Skip main navigation

The link between food security and climate change

This article discusses the link between food security and climate change, and what we can do to mitigate the changes happening.
a drawing of planet Earth
© IMDEA

Poverty and climate change

Even though the prevalence of poverty and, particularly, of extreme poverty is decreasing worldwide, new challenges now need to be addressed if we want to provide the whole population with access to nutritious food.

Over-exploitation of resources and a seemingly unstoppable climate change (that results in more frequent extreme weather episodes) are transforming our approach to food production and distribution.

UN Sustainable Development Goals number 2 is “Zero hunger” by 2030. Indeed, even though more people worldwide now die as a consequence of over-nutrition rather than undernutrition, we should not forget that food security is still a major issue in several countries.

Food Security

According to the FAO, more than 1 billion people suffer from hunger, 98% percent of which live in developing countries. There are several things that must be done to solve this problem, of which affordability is just one factor.

One is to fix the supply chain: millions of people go hungry amidst an overabundance of food, that goes wasted for lack of e.g. refrigeration or proper transport. We should not forget that we must provide food to people that are safe and nutritious.

The other solution is, of course, to increase food production.

Of note, if consumption trends continue as projected, the world will need to increase food production by more than 50 percent to feed nearly 10 billion people adequately in 2050. The latter is now facing a major global issue: climate change.

Climate change

Climate change is an often-overlooked issue when we talk about human diets, especially when we try to predict future trends. Yet climate change brings about several problems that include:

  1. Desertification of land. Theoretically, higher yields in temperate regions could offset lower yields in tropical regions. However, many low-income countries with the limited financial capacity to trade and high dependence on their own production to cover food requirements will likely increase their reliance on food aid;
  2. Extreme weather conditions can disrupt crops and kill livestock. As the frequency and intensity of severe weather increase, there is a growing risk of storm damage to transport and distribution infrastructure, with consequent disruption of food supply chains;
  3. Proliferation and new patterns of pests and diseases;
  4. Impact fisheries and bring fish species to non-native seas and oceans, whose acidification affects shellfish. Global crop and economic models project a 1-29% cereal price increase in 2050 due to climate change, which will eventually impact consumers through higher food prices.

What can we do?

Mitigating these changes is paramount and it must be done urgently at political levels. It should be noted that approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are due to the food system.

Management measures exist to significantly reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production sources, particularly enteric fermentation by ruminants, and from manure, nitrogen fertilizers, and energy use.

These measures require a variety of incentives and regulations, deployed at scale. Implementation will require far more detailed analysis and tracking of agricultural production systems within countries.

Crops that are resistant to pests and disease

Crop varieties and breeds that are resistant to the likely new arrivals of pests and diseases can be introduced as an adaptive measure, and crop selection that copes with droughts and/or extreme temperatures is already in place.

One pertinent example is that of new rice varieties being developed that exhibit enhanced nutritional value, require less water, produce high yields in dryland conditions, minimize post-harvest losses, have increased resistance to drought and pests and increased tolerance to floods and salinity.

Fertilizers that will optimize yield

Appropriate fertilizers are being developed that will optimize yield under new conditions and many practices can and should be optimized and scaled up to foster adaptation throughout the entire food system. Finally, we should set up “safety nets” to cater food when needed.

An eco-friendly energy environment

Probably most important, we must develop an eco-friendly energy environment as part of novel sustainable agriculture and diet.

According to recent data, greenhouse gas emissions from global food production will be enough to push Earth beyond an internationally agreed goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, even if we cut all other sources of emissions.

In summary, future diets will also depend on how we will cope with climate change, not just on biochemistry and nutrition science.

Author: Dr. Francesco Visioli

© IMDEA
This article is from the free online

Nutrition for Health and Sustainability

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education