Climate change affects everyone, but not equally
There is no doubt in that adverse climate change impacts are growing in intensity and frequency. Data show that average global surface air temperatures in 2020 were about 1.25°C above the average for 1850-1900 and there was a 0.6°C increase compared to the 1981-2010 period. Twenty of the last 21 years were the hottest recorded years in history.
High-income countries are reporting more people dying from heat stress in urban centers, fire seasons that start earlier, are larger and more destructive, and drying of agricultural fields. Yet the challenge set is much broader, the impacts are more grim, and the outlook is much bleaker in low-and medium income countries (LMICs).
"The number of Asian countries experiencing multiple climate shocks per year more than doubled to 51% between 2011-2016. Significant parts of India are already subject to regular heat waves. Another 0.5 to 1.0 degree increase will make these parts of the country uninhabitable. Due to India's population density, the temperature rise here will lead to unprecedented migration flows."
– Shenggen Fan, former Director General IFPRI, Oct. 10, 2019
In LMICs, mitigating food security impacts from climate change is front and center, and will require major changes and investments in many areas. Research by CGIAR and other partners has helped policymakers to better understand the impacts of climate change on poor populations and is advancing science and practical solutions to reduce the worst impacts.
"Another recent IPCC report predicted a 2 to 6 percent decline in global crop yields every decade going forward — that’s potentially millions of acres phasing out annually — due to drought, heat, flooding, superstorms, weather volatility, shifting seasons, insect infestations and other symptoms of a warming planet."
– Time Magazine, Aug. 28, 2019
Despite the complexities of determining the precise impacts of climate change on future agricultural productivity and food security, the broad consensus is that food supplies will shrink. Production will be hit hardest in LMICs, and overall impacts will be largest for the poorest populations, particularly those residing in sub-Saharan Africa that still spend 40 to 60 percent of their income on food (4 to 5 times more than average consumers in rich countries do). IFPRI food projection models show the increased risk of hunger by 2050 from long-term changes in temperature and precipitation levels alone, based on IFPRI food projection models. By 2019, 690 million people (or nearly 10 percent of the global population) were already suffering from malnutrition, and model results suggest that in just a few years, another 80 million people could be affected by hunger each year due to the impacts of climate change, with an upward trend toward the year 2100.
The 2050 estimates would be much higher if localized weather shocks and climate-induced disasters, such as droughts, floods, storms and forest fires, were considered, all of which are expected to increase in number and severity. Emerging pest and disease outbreaks, which are also increasingly linked to climate change and environmental degradation, would yet further add to these numbers. This includes the recent locust outbreak in Africa and growing fall armyworm outbreaks in Africa and Asia, but also zoonotic diseases such as coronaviruses.
"The highly mobile creatures can travel over 80 miles a day. Their swarms, which can contain as many as 80 million locust adults in each square kilometer, eat the same amount of food daily as about 35,000 people."
– New York Times, Feb. 21, 2020
Lower food production, in turn, pushes prices of food upward and depresses food demand as poorer people cannot pay for more expensive foods, including more expensive, nutrient-dense foods that are, however, essential for healthy diets, such as milk, eggs, meats, fruits and vegetables. Even before the pandemic 85 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa and 76 percent of South Asia’s population could not afford a healthy diet because incomes were too low and food prices too high. The situation is similar for poorer people in other regions of the globe.
Undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – a lack of essential vitamins and minerals – directly contribute to stunting in children, often resulting in lower cognitive skills, lower earning capabilities later in life, higher risk of illness and increased mortality.
"Lockdowns imposed to halt the pandemic will this year deprive 250 million children in poor countries of scheduled supplements of Vitamin A, elevating the threat of premature death, according to UNICEF."
– New York Times, Sept. 11, 2020
Growth faltering at a very early age can generally not be recovered and can generate “lost” generations that have been permanently deprived of their potential to thrive. To retain basic energy levels, poor families resort to consuming more staple foods (cereals or roots and tubers, depending on the region), whose prices will also rise but will remain below those of more nutrient-dense foods on a cost per calorie basis.
In response to this challenge, a large CGIAR biofortification initiative is directly breeding important micronutrients into cheaper staple crops. This undertaking is also important because climate change’s elevated CO2 concentrations directly reduce the concentration of nutrients that are important for health, such as iron, zinc and protein in key staple crops, including wheat, rice, barely and soybeans.
Climate change also contributes to the increased occurrence of aflatoxins, a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on key agricultural crops, particularly maize and groundnuts in tropical regions between 40 degrees north and south of the equator, thus affecting most African countries. But the areas at risk from aflatoxins are expanding with climate change, and include parts of Europe. Contamination in the field is more likely in hot, dry conditions, when crops are stressed and subject to abiotic stresses, such as fungi, and is exacerbated by humidity and poor drying for storage and transportation. Habitual ingestion of aflatoxins with maize and peanuts is associated with stunting, causes liver cancer and immune suppression, and at high ingestion levels can be fatal.
Climate change impacts go far beyond going hungry and getting ill—impacts trigger migration of family members or entire families, if they can afford it. Droughts have been linked to increased HIV cases in women, possibly due to transactional sex or displacement to procure income and food; and to increased intimate partner violence against women.
"In the African Sahel, millions of rural people have been streaming toward the coasts and the cities amid drought and widespread crop failures."
– New York Times, July 23, 2020
What can be done to reduce climate change impacts on food security and nutrition? To fight climate change, we need to accelerate breeding of crops that can withstand climate change and associated diseases, and increase the nutritional value of crops (such as through biofortification). At the same time, strengthening crop traits that increase nitrogen and phosphorous efficiency can reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture. Sustained support to agricultural research and development can improve and expand breeding efforts, identify livestock production systems with lower emissions per liter of milk, per dozen eggs and per animal carcass weight, and more.
Given the growing incidence of extreme weather events, we need to keep global food trade routes open, reduce existing barriers, and ensure that countries do not resort to protective measures when climate and other shocks hit.
"The floods [caused by Cyclone Idai] destroyed more than 700,000 hectares of farmland just before the harvest, according to the government. That's about three times the area of Saarland. About half a million small farmers and their families have lost their livelihoods in some cases."
– Spiegel, Apr. 14, 2019
Many LMICs depend on food imports and open trade regimes from more temperate regions to meet current food demands, as agricultural productivity and underlying investments have been lacking for decades. Expanding trade and food aid to address climate-induced humanitarian crises, is a solution, but food production in richer countries is also affected and trade alone will not be sufficient to protect poor countries against food shortages caused by climate change.
In addition to these investments and institutions, we all need to do better on reducing climate-related risk, while improving food security. This includes improving the access of women and men farmers to sustainable agricultural water supplies for food production, nutrition and resilience; putting clean energy access within reach for everyone in the world; extending climate advisory services and social safety nets to those most affected by adverse climatic events; all while improving, in parallel, ecosystem health, which is essential to retaining the key ecosystem functions that underlie our food systems.
None of these actions is geared to dramatically lower emissions, as the vast majority of emissions are generated not in the poorest countries but rather in the Global North. Thus, in addition to urgently needed investments in climate change adaptation in low-income countries of the Global South – linked to emissions reductions when feasible – we need to also prioritize dramatic reductions in emissions generated in rich countries. Everyone is called to action, and everyone can act. The EU has released new environmental regulations to retain biodiversity and fight climate change. While these are essential to combat climate change, injudicious implementation can increase food insecurity of poor countries and put pressure on tropical deforestation.
While we might be losing the race to keep global temperatures below a 1.5 degree rise, we can still dramatically slow growth in emissions and reduce adverse impacts on food and livelihood security of the poorest. Saving lives and livelihoods requires that we act now!