Food Fight: Climate Change and Security

A new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says global warming could threaten international security because of its disruption of the food supply. Farmers need to start adapting now, before it’s too late.

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World leaders need to get busy adapting the global food system to respond to climate change, writes the author of a new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Given the magnitude of the impact that global warming will have on farmers and food production worldwide, “adapting the global food system to climate change should be a priority,” says Gerald C. Nelson in “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate.”

As average temperatures increase by a couple of degrees, crop yields begin to decrease by as much as a couple of percent a decade, says Nelson. The impact on yield is most likely to occur in low latitude regions where hunger is already the greatest.

Current models used by climate scientists probably underestimate the impact of climate change, Nelson says. Even if the world’s population were to remain stable, climate change would put significant pressure on agricultural production. The combination of population increase and a growing middle class in the developing world makes the challenges agriculture faces even greater.

Estimates say wheat yields in South Asia will decline by 12% over the first half of the 21st century. Thirty years later, the yield loss will be 29%. Waiting until the last minute to invest in agricultural research is not a reasonable option. “Given the long lead times needed to advance scientific research and transfer new technologies and farming practices to the field, action must be taken now to meet the increasingly difficult challenges of climate change,” Nelson writes.

Lobell, Schlenker, and Costa-Roberts 2011
Estimated net impact of climate trends for 1980-2008 on crop yields, divided by the overall yield trend. Click graphic to enlarge.

To manage the challenges brought about by climate change, farmers will have to adapt by growing new crops, changing agricultural practices and purchasing different inputs. The cost of making these changes will divert resources that otherwise would be used “for other farming upgrades.” Some areas will no longer be suitable for agricultural production, forcing farmers off the land.

Nelson argues that not only will consumers face higher prices generally, they will also see more price spikes like the one that occurred in 2008. Higher prices, punctuated by price spikes, will affect the poor the most. Nearly half of those facing chronic hunger “are smallholder farmers living in rural parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.”

 “If the international community wants a world without hunger, it must equip the world’s food producers to grow more food using fewer resources in the face of climate change,” Nelson writes.

One of the results of food shortages and higher food prices is civil unrest. During the 2008 food price spike, more than 30 countries experienced increased social tension. Food is a security issues, Nelson says, quoting from the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review by the U.S. Department of Defense.  

“[The U.S.] has a strong interest in preventing the sorts of conflicts that open the way for civil wars or turn weakened states into sanctuaries for terror groups that pledge harm to the United States and its allies,” Nelson writes. “When events spiral out of control, U.S. intervention in the form of emergency food assistance—or even more costly military engagement—becomes more likely.”

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC. 

 

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