Impact of climate change on food security in times of high food and energy prices

22 October 2008

Climate change and the drive to produce biofuels are two major factors redefining the world food equation and having an enormous impact on the food security of poor people. Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, climate change puts additional pressure on already overexploited natural resources, negatively affecting crop yields, stability of food supplies, and the ability of people to access and utilise food in many parts of the developing world. Biofuels development can be a double-edged sword, especially from the perspective of small and vulnerable farmers in developing countries.

Emissions of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) between 2000 and 2006 increased on average by 3.1 percent per annum, compared to 1.1 percent in the previous decade, and are likely to continue to grow rapidly in view of high economic growth and lack of effective mitigation strategies. The impacts of climate change—such as rising temperatures and increased frequency of extreme weather events—puts severe pressure on food availability, stability, access, and utilisation.

Although rich countries are responsible for most GHGs, the impact of climate change is expected to be most severe in developing countries and on the poorest populations. Many low-income countries are located in tropical and subtropical regions, which are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures, and in semi-desert zones, which are threatened by decreasing water availability. By 2080, agricultural output in developing countries may decline by 20 percent due to climate change, compared to 6 percent in industrialised nations. Also due to climate change, yields in developing countries could further decrease by 15 percent on average by 2080. Taking into account the effects of climate change, the number of undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa may triple between 1990 and 2080. Climate change shocks also erode the long-term opportunities for human development and could exacerbate inequalities within countries.

The higher susceptibility of the poor is also due to limited adaptive capacities. Low-income communities depend directly on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, aquaculture, and other climate-sensitive resources. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by inadequate complementary services, such as health, education, and insurance services, and lacking agricultural extension.

The risks climate change poses on food security are particularly pressing at a time of high oil prices. High fuel prices make agricultural production more expensive by raising the cost of fertilizers, irrigation, and transportation. This increased level and volatility of agricultural prices is negatively impacting the purchasing power and the food security of the poor. The decline of food commodity prices in the context of the financial crisis is probably only temporary. The access to capital for sustainable agricultural and water development investments is further constrained by the financial crisis.

The availability of agricultural products is also affected by climate change directly through its impacts on crop yields, crop pests and diseases, soil fertility and water-holding properties, and variable weather conditions. Last by not least, food utilisation is threatened by climate change through effects on human health and the spread of diseases in geographical areas not previously affected. As agricultural production declines, food prices rise, and purchasing power decreases, physical, economic, and social access to food is severely affected. For the poor, climate change impacts the four key dimensions of food security – availability, stability, access, and utilisation.

The problem or the solution?

While agriculture is part of the climate change problem, it is also part of the solution. However, the expansion of agricultural production as an energy source has broad and complex implications. Biofuels have raised hopes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating climate change on a global or regional scale, and reducing the environmental risks to food security. Yet, biofuel expansion can also add to the greenhouse gas emissions problem through the conversion of forests and grassland to energy crop production. With land-use change, increased world corn-based ethanol production is estimated to increase greenhouse gas emissionsand for palm oil-based biodiesel produced even more so.

On the positive side, biofuels could benefit the poor through raising agricultural incomes, creating additional rural jobs in crop harvesting and processing, and utilising marginal lands and crop residues. The extent to which these potentials are realised depends on the farmers’ ability to access information and markets, produce at competitive prices and at sufficient economies of scale, and afford new biofuel sources. However, economies of scale in ethanol production—at least to date—favour large scale farms, while the existing subsidy regimes and import restrictions undermine the comparative advantage of developing countries. New technology such as that associated with sweet sorghum may change this pattern, however.

In terms of food availability, biofuels could unduly divert land and water resources, capital and political attention away from the production of food. Rising demand for biofuel feedstocks also puts strong upward pressure on agricultural commodity prices and thus on access to food. Further, the stability of food supplies is put at risk as volatile energy prices translate into larger food-price fluctuations, to which poor people have little capacity to adjust. These increases in crop prices are also accompanied by a net decrease in calorie consumption in all regions. The largest decrease is in Sub-Saharan Africa, where calorie availability is projected to fall by more than eight percent if biofuels expand as drastically as planned. In addition, the pressure biofuels put on water for household use could pose health risks and undermine food utilisation. At the same time, however, local biofuel production could provide cleaner and cheaper cooking and heating fuel alternatives and have positive health consequences for the poor.

A rapid, coordinated, and multidisciplinary response is needed to respond to climate change and related emerging risks. Building on the fundamentals of good development policy is essential but not enough to ensure food security under new climate change challenges and threats. Effective adaptation and mitigation strategies must be proactive and explicitly target the impacts of climate change and energy (biomass) developments on the poor. The needed response involves a combination of science, institutional, and policy innovations, which should be taken into account in global, regional, and national strategies, and should comprise three main elements:

1. A science and technology strategy

For climate change mitigation, the technological innovations needed include early warning systems for droughts, floods, and other natural disasters, better soil and water management, and seed varieties more resistant to adverse climatic conditions. For adaptation and long-term productivity, biodiversity should also be maintained and enhanced, for example through gene banks. Carbon sequestration, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, should be encouraged to mitigate the increase of carbon concentration. Also, more support should be given to developing clean bioenergy technologies that do not compete with food production.

To achieve long-term agricultural growth and build a more resilient food system that can meet ongoing and future challenges, developing country governments should also increase their medium- and long-term investments in agricultural research and connect to international science and knowledge-sharing systems. In addition, new approaches to scientific partnerships should be developed and expanded. Co-funding and cooperation among public institutions, foundations, and private enterprises should play an important role in building and advancing the scientific base.

2. Markets and trade policy strategies that call for global institutional arrangements of carbon and biofuels trading

Developed countries should eliminate domestic biofuel subsidies and open their markets to biofuel exporters for biofuels from sustainable production. In view of high food prices, measures to make more agricultural products available for food and feed include freezing biofuel production based on grains and oilseeds. Transparent and equitable standards of carbon and biofuels trading are needed, including sustainability and performance-based standards rather than technology-based standards that will quickly become outdated.

On the policy side, post-Kyoto Protocol rules of access must change to include activities important for developing countries such as avoiding deforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and mitigating methane and nitrous oxide. The Clean Development Mechanism rules should be refined to encourage small farmer participation and to change existing regulations that impose high costs on developing carbon markets in poor countries. Ongoing climate change negotiations under the Bali Action Plan should lead to a new binding international climate change agreement with appropriate carbon-trading and carbon-offset policies (e.g. cap-and-trade and carbon-tax instruments) that include economic incentives for engaging small farmers in developing countries. Farmers’ organisations should cooperate at the national and international level to link small farmers to global carbon markets. Ensured by efficient contracts, the private sector and small farmers can engage in mutually-beneficial projects in carbon sequestration and decentralised bio-energy crop production.

3. An insurance and social protection strategy for the food insecure poor to respond to the growing complexities of food system changes

To reduce the vulnerability of poor households to adverse climate and energy price shocks and to prevent new households from falling into poverty, there is an increased need to strengthen public and market-based social protection mechanisms. Examples of social protection policies include social safety nets (such as conditional or unconditional cash transfers, public works and school feeding programs, subsidies on items consumed by the poor, microcredit, and crop insurance), health insurance, and social security. In addition, the triggers of emergency agencies to respond to crises should be improved. New and innovative insurance mechanisms and private-public partnerships should also be introduced at a larger scale to expand coverage among the poor. Insurance and social protection must be adjusted to the individual circumstances of each country and should be supported by investment in rural infrastructure and services, and good governance.

The way forward

It is clear that action is needed to address the acute and long-term impacts of climate change, particularly in the developing world. Each country should develop and implement a viable national action plan, which takes into account future development paths, expected climate change impacts, and adaptation and mitigation costs. Appropriate prioritisation, sequencing, and institutionalisation of mechanisms are essential. Proposed solution for the short-term should also not undermine long-term climate mitigation options. Global actors should coordinate their transfer of resources, knowledge, and technology, and build a global response to address climate change risks, beyond a single post-Kyoto agreement.

Joachim von Braun is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

This article is published under
22 October 2008
Least-developed countries (LDCs) and small and vulnerable economies (SVEs), including Small Island Developing States (SIDS), face particularly difficult climate change and trade challenges. Their...
22 October 2008
Over the past decade, the misappropriation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge has emerged as an issue of global concern. Yet gaining international recognition for the need to effectively...