Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized world leaders Thursday for failing to take bold action on climate change, which he said threatens to worsen the food crisis that has already left a billion people hungry.
Speaking at Stanford University, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said rising temperatures and rainwater shortages are having a devastating effect on food production. Failing to address the problem will have repercussions on health, security and stability, he warned.
“Yet so far, our generation — my generation — of leaders, including those here in the United States, have failed to find the vision or courage to tackle it,” Annan said. “This lack of long-term collective vision and leadership is inexcusable.”
Annan said the food crisis is an unconscionable moral failing and a brake on overall development.
He said the need for a universal and fair framework to address climate change is imperative. Without such action, “the result will be mass migration, growing food shortages, loss of social cohesion and even political instability,” he said.
The bulk of Annan’s keynote address to about 1,400 people addressed making the link between climate change and food supply and imploring action on that front. But he also touched on inequalities in agricultural policies, unfair trade rules and food price fluctuations.
“We urgently need to find ways of dampening extreme volatility in food prices, particularly the excessive speculation in agricultural commodities which causes it,” he said.
The World Bank says rapidly rising food prices this year and last pushed an additional 70 million people into extreme poverty. One in seven people on the planet are hungry.
Annan said as the population grows, greater prosperity will mean more people eating dairy and meat, and grain used to feed people will be increasingly switched to feed animals.
Rising oil prices, too, have brought competition from agro- or biofuels, he said.
Last month, the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization forecast improved prospects for world cereals production but warned there is uncertainty about the impact on food security because of the global economic slump and increased risks of recession.
It also cited concern about irregular rains in West Africa in the 2011 cropping season and of severe monsoons in Far East Asia.
Annan, who chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which aims to boost food production on his native continent, argued that Africa, despite the headlines of famine and war, is a key player in solving the hunger crisis.
“It may now be the only continent which cannot feed its own people. But it also contains some 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land,” he said.
With the right investments, research and support, he said, Africa could boost production and help fight hunger.
Annan’s speech was part of several events marking the university’s launch of the Center for Food Security and the Environment at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also scheduled to speak at a private dinner.
While Annan blasted governments for their failures to act on climate change, he said he’s encouraged by signs they want to address access to and availability of food as a means to overall growth.
He praised “Feed the Future,” the U.S. initiative to reduce poverty and under-nutrition, and said he met recently with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Raj Shah, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“If we pool our efforts and resources we can finally break the back of this problem,” he said.