Climate change is likely to have far-reaching impacts on food security—particularly for the poor and those living in tropical climates—according to a major scientific assessment published this month.
The report, “Climate Change, Global Food Security and the US Food System,” was released at the Paris 2015 United Nations Climate Conference and is a collaboration between USDA, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The study identifies the risks climate change poses to global food security and the challenges farmers and consumers face due to changing climate conditions.
“If society continues on a path of high emissions of greenhouse gases, there is no way around the fact that climate change is going to be a primary challenge for producing and distributing food,” says Claudia Tebaldi, NCAR scientist and a co-author of the report. “If society lowers emissions, climate change will still be a stressor on food security, but other factors such as socioeconomic conditions could be more critical.”
Without an appropriate response, the report says climate change will likely disrupt production, potentially leading to less local product availability, price increases, interrupted transport conduits and diminished food safety. These risks are greatest for the world’s poorest populations and tropical regions.
“The past six years have been a success story in terms of global food security,” states Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary. “Two hundred million fewer people are food insecure today than six years ago. The challenge we now face is maintaining and even accelerating this progress despite the threats from climate change. This report highlights these challenges and offers pathways to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.”
The report focuses on identifying climate change impacts on global food security through 2100. The authors emphasize that food security—the ability of people to obtain sufficient amounts of safe, nutritious food—will be affected by several factors in addition to climate change, such as technological advances, increases in population, the distribution of wealth and changes in eating habits.
Food systems in the US benefit from a large area of arable land, high agricultural yields, vast integrated transportation systems and a high level of overall economic development. However, USDA says changes in climate are expected to affect US consumers and producers by altering the types and prices of food imports from other regions of the world. Consumers and producers also will be affected by factors that enable global trade such as export demand and transportation, processing, storage and infrastructure.
According to the study, the impact on crop and livestock productivity will be significantly greater for tropical and subtropical regions like Africa and South Asia. Wealthier populations and temperate regions are less at risk, although the authors warn these areas will face damaging outcomes if greenhouse gas emissions increase.
The authors also warn the impact of these climate change risks could reach into other areas of the global food system such as processing, storage, transportation and consumption. For example, warmer temperatures could have a negative impact on food storage and increase food safety risks, and higher sea levels and changes to lake and river levels could impede transportation.
The researchers ran a number of scenarios in terms of the rate of climate change. In scenarios with a continuous increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the number of people at risk of undernourishment could increase by as much as 175 million by 2080.
But, steps can be taken to reduce this risk. For instance, USDA says the food industry can reduce food waste through innovative packaging, expand cold storage to lengthen shelf life and improve the transportation infrastructure to move food more rapidly to market.
More on the study can be found here.