Climate change and food systems

Oct 20, 2015 Posted by:  

Global warming will have far reaching effects on where and how food is produced in the coming decades as well as on the nutritional properties of certain crops. All of this will have serious consequences for the global food trade and the fight against hunger and poverty in the world.

A group of scientists and economists have taken a closer look at the climate change impact on agriculture and food production on the global and regional levels over the past two decades. Their findings have been collected in the book "Climate Change and Food Systems", which was recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

"The growing threat of climate change to the global food supply, and the challenges it poses for food security and nutrition, requires urgent concerted policy responses," wrote FAO Deputy Director-General, Maria Helena Semedo, in her foreword to the publication. She also stressed the need for a "sharper focus on important drivers of climate adaptation, including the potential role of trade as a driver to mitigate some of the negative impact of climate on global food production."

Agriculture and food systems under pressure

Climate change is becoming an additional challenge in the context of the fast growing global demand for agricultural commodities for food, animal feed and fuel. This rapid demand increase can be attributed especially to the the population growth and rising income levels.

Agriculture depends greatly on the local weather conditions and for this reason is expected to be highly sensitive to climate change in the coming years. In particular, warmer and drier conditions in the areas nearer the equator will most likely lead to the reduction of the agricultural production in these regions. On the other hand, moderate warming might be beneficial, at least in the short term, to the crop production in other areas.

"Climate change is likely to exacerbate growing global inequality as the brunt of the negative climate effects is expected to fall on those countries that are least developed and most vulnerable," underlined the book's editor, Aziz Elbehri, of FAO's Trade and Markets Division.

The authors of the book examine, among other things, several actions aimed at climate change mitigation, which not infrequently might have hidden negative consequences. For example, current crop-based biofuels are on one hand a renewable energy source which can contribute to mitigating climate change, but at the same time the processes accompanying their production, such as deforestation, can further intensify carbon dioxide emissions.

Threats to nutrition, health and water resources

The book underlines also the potential negative impact of climate change on health and nutrition by aggravating the prevalence of so-called hidden hunger - the chronic lack of vitamins and minerals - as well as obesity. Research shows that higher concentration of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas emitted due to human activity - lowers the amount of iron, zinc and protein and increases the sugar and starch content in some of the world's key food crops such as rice and wheat. These changes could have significant nutrition consequences. In India, for example, where up to a third of the population in rural areas is at risk of not eating enough protein with their food, higher protein deficit in the cultivated crops could have substantial health implications.

The book authors also point out to the fact that in many regions of the world growing water scarcity caused by climate change will lead to the reduction of the capacity to produce food, which could have grave consequences for food security and health. They cite latest research assessing the global impact of diet change on water consumption in food production. Certain results suggest that reducing the amount of animal products in human diets could potentially allow to save the water resources up to the amount needed to feed 1.8 billion people in the world.

Trade and dialogue

The publication cites studies showing that in the context of the changing climate international trade will probably expand. Trade flows will likely increase from mid and high latitudes towards low-latitude regions, where food production and export potential will decrease. At the same time, growing frequency of extreme weather events, such as cyclones and droughts, could have adverse consequences on trade by disrupting supply chains, transportation and logistics.

The book authors indicate that even though global markets can help stabilize food supplies as well as prices and provide alternative sources of food for regions experiencing adverse consequences of climate change, trade alone would not suffice as an adaptation strategy. What is also essential are local strategies which will allow countries and regions avoid over-dependence on imports leading to increased vulnerability to price volatility.

The need to align trade policies with climate objectives is another challenge. It has to be ensured that trade plays its role as an adaptation mechanism without impending at the same time the implementation of activities aimed at the climate change mitigation.

The publication calls for a "structured dialogue" involving all interested parties, including policy makers, scientists, representatives of civil society as well as private sector. The goal of the dialogue should be to assess and verify global, regional and local consequences of climate change in order to assist in formulation and implementation of appropriate climate change policies. This dialogue could take the form of a special forum which would support policy processes and initiatives aimed at securing global food security and provide the best scientific evidence on the impacts of climate change on various levels.

The book "Climate change and food systems" can be downloaded here.

Source: FAO

Photo credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last Modified: Oct 20, 2015