The Food Insecurity-Climate Change Nexus
Updated: Jun 11
The fact that climate change and food insecurity are inextricably linked is undeniable.
About a year ago, David Beasley, the United Nations World Food Program’s Executive Director, expressed that while the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, a hunger pandemic looms over us in our not-so-distant future. In the same year, Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), warned that climate change will be (and in many parts of the world, is already) significantly worse than the coronavirus pandemic. These are not just premonitions from modern-day soothsayers, but a lived reality that millions worldwide experience daily.
Long-term climate risks, including gradual glacial melt leading to rising sea levels, are already affecting several coastal communities and compromising the quality and quantity of water available, essential for food production.
The intersection between climate change and food insecurity is devastating for the global population. Climate-related extreme weather events and long-term climate risks are already having (and will continue to have) adverse and complex effects on the entire global food system. Events such as droughts, floods, cyclones, or heatwaves have increased in frequency and intensity. They are leading to a loss of life, homes, livelihoods, and critical public infrastructure, along with damaging crops and affecting food quality/quantity, availability, accessibility and food distribution networks. These events are also disproportionately affecting lower-income communities, as the impending rise in food prices will cause people to spend a more significant proportion of their income on food, potentially exacerbating poverty and making meeting nutritional requirements even more challenging. Moreover,
long-term climate risks, including gradual glacial melt leading to rising sea levels, are already affecting several coastal communities and compromising the quality and quantity of water available, essential for food production.
Conversely, existing food systems are contributing to carbon emissions and worsening climate change. Food systems make up 21-37% of total net GHG emissions. Our World in Data’s analysis also shows that 70% of global freshwater is used for agriculture, and 94% of mammal biomass (excluding humans) is emitted from livestock. This data demonstrates the centrality of the global food system in not only tackling climate change but also inadvertently leading to food insecurity through the impacts of climate change.
The race to net-zero is dominating global sustainability discourse, especially with the United States re-entering the Paris Agreement this year, along with the Biden administration’s pledge to cut the country’s emissions by half by 2030. A central tenet of delivering this reduction would be revolutionizing global food production and distribution. This involves reducing emissions emerging from livestock and fisheries, crop production, land use (for agriculture and livestock), and supply chains.
How can this be achieved? Some solutions are:
Sin taxes for meat and dairy. Increasing the prices of meat and dairy products would place a financial burden on environmentally damaging diets and expose the ‘true cost’ of production, leading to either consumers switching to more carbon-friendly diets or paying more for their carbon footprint;
Strides in “agritech” (i.e., agricultural technology that helps improve the efficiency of farming). Solutions such as precision farming, drought- and pest-resistant seeds, mobile phones and digital technology platforms, geospatial imaging and mapping, and vertical farming offer opportunities to reduce agricultural emissions;
Switching to veganism. Vegan diets abstain from animal-based products such as meat and dairy. Veganism has gained immense popularity in the past decade, especially in the Western world, after being touted as the “single biggest way” to reduce our carbon footprint.
Each of these solutions comes with challenges in adoption and implementation. For example, sin taxes for carbon-intensive foods came under criticism due to the myopic view that underpinned the idea. The cost of food is a significant point of contention in considering food insecurity. Simply raising the price of meat and dairy products, which around the world have become staple food items, would disproportionately affect communities with lower incomes. That sustainability interventions be holistic, comprehensive, and cognizant of complex, global structural and socioeconomic challenges is critical in achieving food security.
While veganism is a strategy employed to tackle anthropocentrist conceptions of the environment by rejecting the commodity status of animals, in reality, there are direct consequences for several minority communities who not only are a part of the existing food system, but for whom alternatives to staples prove too expensive.
Similarly, recent criticism has also been levied against vegan diets for leading to vitamin deficiencies and scarce and (sometimes) contradictory evidence of its efficacy in providing health benefits for humans. Moreover, while veganism is a strategy employed to tackle anthropocentrist conceptions of the environment by rejecting the commodity status of animals, in reality, there are direct consequences for several minority communities who not only are a part of the existing food system, but for whom alternatives to staples prove too expensive.
For tackling challenges as complex, intersectional, and seemingly insurmountable as the food-climate change nexus, there is a need to employ diverse and complementary strategies to reduce our “carbon foodprint”.
There is a need for holistic policy interventions that can reduce food emissions while ensuring security and equal access.
Employing fiscal tools such as a carbon ‘sin’ tax on carbon-intensive food products, which would need to be backed by complementary policy measures such as subsidies for local and organic farming, or implementing food distribution programs that ensure access to low-income households
Subsidies for organic farming can be provided for sustainable or low-carbon products such as fertilizers or for using renewable energy
Incentivizing the creation of carbon sinks through payment for ecosystem services (PES) models, leading to natural carbon offsetting and sequestration in vegetation and soils
Reforesting initiatives are already underway to bolster carbon sequestration
Reducing food loss and waste through policies on effective food loss management, including incentivizing donations to food banks/programs, would not only reduce food waste but ensure its consumption through food banks
Scaling financing for the implementation of agritech solutions in local and organic farming through innovative financing models. These could include blended finance structures or more traditional credit enhancements and asset-backed securitization of smaller farm projects. These projects could help reduce agricultural emissions and promote sustainable agriculture
Reducing taxes on plant-based products would incentivize their consumption while not further hampering people’s ability to consume meat or dairy. This type of fiscal policy would encourage people to switch to less carbon-intensive diets, thereby reducing emissions.
Bring greater awareness to ‘carbon conscious diets.’ Building the population’s understanding of their most consumed food products and the emissions that are caused through their production and distribution can help curate a ‘carbon conscious’ diet.
The global food system requires a transformation to a system that actively works towards emission reduction without exacerbating food insecurity.
Several other interventions can and have been implemented around the world to reduce emissions arising from food production. It is crucial to understand the food-climate change nexus and address its complexities. The global food system requires a transformation to a system that actively works towards emission reduction without exacerbating food insecurity. Holistic and complementary fiscal and regulatory policies need to be implemented, while also roping in the private sector to scale financing for crucial projects such as promoting tech, employing alternative finance instruments, and strengthening the public and social policy infrastructure. All this needs multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaboration from governments, the private and social sectors, multi and bilateral organizations, nonprofits, think tanks, and civil society.
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