-scale businesses." Even larger producers are viewing the pandemic as a kind of test.

"It's during this kind of outbreak that you realize you'd better start planning," said A.G. Kawamura, former agriculture secretary for California and a major grower of strawberries and green beans. "You're going to end up with more droughts or flooding and warming patterns. Shame on us if we don't put into place resilience planning for some of the challenges in front of us."

 

Georgina Gustin is a Washington-based reporter who has covered food policy, farming and the environment for more than a decade. She started her journalism career at The Day in New London, Conn., then moved to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she launched the "food beat," covering agriculture, biotech giant Monsanto and the growing "good food" movement.  At CQ Roll Call, she covered food, farm and drug policy and the intersections between federal regulatory agencies and Congress.  Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and National Geographic's The Plate, among others. 

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
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North America

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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