Feeding a Hotter Planet – The New York Times
The world is facing a terrifying hunger crisis. Climate change is making it worse.
To be clear, hunger in modern times is a problem of abundance, not scarcity. We produce more food than we eat. Yet millions of people are starving because they cannot afford it. It’s grotesque.
Pandemic, war and climate change have brought things to a head. The world is facing what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres this week called “an unprecedented wave of hunger and poverty”.
Many things can be done to prevent it. We’ll explore some of the ideas in a bit.
But first, let’s rewind a little to understand how we got here.
For starters, global food production has increased. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization primary crop production – mainly sugarcane, maize, wheat and rice – grew by 52 percent between 2000 and 2020, reaching a record 9.3 billion tons in 2019.
Second, the number of undernourished people has risen since 2015, reversing a decade-long decline. That increase has mainly been caused by conflict, but the coronavirus pandemic and supply chain problems have greatly accelerated the trend. Food prices skyrocketed – and with it hunger. In 2021, almost 193 million people were “food insecure”, 40 million more than in 2020. The United Nations warned against “catastrophic circumstances” in different countries.
Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused the prices of food and fertilizers to rise.
Climate change looms in the background of all this. Hotter days and nights, plus extreme floods and droughts, can reduce yields in some places, block food transport and make staple grains less nutritious. Erratic downpours make it much more difficult for farmers and herders to earn a living.
This year, climate change has impacted food security in at least one stark way. A brutal heat wave, exacerbated by climate change, withered wheat crops in parts of India in May, and Indian officials responded by banning wheat exports. They then restricted sugar cane exports. 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 tackle food security on a hotter plant. Here are some of the suggested solutions that you’ll be reading more about in the coming years:
India’s export restrictions on wheat and sugar reflect the country’s long-standing goal of food self-sufficiency: to produce and store enough grain to feed the people to avoid the famines of the past. I expect more countries to consider such policies as climate change and conflict disrupt the global food system.
African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina recently talked about efforts to promote food self-sufficiency on the continent, with a $1.5 billion plan to supply seeds to 20 million smallholder farmers.
Some economists argue that food self-sufficiency is not always the most efficient way. Sometimes it is more expensive to grow food locally than to have it transported from elsewhere. Keep an eye out for the latest global trade disruptions trumping that argument.
2. Increased Production
Climate change affects productivity. A research paper found that every degree Celsius increase in the Earth’s average temperature could reduce maize yield by 7.4 percent. Another paper found that warmer days and nights had already slightly reduced 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 saltier water, corn that can withstand drought, and so on. There are also calls for help small farmersparticularly in Asia and Africa, to increase crop yields with new farming techniques or expanded access to credit.
Should revenue increase be the primary goal? Critics warn of lessons learned from previous efforts to increase yields. Beginning 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 dependent on seeds and fertilizers sold by large farms.
Then there is the effect of climate change on food. Several experiments, conducted in the laboratory, show that staple granules, such as wheat, maize and rice, lose essential nutrients such as iron and zinc when exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide. This is disastrous for the health and well-being of billions of children.
Should we eat differently? Some crops do better in extreme weather and are more nutritious. Sorghum yields are rising in sub-Saharan Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization is promote millet, including teff in Ethiopia and fonio in Senegal. Some traditional varieties of sweet potato grow well in extreme heat. Some international donor organizations are pushing for crop diversification.
But it’s hard to get farmers to grow different crops when decades of agricultural policies have encouraged them differently. It’s even harder to change what we eat. I speak from experience. I have tried to cook all kinds of millet. I always come back to rice.
Cash can prevent hunger. Could it be a form of climate adaptation?
Researchers are studying government-run money transfer programs in four African countries found that those who are generous and predictable improved the quantity and quality of food. Another newspaper found that cash transfers in Brazil helped families change their status from food insecure to food secure.
Then there is money sent by migrants. In rural Mexico, a study found that remittances, especially from abroad, were a “fundamental coping strategy against food insecurity.” Oxfam, the international charitable organization, found that: remittances were critical for families in Somalia during the famine in 2011. Somalia is again at risk of famine.
How do remittances relate to climate aid? In 2021, migrants were almost sent home $590 billioncompared to the $100 billion annual climate finance that rich countries pledged to share with poor countries.
Before You Go: Kelp’s Johnny Appleseed
When Michael Doall was a teenager, he hated seaweed, and so did everyone he knew on Long Island. It was a slimy nuisance that rubbed against your legs on the beach, soiled your fishing hook and got tangled around the propeller of your boat. Now, a marine scientist and oyster farmer, he’s on a mission to bring it back to the waters around New York.
Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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