by Judith Curry
A recent NYTimes article highlighted the issue of climate change impact on global food insecurity. Roger Pielke Jr has criticizes this analysis in several posts [here and here], arguing that recent extreme weather events are not attributable to AGW and that self-reported food insecurity is at odds with model results from the FAO and USDA. Lets take a deeper look at the issue of food security, and place climate change in a broader context of this complex issue.
Definition of food security
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) characterizes food security as having:
- Food Availability: The availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied through domestic production or imports (including food aid);
- Food Access: Access by individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet;
- Utilization: Utilization of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and health care to reach a state of nutritional well-being where all physiological needs are met; and
- Stability: To be food secure, a population, household or individual must have access to adequate food at all times.
Climate variability and change and weather hazards impacts have a substantial impact on the variability of agricultural productivity, which is the major factor in food availability. Whether in terms of crop destruction by extreme weather or because of changing precipitation patterns (chronic drought conditions, for example), the impacts of weather and climate can have a significant destabilizing influence on food security, particularly in regions where a great deal of food insecurity currently exists.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the FAO released an agricultural outlook report in June 2010 that predicts significant increases in food prices in the coming decade. All told, food prices are expected to increase by 40% as a function of population increases, increased demand per capita, and competition for food stocks from the biofuel sector. The price of wheat and other grains is expected to rise 15-40% and dairy prices are anticipated to rise 16-45%. Note: a new decadal agricultural outlook is scheduled for release on Jun 17.
Transitory food insecurity associated with weather and climate variability
The pivotal relationship between food and weather presents significant risk and security exposure for regions all over the globe. From production planning all the way through final consumption, there are numerous critical touch points in the food life cycle where weather and climate can have impacts on crop yields and consumption from minor to catastrophic levels. For the last forty-plus years organizations around the globe have been working to build the data stores needed to properly assess food and crop risk exposure.
Translating the weather/food connection into a tangible comprehension of risk exposure for areas around the globe requires an understanding not only of production patterns but also the consumption diversity in a region or country. For instance, a low elevation coastal region positioned in the tropics will have exposure issues related to the production of local crops such as rice, tropical fruits and vegetables. However, computing the areas total risk level requires a thorough understanding of food import dependency. This dependency includes food type, source location and quantity, as well as the ability to alternately source local production and primary import shortfalls.
The importance of this issue especially relating to the potential severity in terms of lives lost to food unavailability, as well as regional stability and security issues has led to the creation of numerous national and international agencies whose mandates range from monitoring the weather implications and assessing resulting impacts (Joint Agricultural Weather Facility), to helping improve the decision making process (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Climate Impact on Agriculture(Climpag)) to developing food security issue warning systems (United States Agency for International Development (USAID) , Famine Early Warning Systems Network).
The sheer quantity of efforts underway to deal with weather related food loss and security risk highlights the importance of the issue globally. These efforts illustrate both benefits and challenges to determining risk exposure vis a vis weather and climate impacts.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been tracking global food production and import data since the 1970s, and has developed an Economic, Statistics and Market Information System in partnership with other agencies to provide extensive data and reports. While the far-reaching food production and import data for countries and regions around the globe is useful, without the proper context it only begins to address the risk exposure. By combining that data with information like integrated crop yields, population densities and drought vulnerability, we begin to see patterns that help us to start to understand the real weather/food risk exposure.
CCAFS CGIAR has published a new report entitled Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics. The report finds:
A new study has matched future climate change “hotspots” with regions already suffering chronic food problems to identify highly-vulnerable populations, chiefly in Africa and South Asia, but potentially in China and Latin America as well, where in fewer than 40 years, the prospect of shorter, hotter or drier growing seasons could imperil hundreds of millions of already-impoverished people.
Now we need a study on the impact of climate change on agriculture in Canada, Russia, North China, and Scandinavia.
Factors contributing to regional structural food insecurity
There is a distinction between structural food insecurity, associated with poverty and low incomes, and transitory food insecurity that is associated with natural disasters, economic collapse or conflict.
Food insecurity among the rural poor is exacerbated by structural economic problems facing these communities such as trade barriers, inferior markets, and land distribution issues. The inability of the rural poor to make gains from trade by effectively participating in the international commodities market (through exports) results in the exacerbation of rural poverty and subsequent food insecurity. The agriculture of the rural poor is characterized by low input-low output farming (subsistence and small-yield farming). This community has limited access to productive land, technology, credit and markets, so poor rural households are largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods and subsistence, and thus are highly vulnerable to adverse weather and climate conditions. The market in which the rural poor participate, as well as the market structure itself, hinders their ability to economically advance. These markets are often characterized by a lack of economic diversification, limited numbers of buyers, costly and inefficient transaction mechanisms.
The rural poor are also limited by an expensive or non-existent access to capital. As a result, private moneylenders with exorbitant interest rates – as opposed to formal financial institutions – predominate in many areas in South Asia. For example, as a result of commonly used loan practices, 50% of farm households in India are indebted to a level that hinders their economic security, and in Pakistan fewer than 5% of the total sums borrowed for agriculture come from formal lenders As noted by the UNISDR, “This exposes rural producers to price swings in response to local variations in production, that can drastically reduce the income that can be obtained from harvests and may encourage a risk-averse preference for subsistence rather than market-based agriculture.”
Land ownership and distribution may also be an economically limiting factor – exacerbating rural poverty and perpetuating food insecurity. Some nations, such as Pakistan, still commonly have in place a feudal-esque land ownership system where the farmers do not own the land and must pay the owners for use of it. This can result in a portion of what little agricultural income there might be not going towards the economic advancement of the farmer.
There are a host of other issues in the poorest of the poor regions in Africa, where food distribution is a particular problem, for both political and logistical reasons. Population growth in itself contributes to structural food security in impoverished countries. Land and soil degradation is another key issue worldwide that is endangering food security.
Food security issues in South Asia
The focus of my investigations of food security issues to date has been South Asia, particularly the countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Food insecurity predominates in South Asia. The role of the agriculture sector throughout South Asia is paramount. Representing 20% of the region’s GDPand over 45% of South Asia’s employment (ref) , agriculture plays an essential role to the regional economy. In terms of land surface area, over 50% of the region’s land area is committed to agricultural efforts. This vast spatial coverage and degree of economic importance make this sector particularly susceptible to the most influential cause in annual production variances – weather and climate. The impacts are not confined to the production season but can also cause post-harvest spoilage and loss up to the point of consumption. For example, in India, spoilage estimates are in excess of 12.8 billion dollars a year.
The primary weather and climate differential influence throughout the region is precipitation. The majority of annual precipitation comes during the 4 month monsoon rainy season, but is supplemented by two periods of tropical cyclone activity in the Northern Indian Ocean (during April-May and October-November) and annual snowfall over the Himalayas. While the combination provides an optimal balance to support natural (rain-fed) and irrigated food production throughout South Asia year round, the potential extremes can be devastating to agricultural efforts. Too much water, exemplified by the 2010 Indus River floods in Pakistan, can completely destroy agricultural output for a season and cause long-lasting damage and subsequent losses to viable crop and livestock areas. The opposing extreme can also be catastrophic, such as the drought of 2002 which impacted over 50% of India’s land area, and resulted in an estimated crop loss value in excess of 360 million dollars. These annual events could become further compounded by climate shifts that may cause multi-year or decadal impacts on Indian Monsoon behavior and influence recurring snowpack levels in the Himalayas.
As an example of specific issues at the country level, consider Pakistan. Pakistani agriculture is responsible for 25% of GDP, comprises 66% of the labor force, and accounts for 80% of Pakistan’s exports (ref). And – in terms of agriculture, industry, droughts and floods – water resources and water availability play critical roles in determining the success of the country’s economy.
Pakistan has the world’s largest irrigation system – whereby 80% of cropland uses irrigated water. Most of this is rain-fed irrigation. In other words, the majority of farmland – and thereby sizable portions of the Pakistani economy – is ultimately dependent on precipitation and its distribution. This dependence on seasonal rainfall has resulted in poor agricultural practices – resulting in a negative cycle that degrades the land, increasingly placing the agricultural economy at risk, and then a need for increasingly destructive ‘quick-fixes’ with regards to rainfall and agricultural practices. Due to the existing high variability of precipitation, farmers provide water to their crops when it is available – not necessarily when it is needed. This “over-watering” has resulted in deteriorated soil quality through salinization, decreased agricultural productivity, and water scarcity. The World Bank reports that 25% of Pakistan’s arable land is highly degraded due to salinity – resulting in an annual loss of 1% of GDP per year. This water scarcity and water pollution (as a result of both agricultural practices and industry) has resulted in a reduction in the supply of water needed for Pakistani agriculture.
Switzerland’s Agency for Development and Cooperation released a report in 2010 that highlighted the dramatic – and increasing – status of food insecurity in Pakistan. Among its key findings are that food insecurity affects 48.6% of the Pakistani population; 34% of Pakistan’s districts are characterized as “extremely food insecure” – a doubling since 2003; and that Pakistan’s poor spend 61.6% of their household income on food – an increase of 5% since 2005-06.
Towards managing the risk of transitory food insecurity
Weather disasters and seasonal drought are major contributors to transitory food insecurity. Better weather and climate information in the vulnerable regions could go along ways towards mitigating losses from such events.
The expected weather/climate conditions play a fundamental role in decisions regarding what to plant, when to harvest, if/when to irrigate and and fertilize. Each planting season, a farmer decides what to plant among several choices suitable for the particular yield. The choices include risky but high paying crops versus safer more resilient low paying crops that may better survive a possible drought. The decision to harvest includes early harvests that avoid future weather risks, and later harvest that optimizes yields.
Good seasonal forecasts on timescales of 3-4 months could support better cropping decisions. Forecasts on subseasonal time scales are invaluable for harvesting decisions, and shorter term forecasts are useful for irrigation decisions and protecting crops, seed stock and livestock from floods and tropical cyclones. Third world countries do not have easy access to first world weather information, and first world scientists and weather forecasters expend little effort addressing regional issues in the developing world.
Forecasts are only useful if they are communicated and understood. One such effort in this regard is the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System (RIMES) for Africa and Asia, which is local NGO whose objective is “building capacity and providing actionable warning information towards forearmed, forewarned and resilient communities.”
Can technology deliver on the yield challenge to 2050?
Below is an excerpt from a recent FAO document with the title of this subsection:
It is common that when world grain prices spike as in 2008, a small fraternity of world food watchers raises the Malthusian specter of a world running out of food. Originally premised on satiating the demon of an exploding population, the demon has evolved to include the livestock revolution, and most recently biofuels. Yet since the 1960s, the global application of science to food production has maintained a strong track record of staying ahead of these demands. Even so, looking to 2050 new demons on the supply side such as water and land scarcity and climate change raise voices that “this time it is different!” But after reviewing what is happening in the breadbaskets of the world and what is in the technology pipeline, we remain cautiously optimistic about the ability of world to feed itself to 2050.
First, despite impressive gains in yields over the past 50 years in most of the world, large and economically exploitable yield gaps remain in many places, especially in the developing world and nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa where food supply is the most precarious.
Second, in the short to medium term, there are many technologies that are in their early stage of adoption that promise a win-win combination of enhancing productivity and sustainably managing natural resources. These include conservation farming approaches based on no tillage and the GM technology revolution—both still only used on less than 10 percent of the world’s cropland—as well as the even earlier adoption phase of information and communication technologies (ICT) for more efficient and precise management of modern inputs.
Third, yield gains are not achieved by technology alone, but also require complementary changes in policies and institutions. In much of the developing world, policies are now more favorable for rapid productivity growth, while a range of innovations in risk management, market development, rural finance, organizing farmers, and provision of advisory services, show considerable promise to make markets work better and provide a conducive environment for technology adoption. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa these innovations are a necessary condition for wider adoption of critical technologies such as fertilizer.
Fourth, plant breeders continue to make steady gains in potential yield and water-limited potential yield, more slowly than in the past for wheat and rice, but with little slackening in the case of maize; there is no physiological reason why these gains cannot be maintained but progress is becoming more difficult with conventional breeding. Genomics and molecular techniques are now being regularly applied to speed the breeding in the leading multinational seed companies and elsewhere, and their costs are falling rapidly. As well, transgenic (GM) technology has a proven record of over a decade of safe and environmentally sound use and its potential to address critical biotic and abiotic stresses of the developing world, with positive consequences for closing the yield gap, has yet to be tapped. We believe that the next seven to ten years will see its application to major food crops in Asia and Africa and that after its initial adoption, the currently high regulatory costs will begin to fall. We note however that this will require significant additional investment, not least in the areas of phenotyping on a large scale, and that it still takes 10-15 years from the initial investment until resulting technologies begin to have major impact on food supply. Transgenics for greater water-limited potential yield may also appear by then, but trangenics for greater potential yield, arising from significant improvements in photosynthesis, may take longer than even our 2050 horizon.
To be sure these are broad generalizations and there are important differences by crop and region. . . [A]lthough increases in food production in Asia over the past 50 years have been impressive, no country in sub-Saharan Africa has yet experienced a green revolution in food crops in a sustained manner, despite generally better overall performance of the agricultural sector in the past decade.
Yet our review does raise a number of cautions. To no small extent the need to accelerate global cereal yield trends beyond the historic annual rate of 43 kg/ha for 1961-2007 relates to this new demand. By 2020, the industrial world could consume as much grain per capita in their vehicles as the developing world consumes per capita directly for food.
Third, many countries face huge challenges in achieving food security, even from a narrow perspective of food supply. We are less concerned about China and India, since they should continue to be largely self sufficient for food needs . . . However, there are many countries that do not have the capacity to import large amounts of grain or it would be prohibitively costly to do so, but where population growth is still very high. Most of these are in Africa, but even Pakistan with an estimated 335 m people in 2050 faces a potential food crisis. Climate change will also be a major challenge for many of these countries, adversely affecting yields and diverting R&D resources toward adaptation rather than yield improvement – adding a new dimension to maintenance research.
Finally, past agricultural success has in a sense been achieved by mining of non-renewable resources – fossil energy, phosphate, and much underground water. Our review of the impact of looming limitations of this strategy raises major concerns. This places a premium on improved efficiency of using these resources that must be at the center of the agenda for Feeding the World in 2050. Generally it should be noted that increased yield through breeding and agronomy is lifting resource use efficiency.
The history of agriculture in the twentieth century teaches us that investment in R&D will be the most important determinant of whether our cautious optimism will be realized. . . Resilience, flexibility and policies that favor R&D investment in staple food research and efficient input use will be the pillars upon which future food security depends. Darwin, whose 200th birthday we celebrated this year leaves two relevant statements: “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin,” and, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives….[but]…. the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
This essay has highlighted a number of different issues contributing to food insecurity, along with strategies for dealing with the myriad of complex issues that contribute to food insecurity. So what are the relative cost/benefits and feasibility of each of the following measures?
- Better weather and seasonal climate forecasts
- More agro technology research and development
- Better soil management to reduce degradation
- Improved irrigation infrastructure
- Better access of poor rural farmers to markets, capital, technology
- Elimination of corn as biofuel
- CO2 mitigation
- Population control