Collaboration needed to avoid sharp rise in climate-related hunger

An elderly lady receives food supplies in a drought-affected district in Mabalane, Mozambique. Photo by: Aurélie Marrier d'Unienville / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

KATOWICE, Poland — With global hunger rising for the third year in a row, the number of undernourished people in the world could quickly increase to more than 1 billion as the changing climate will impact people’s ability to grow and deliver food and will diminish the nutritional quality of that food, scientists and humanitarian officials said.

They are showing delegates to the COP24 climate talks hard evidence about the impacts of the changing climate and warning that the number of undernourished could rise far beyond any efforts the global community could make to feed them.

“It’s a runaway problem. The higher the degrees of temperature change, the more humanitarian aid we will be required to provide.”

— Gernot Laganda, WFP chief of climate and disaster risk reduction programs

The scientists and humanitarian officials hope to provoke new collaboration between humanitarian and development agencies, agricultural experts, and climate actors to develop food systems that are resilient to climate change without further contributing to it.

“When we look at the link between climate change and food security, then the issues are not just about the rising of temperature and the rising of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Zitouni Ould-Dada, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s deputy director in the climate and environment division. “Unfortunately, hunger is also on the rise.”

With the publication of two key reports, the actual scale of that problem is only now starting to come into view. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report on the impacts of global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures spelled out the specific impacts on food systems. Increased catastrophic weather events such as droughts and floods will decimate crops and disrupt transportation systems. Land will become less arable and produce less food. Stores of livestock and fish will shrink, especially in areas that see their water sources disappearing.

At a rise of 2 degrees the situation grows even more dire. And scientists at this year’s climate negotiations have signaled even that goal will not be reached at current trajectories.

Not all of the impact will come from emergencies, according to Gernot Laganda, the World Food Program’s chief of climate and disaster risk reduction programs. “Not a catastrophic flood, but a change in the onset of the rainfall or the type of rain that is falling” can be just as devastating, he said, particularly to smallholder farmers whose livelihoods can be destroyed by a single failed growing season.

And even when food is produced, it may no longer provide as much nutrition as it once did. There is emerging evidence that the rising level of carbon dioxide is reducing levels of protein, zinc, iron, and other micronutrients in some plants — particularly rice and wheat. “This will affect hundreds of millions of people who rely on rice and wheat as primary source of food,” said Dr. Kristi Ebi, one of the authors of the health-related section of the IPCC report.

A new report on the adaptation gap from U.N. Environment spelled out the implications of all of these changes on people’s health. The authors concluded that, without efforts to adapt to the effects of climate change, there will be an additional 7.5 million stunted children by 2030 — that is children whose growth is slowed by a lack of nutrients, with implications for both their physical health and cognitive ability — and 10.1 million by 2050.

It will also mean the international community will dramatically miss the second Sustainable Development Goal of ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030. Instead, Laganda warned that a 2-degree rise would add 189 million more people to the 821 million who are already suffering from food shortages. A 4-degree increase would mean 1.8 billion more.

Of all the health problems likely to be exacerbated by climate change, including a wider spread of disease and greater restrictions to health care access, Ebi called undernutrition her “deepest concern.”

Nutrition gets a moment at the World Food Prize as global hunger rises

As global hunger is on the rise, Lawrence Haddad and Dr. David Nabarro won the 2018 World Food Prize for their work in elevating the importance of nutrition within the first 1,000 days of life.

She is among an unofficial, but broad coalition of experts on food systems, nutrition, and health who are pushing national parties at COP24 to more actively draw a link between the need to address climate change and reduce hunger — a broad effort that includes everything from rethinking aid to improving the nutritional quality of the food that is being delivered.

Laganda has been thinking about how to be better prepared to deliver support to people, especially in communities where emergency food insecurity can be predicted, as the result of impending droughts or El Nino events, for instance. But food aid is often not available until a crisis has been declared, even though it might prove cheaper to pre-position supplies.

He is looking to climate financing as “one of the ways to bridge that current problem and release that flexibility for forecast-based early action.” A recent pilot in Nepal, based on flooding forecasting, was able to reduce costs from more than $30 million to $10 million, he said.

If nothing is done to address rising temperatures, however, he warned that any number of innovations will not be enough to address the predicted rising number of food crises.

“It’s a runaway problem,” Laganda said. “The higher the degrees of temperature change, the more humanitarian aid we will be required to provide.”

One of the ways to mitigate climate change might actually be reforms to the food system. Agriculture and livestock are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. A collaboration between the EAT Foundation and The Lancet is set to release a report early next year that will present models for shifting food production, while improving nutrition.

“It is possible to feed humanity within a safe operating space with a healthy diet,” said Johan Röckstrom, a professor at the Stockholm Resilience Center and a commission member. “We can shift diets, improve production practices, and reduce food loss and waste.” Ultimately, he said, this has to be done at the same time that agricultural production goes from a carbon emitter to a carbon sink.

 “Achieving zero hunger is still possible. Solutions exist. But it will depend on us to put them into action.”

— Maria Helena Semedo,  FAO deputy director

With delegates to the climate negotiations focused on finalizing a rulebook to help implement the Paris Agreement, it was unclear how far the attempts to link food systems to climate change had penetrated the discussions. But policymakers said when they return to their countries and start putting together national-level strategies, it will be impossible to ignore.

“I am personally an optimist,” FAO Deputy Director Maria Helena Semedo said at a side event on reaching the second SDG. “Achieving zero hunger is still possible. Solutions exist. But it will depend on us to put them into action.”


About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.