Feeding a Hotter Planet
The world faces a frightening hunger crisis. Climate change makes it worse.
To be clear, hunger is a problem of plenty, not scarcity, in modern times. We produce more food than we eat. Yet millions of people go hungry, because they can’t afford it. It’s grotesque.
Pandemic, war, and climate change have brought matters to a head. The world faces what the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, this week called “an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution.”
Many things can be done to avert it. We’ll examine some of the ideas in a bit.
But first, let’s rewind for a minute to understand how we got here.
For starters, global food production has gone up. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of primary crops — mainly sugar cane, maize, wheat and rice — expanded by 52 percent between 2000 and 2020, reaching a record 9.3 billion metric tons in 2019.
Second, the number of undernourished people has been rising since 2015, reversing a decade-long decline. That rise has been driven mainly by conflict, but the coronavirus pandemic and supply chain snags sharply accelerated the trend. Food prices shot up — and with them, hunger. In 2021, nearly 193 million people were “food insecure,” 40 million more than in 2020. The United Nations warned of “catastrophic conditions” in several countries.
Then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent food and fertilizer prices soaring.
Climate change looms in the background of all this. Hotter days and nights, plus extreme floods and droughts, can drive down yields in some places, block the transport of food, make staple grains less nutritious. Erratic rains make it far more difficult for farmers and herders to earn a living.
This year, climate change affected food security in at least one stark way. A brutal heat wave, magnified by climate change, withered the wheat crop in parts of India in May, and Indian officials responded by banning exports of wheat. They then limited the exports of sugar cane. That led to fears that rice could be next, Reuters reported, though India has said it has no such plans.
There are many levers to address food security on a hotter plant. Here are some of the proposed fixes you’ll be heading more about in coming years:
India’s export restrictions on wheat and sugar reflect the country’s longstanding goal of food self-sufficiency: Produce and store enough grain to feed its people to avert the famines of the past. I expect more countries to consider such a policy as climate change and conflict disrupts the global food system.
The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, recently spoke of efforts to advance food self-sufficiency on the continent, with a $1.5 billion plan to provide seeds to 20 million smallholder farmers.
Some economists argue that food self-sufficiency isn’t always the most efficient path. Sometimes, it’s more expensive to grow food locally than have it shipped from elsewhere. Keep an eye on whether the latest disruptions to global trade trump that argument.
2. Increased production
Climate change affects productivity. One research paper found that every one degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures could reduce maize yields by 7.4 percent. Another paper found that hotter days and nights had already slightly lowered crop yields in some countries with high rates of child malnutrition.
Many researchers are trying to develop seeds that can survive in new climatic conditions: rice that can grow in more saline water, maize to withstand drought, and so on. There are also calls to help small farmers, especially in Asia and Africa, to increase crop yields with new farming techniques or expanded access to credit.
Should yield increases be the main objective? Critics warn of the lessons from previous efforts to increase yields. Starting in the mid-20th century, the Green Revolution allowed millions of farmers to harvest more grain than ever before, reducing the risks of hunger. But it also reduced the diversity of crops grown and made farmers reliant on seeds and chemical fertilizers sold by big agricultural companies.
Then there’s the effect of climate change on nutrition. Several experiments, conducted in the lab, show that staple grains, like wheat, corn and rice, lose vital nutrients like iron and zinc when exposed to elevated carbon dioxide levels. That’s disastrous for the health and well-being of billions of children.
Should we be eating differently? Some crops do better in extreme weather, and they’re more nutritious. Sorghum yields are rising in sub-Saharan Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization is promoting millets, including teff in Ethiopia and fonio in Senegal. Some traditional varieties of sweet potato grow well in extreme heat. Some international donor agencies are pushing to diversify crops.
But it’s hard to get farmers to grow different crops if decades of agricultural policy have encouraged them otherwise. It’s even harder to change what we eat. I speak from experience. I’ve tried cooking millets of all kinds. I always come back to rice.
Cash can prevent hunger. Can it be a form of climate adaptation?
Researchers studying government-run cash transfer programs in four African countries found that those that are generous and predictable improved the quantity and quality of food. Another paper found that cash transfers in Brazil helped families change their status from food insecure to food secure.
Then, there’s cash sent by migrants. In rural Mexico, one study found, remittances, especially from abroad, were a “fundamental coping strategy against food insecurity.” Oxfam, the international charity, found that remittances were critical for families in Somalia during the famine in 2011. Somalia faces the risk of famine once again.
How do remittances stack up to climate aid? In 2021, migrants sent home nearly $590 billion, compared with the $100 billion annual climate finance that rich countries promised to share with poor countries.
Before you go: The Johnny Appleseed of kelp
When Michael Doall was a teenager, he hated seaweed, and so did everybody else he knew on Long Island. It was an slimy nuisance that brushed against your legs at the beach, fouled your fishing hook and got tangled around the propeller of your boat. Now, as a marine scientist and oyster farmer, he is on a mission to bring it back to the waters around New York.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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