End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030 — that is the second Sustainable Development Goal, adopted in September by the United Nations.
Today, 800 million people are going hungry, close to 2 billion people are malnourished and another 2 billion are overweight or obese. Unhealthy diets, causing chronic diseases from diabetes, heart disease to cancer have become the most important factor in global health — overtaking smoking or infectious diseases. And all these challenges are severely exacerbated by the changing climate.
Health care expenditures caused by poor nutrition are 16 times higher than preventing malnutrition, according to the 2015 Global Nutrition Report. Ending malnutrition is therefore an excellent investment. But food systems are very vulnerable to the increased variability in the weather as a result of climate change: more droughts, more floods, more storms.
CGIAR’s research program on climate change, agriculture and food security estimates that 3 percent of land in Africa, currently supporting 35 million people, will no longer be able to grow maize, their staple crop. Potato yield across the globe could decrease as much as 32 percent by 2069 if agriculture does not adapt. And 80 percent of the land where coffee is grown in Nicaragua would no longer be suitable for coffee production.
Bangladesh is the nation most vulnerable to climate change. More than 70 percent of the calories consumed by rural Bangladeshis come from rice. When rice yields are reduced by flooding, the Bangladesh government imports rice and boosts the country’s production the following year, resulting in rapid price increases. As rice prices climb, consumers spend less on more nutritious food, and the number of underweight children rises. More than 40 percent of Bangladeshi children under 5 already lack vital minerals and vitamins, and climate change pushes more children into malnutrition.
Ending malnutrition — and achieving agreed targets to reduce stunting and wasting in children under 5 — will require a holistic, multisectoral approach. It requires a focus on the 1,000-day window to improve the health and diets of expecting mothers and young children under 2. It includes better health care, awareness of the importance of breast-feeding, and improved access to affordable nutritious food.
Agriculture should play its role to provide healthy diets from sustainable food systems. That will require innovation in many parts of the food system — including agri-food systems becoming more “climate-smart.”
Climate-smart agri-food systems will be needed both to increase resilience to the changes in climate that are unavoidable and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural research for development drives the innovation to enable agri-food systems to do this, including the development of rice varieties that can withstand floods and droughts, such as the International Rice Research Institute’s “scuba rice” and drought-tolerant rice. Scuba rice has already been adopted by more than 5 million farmers in India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal and drought tolerant rice can be grown on the 23 million hectares of Asian land that is increasingly drought prone.
In those same rice fields, when flooded, WorldFish has helped communities breed small fish that can improve the dietary quality of malnourished children. Affordable rice and small fish may help improve the diet of malnourished children in Bangladesh.
In Rwanda, where beans are a key staple food, scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and HarvestPlus have successfully introduced improved bean lines that are both higher in essential micronutrients and can tolerate temperature increases of 3 degrees Celsius and possibly higher.
More of such win-win solutions for nutrition and climate-smart agriculture need to be identified.
Navigating the complexity of healthy diets from climate smart agri-food systems is far from obvious, as it requires thinking across traditional sectors of health, agriculture and the environment. It is possible, however, as shown in a recent Global Panel on Nutrition policy brief on climate-smart food systems that can enhance nutrition.
To succeed — to end hunger and malnutrition while addressing climate change — will require bold leadership. It will require powerful alliances across the sectors of nutrition, health, agriculture and climate. Agricultural research for development needs to play its part, which requires an ability to increase the pace of innovation. It will require a widespread public awareness of the challenges and the solutions we can all adopt as consumers. It will also require governments to come together in Paris this week to agree on a climate treaty that includes agriculture, food and nutrition as part of the negotiations.
Only if all these pieces come together can we hope to have healthy diets from climate-smart food systems for all.
Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.