Climate change and the threat to food


Climate change and the war in Ukraine magnify concerns surrounding food security

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Image by Raimond Spekking

By Josh Cole

In light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, food insecurity has been the focus of many news services as critical supplies of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, sunflower seeds and other agricultural staples are endangered. However, despite being exacerbated by the recent conflict, food security is being driven by the systemic threat of climate change.

Currently, 821 million people are undernourished across the world, with approximately double that number having to regularly compromise either the quality or quantity of their food. By no coincidence, many of these people are located in countries most exposed to the damages of climate change. The Sahel region in Africa, a semi-arid area which sprawls across countries such as Mali, Chad and Niger, and which is riven by conflict and poverty, provides a useful lens for understanding the critical effects of climate change. The Sahel is expected to warm at 1.5 times faster than the global average and consequently has seen desert areas expand by 20 percent over the past half-century. Conversely, the critical water resource of Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its volume since the 1960s and has threatened the livelihoods of countless fishermen, pastoralists and farmers. In regions like the Sahel, the majority of agriculture is conducted by subsistence farmers who lack the sophisticated equipment, seeds and fertilisers that usually enable western farmers to produce higher crop yields and maintain those yields in poor conditions. The consequences of climate change therefore hit food supplies in regions like the Sahel disproportionately hard, relative to their industrialised counterparts. Given that globally, every one degree increase in temperature is associated with a 10 percent drop in crop yields, food insecurity is going to be an ever increasing risk to the health of millions of people.

In 2014, the United States published its quadrennial defence strategy, explicitly linking climate change to global instability. Food insecurity intersects across these two forces in a profoundly powerful sense. Climate events such as droughts diminish seed stocks for future seasons, prolong hunger and make critical topsoil vulnerable to being blown away in high winds, adversely affect crop yields, and drive up food prices. Scarcity of food has been a constant driver of conflict across global history, and this is apparent through the statistic that 60 percent of hungry people live in areas of conflict, and that three quarters of stunted children live in those areas. The State of Food Security and Nutrition report in 2018 produced research suggesting that the number of climate-related extreme weather events rose from 100 per annum in the 1990s to around 213 in 2018. Given the acute vulnerabilities of places like the Sahel, which is also riven by extremist militias like Boko Haram, the enormity of the problems generated by food insecurity are set to only develop in complexity.

With the ever-increasing pressures that climate change is exerting on food production in regions like Africa and South Asia, the rise in global temperatures has seen production of staples like corn and soybeans move northwards. Countries like Ukraine have now become large producers of these crops over the past few decades as conditions have become warmer. Though on the surface this appears as a positive, it carries a profound ecological risk. In northern countries, soil that has been trapped beneath frozen ground is gradually being exposed and cultivated, perhaps for the first time. This soil is filled with carbon that has been stored underground, and the potential for the release of this carbon could trigger what’s known as a climate bomb, in which an extraordinary amount of carbon might destabilise ecosystems. Regrettably, scientists have concluded that totally preventing a climate bomb scenario is probably unrealistic, and as such, experts and campaigners are dedicating efforts to ensure the development of potentially new farmland is done with environmental concerns at the forefront.

What this shows, however, is the intractable nature of the challenge posed by climate change to food insecurity. Nonetheless, what’s certain is that millions of people are going to struggle to feed themselves and their families unless the whole myriad of inter-related factors that climate change brings to bear on food production is tackled. Economists and scientists from the American Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have called for a greater sharing of cash pools and expertise, so that countries in Africa and South Asia have greater access to improved fertiliser and seed supplies. It is also crucial that they develop irrigation systems that, whilst very costly, would give farmers a greater chance of maintaining their crop yields in the face of unfavourable conditions. Despite the upfront cost, investing in more sustainable practice gives millions of people a better chance of avoiding the debilitating effects of hunger and the often accompanying risk of instability. What’s needed is decisive action before it becomes too late to make these changes.