Climate change may impede efforts to reduce hunger

by Jay Sjerven
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Unless nations and economies respond quickly and collaboratively to mitigate the effects of climate change, efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition around the world may be seriously impeded in coming years, according to a report titled “Climate change: Global food security and the U.S. food system.” The 157-page report, the work of contributors from 19 federal, academic, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations in four countries, was released by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris on Dec. 2. It identified the risks climate change poses to global food security and challenges facing farmers and consumers in adapting to the changing environment.

“The past six years have been a success story in terms of global food security,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Two hundred million fewer people are food insecure today than there were six years ago. The challenge we now face is whether we can maintain and even accelerate this progress despite the threats from climate change.”

John Holdren, assistant to the president on science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, added, “The report found that climate change is likely to cause disruptions in food production and a decrease in food safety, which, in turn, leads to local availability limitations and increases in food prices, with these risks greatest for the global poor and in tropical regions. Accurately identifying needs and vulnerabilities, and effectively targeting adaptive practices and technologies across the full scope of the food system, are central to improving global food security in a changing climate.”

The greater the greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the risk to food security.

The report reviewed the science of climate change and its current and expected effects on food security that have been subjects of previous reports. A major takeaway from the current report was its elaboration through presenting scenarios on how climate change risks to food security increase as the magnitude and rate of climate change increase.

“Higher emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases are much more likely to have damaging effects than lower emissions and concentrations,” the report noted. The report also expounded on how efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change may be influenced by socio-economic and other variables.

Currently, about 800 million of the world’s people are food insecure. The report indicated worst-case scenario projections based on high greenhouse-gas concentrations of about 850 parts per million (p.p.m.), high population growth and low economic growth imply that the number of people at risk for undernourishment may increase by as many as 175 million above today’s level by 2080. The same socioeconomic conditions with greenhouse gas emissions of about 550 p.p.m. would result in up to 60 million additional people at risk, while concentrations of about 350 p.p.m., less than today’s level, would not increase the number at risk for food insecurity.

“Scenarios with lower population growth and more robust economic growth result in large reductions in the number of food-insecure people compared with today, even when climate change is included, but higher emissions still result in more food insecurity than lower emissions,” the report asserted.

The report noted effective adaptations may reduce food system vulnerability to climate change and diminish detrimental climate change effects on food security. At the same time, the report also acknowledged socioeconomic conditions and other factors may hinder the adoption of technically feasible adaptation options.

“The agricultural sector has a strong record of adapting to changing conditions,” the report stated. “There are still many opportunities to bring more advanced methods to low-yield agricultural regions, but water and nutrient availability may be limiting in some areas, as is the ability to finance expensive technologies. Other promising adaptations include innovative packaging and expanded cold storage that lengthen shelf life, improvement and expansion of transportation infrastructure to move food more rapidly to markets, and changes in cooking methods, diets and purchasing practices.”

The mitigation of the effects of climate change on food security, then, requires efforts not only aimed at arresting or even reversing the growth in emissions of greenhouse gases but also fostering the development of nations and economies, which requires truly global cooperation on multiple fronts.

The report asserted the potential for climate change to affect global food security is important for food producers and consumers in the United States.

“The United States appears likely to experience changes in the types and cost of foods available for import. The United States is similarly likely to experience increased demand for agricultural exports from regions that experience production difficulties yet have sufficient wealth to purchase products; the United States is likely to be able to meet increased export demand in the near term. Demand for food and other types of assistance from the United States could increase in nations that lack purchasing power.”

The report added, “Climate change is likely to increase demand from developing nations with relatively low per-hectare yields for advanced technologies and practices, many of which were developed in the United States.”

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