Act decisively to save world's rice bowl

SOUTH-EAST Asia is a breadbasket and rich also in sea bounty. But the region happens to lie in a swathe across the Equator that is vulnerable to the forces of climate change, inducing a future global food scarcity.

According to the United Nations climate panel and the World Resources Institute, cool temperate regions of moderate populations and ample food production will not escape these effects, either. Raised temperatures will set off a chain reaction of floods and drought that will destroy low-lying fertile plains while yields in higher altitudes will be reduced.

Aside from the sub-Saharan hard-luck case of poor soils and low rainfall, food availability will be down sharply in southern Europe, Australia and North America, as much as in China, the Indian subcontinent and West Asia.

Studies ordered by the World Bank found that China, which is short of water and arable land, could lose up to 40 per cent of its food production and India, about 25 per cent, if the planet warmed by just 2 deg C.

This is as close to equal misery as one could wish for in persuading governments that greenhouse gas emissions are a common problem.

Meanwhile, earth's population will add two billion people by 2050, to reach nine billion.

Scenarios being sketched will exceed the Malthusian doomsday prediction in scale and consequence as gains in agricultural science of the past half century in improving food supply will be cancelled out.

The reason is that food production cycles depend on a consistent climate system, the rhythm of nature. Scientists have been blue in the face explaining why this has been undergoing change, and the first catastrophes could come by mid-century.

The extreme weather of recent years - storms, floods, droughts and widespread "nature" fires - is seeing a companion phenomenon of crop cycles that are late or premature and fishery stocks declining as carbon discharge has made the oceans more acidic.

Are these signs being seen for what they are? The problem with long-range projections is that governments and industry think there is time to fashion adaptive technologies, while the bloc mentality separates legacy polluters from newly rising economies.

The UN General Assembly, the only global forum of equals, should use its moral force to push decisively for pollution controls when world leaders address the issue in September. This will be a lead-in to the Peru conference to follow, which is supposed to complete work on a new global treaty to take effect in 2020.

The UN panel's report has put food security where it belongs - at the heart of the global warming debate. It is a call to action as it concerns contests for survival and possible conflicts over resources.