Climate Change and Food Security

By Elana Sulakshana

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Climate change will continue to affect crop yields significantly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II recently published a report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” One of the major issues that the report raises is that of food security, exploring the connection between mounting pressures due to climate change and agriculture. These links between climate and food are intrinsically tied to inequity.

Agricultural yields are expected to fall at a rate much faster than previously predicted. Production of corn and wheat, in particular, faces grave risks due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns—the report says yields of these two crops will reduce at least 2% per decade. This may lead to food prices rising 3% to 84% by 2050. At the same time, the global population is increasing rapidly. Predictions state that there will be at least 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 (an increase in the world’s population by about 35%), which will require crop production to double, according to National Geographic.

Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the report, stated: “Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields.”

As Oppenheimer indicates, these are not just concerns for the future. The report discusses how climate change has already impacted food supply and continues to do so. Many link the 2007-8 spike in wheat prices to political unrest and violence in the Arab spring, just one example of the far-reaching influence of fluctuations in food supply and prices.

The world is polarized in terms of hunger. The number of overweight and obese people is booming worldwide, now comprising more than 33% of the population, or 1.46 billion adults. Meanwhile, 842 million—about one in eight—people are starving, struggling with the under consumption of energy, protein, and micro-nutrients.

Recent decades, though, have seen an greater consumption in developing nations. From 1980 to 2008, the number of obese and overweight adults increased about three times from 250 to 904 million (compared to 1.7 times in the developed world). Diets in the developing world are increasingly featuring dairy and meat (check out Brighter Green’s report on industrialized dairy in Asia). National Geographic predicts that the demand for protein—i.e. meat—will increase by 103.6% in developing countries, 69.2% in the least developed, and just 15.3% in developed.

This will have significant repercussions on the environment, as meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 18% today. Raising livestock is highly intensive in terms of water and grain. Currently only 55% of global crop calories are used for food, whereas the rest is dedicated to feed (36%) and fuel (9%).

As we move forward, one of the key ways that we can tackle climate change and eradicate hunger is by reducing meat consumption in both developed and developing countries. If we were to shift all crop production to direct human consumption, that would create enough food for 4 billion people, easily ending hunger today and fulfilling the needs of the predicted population of 9 billion in 2050. This is wishful thinking, as we are witnessing the opposite process, as developing countries take a cue from the developed and increase meat consumption as incomes rise.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first one here.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Multimedia.

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