Food, hunger and climate change
A slew of new reports have again highlighted the
perilous state of the global food system.
As the world struggles through the second global food crisis in
three years, some argue this should be a wake up call to revitalize
and stabilize global food production and trade.
The question now is whether climate change will make such crises
So far this year 44 million people
have been pushed into extreme poverty by increased food costs,
adding to the nearly one billion starving and 2.5 billion
malnourished people around the world.
Global cereal prices increased 71 percent in the year to April
2011, more than three times higher than a decade ago.
And the cost of meat hit an all-time high in May. Prices are
set to continue rising, with Oxfam warning of a doubling in global
food prices by 2030.
During the last food price spike
in 2008 experts mostly agreed on the causes: a combination of
commodity speculation, global economic crisis, energy costs,
increased biofuel production and increased demand from emerging
That crisis resulted in riots in 30 countries and 100 million
people being pushed into extreme poverty. The high cost of food was
a factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian protests that ignited the
This time the short-term and
underlying economic causes remain the same. But there is a
growing consensus that the on-going crisis is being exacerbated by
In May the UN Food and
Agriculture Organisation warned of unrest as global food prices
hit record highs inflamed by drought in Europe.
The Guardian reported:
"Food prices are expected to hit new
highs in the coming weeks, tightening the squeeze on UK households
and potentially triggering further unrest in developing countries
unless there is heavy rainfall across drought-affected Europe, the
United Nations has warned.
"…The average global price of cereals
jumped by 71% to a new record in the year to April, more than three
times higher than a decade ago, according to latest UN figures,
prompting its Food and Agriculture Organisation to warn that Europe
faces a pivotal few weeks."
Now scientists have for the first time demonstrated a link
between global warming and crop yields. A new study, Climate Trends
and Global Crop Production Since 1980 by Lobell, Schlenker and
published in Science last month and reported
in New Scientist.
The gains from technological improvements have, since 1980, been
offset by the losses to staple crop yields caused by temperature
The study used statistical models to calculate staple crop
yields in every country in the world since 1980 as technology
improved, if temperature and rain had remained at 1980 levels. This
was compared to real-world yields.
They found maize yields were 5.5 percent lower and wheat 3.8
percent lower than if temperature and rainfall had remained at 1980
levels. "In most places we see temperature trends, and they have
significantly reduced yield growth,"
Schlenker said. Dr. Lobell told the
New York Times: "I think there's been an under-recognition of
just how sensitive crops are to heat, and how fast heat exposure is
Another new study also points to the effects on yields of
Trnka et al, in "Global Change Biology" found climate change is
increasing the risk of "extremely unfavorable years in many
climate zones" resulting in unpredictable yield
However, uncertainty associated with relying on modelling means
this and the Lobell paper are
open to criticism.
The changing climate is not the main cause of hunger. Currently
the world produces
more than enough food, although growth in food production is
slowing. The current crisis is one of
economics and politics. As UN Assistant Secretary-General for
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, wrote recently:
"Lack of food is rarely the reason that
people go hungry. The world today produces enough food to feed
everyone. The problem is that more and more people simply cannot
afford to buy the food they need."
But climate change is making the crisis worse and could become
an increasingly important factor in global food security. Sundaram
"Other factors have contributed to the
food crisis. Climate changes resulting from greenhouse-gas
emissions exacerbate water-supply problems, accelerate
desertification and water stress, and worsen the unpredictability
and severity of weather events, all of which adversely affect
agriculture in much of the world."
In its "
Growing a Better Future" report published last week, Oxfam
projected food prices will double by 2030 and climate change will
be responsible for half that increase. The report said climate
change poses a grave threat to food production by applying a
"brake" on crop yield growth:
"Estimates suggest that rice yields may
decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise in dry-growing season
minimum temperatures. Modelling has found that countries in
sub-Saharan Africa could experience catastrophic declines in yield
of 20-30 per cent by 2080, rising as high as 50 per cent in Sudan
It is now accepted that the upward trend in yields brought about
by the technological advances of the "green revolution" has
Oxfam also identifies extreme weather events as a major threat
to harvests and future food security. Changing seasons with
"longer, hotter dry periods and unpredictable rainfall patterns"
are making farming more difficult in poor and developing
Examples like the 2010 heatwave in Russia show how extreme
weather events have a knock on effect on the global food system.
Food production was hit to such an extent the government
banned grain exports.
Other recent extreme weather events thought collectively to have
contributed to the current price crisis include the huge floods in
Pakistan, Australia, and Brasil.
blogging at the Guardian in February, said:
"When the real food instability comes -
if, for instance, the US or Chinese breadbasket gets hit by the
type of heatwave Russia just did - the big grain producers will ban
exports, to make sure their people are fed. In this scenario, if
you don't have your own food supplies or an important export item
to barter - particularly oil - your country is going to have big,
big problems feeding its people."
In its recent report
[pdf], the UN Conference on Trade and Development looked at the
effects on developing countries. It says the regions most at risk
from disruption to food security are those already affected by
hunger. In many underdeveloped countries agriculture remains
the key economic sector. And price spikes and volatility in food
markets hit poor countries hardest:
"Global warming has the potential to
damage irreversibly the natural resource base on which agriculture
depends, with grave consequences for food security. Climate change
could reduce total agricultural production in many developing
countries by up to 50 per cent in the next few decades, in
particular in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time,
the population of these countries is projected to nearly double,
creating huge tensions between food supply and demand. Although
food could be theoretically imported from temperate-zone countries
that may benefit from global warming, this may simply be
unaffordable given the huge demand, low purchasing power and
expected food price increases."
The Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security research
institute also highlighted the vulnerability of underdeveloped
regions in its
study published on 3rd June.
Using models and indicators of food problems the CCAFS
scientists created detailed maps pinpointing areas of
vulnerability. The study mapped areas of the world at risk of
crossing "climate thresholds" that could diminish food production;
areas sensitive to climate change because of the large areas of
land devoted to agriculture; and maps of regions with long
histories of food insecurity.
When the maps are put together they reveal parts of the world
most vulnerable to climate effects on food production. The report
highlighted particular regions of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
as most at risk.
Patti Kristjanson, one of the researchers, said:
"We are starting to see much more
clearly where the effect of climate change on agriculture could
intensify hunger and poverty, but only if we fail to pursue
appropriate adaptation strategies. Farmers already adapt to
variable weather patterns by changing their planting schedules or
moving animals to different grazing areas. What this study suggests
is that the speed of climate shifts and the magnitude of the
changes required to adapt could be much greater. In some places,
farmers might need to consider entirely new crops or new farming
The recent literature also looks at agriculture's effect on
climate change. The energy intensive agricultural methods we use to
produce our food make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas
: between 17 and 32 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas
"Agriculture is a very
GHG-emission-intensive sector. Although agriculture's share in
global GDP is just about 4 per cent, agriculture accounts for about
13-32 per cent of global GHG emissions."
In this identification of agriculture as part of the problem
lies a potential solution to
food insecurity that also addresses climate change:
"Under a business-as-usual scenario,
agricultural GHG emissions are predicted to rise by almost 40 per
cent till 2030. Further chemicalization and industrialization of
agricultural production that cannot but reinforce this trend are
therefore steps in the wrong direction. If properly transformed,
agriculture can be turned from being a climate-change problem to
becoming an essential part of its solution. The key problems of
climate change, hunger and poverty, economic, social and gender
inequity, poor health and nutrition, and environmental
sustainability are inter-related and need to be solved by
leveraging agriculture's multi-functionality.
"Thus a much more holistic approach is
required that not only sees the farmer as a producer of food and
agricultural commodities, but also as manager of sustainable
agro-ecological systems. The required transformation, however, is
much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial