It is Agriculture Action Day at COP 21, and it’s encouraging to see the progress being made in the UN on climate change and food security risks — including through new initiatives such as the Food Security Climate Resilience Facility. But to effectively address the growing threat facing food systems, much more needs to be done.
Food security is an old problem that has recently been thrust into the international spotlight. The past several years have brought numerous examples of extreme weather leading to falling crop yields and food price spikes, which in some cases has led to political instability and social unrest.
Beginning in 2006 Syria experienced the worst three year drought in its recorded history, leading to water shortages and declining crop yields, followed by mass migration from rural areas to cities. Research has subsequently established a link between the extreme drought and the Syrian uprising.
In 2011, a heat wave in Russia sent global wheat prices skyrocketing. The following year a severe drought in the U.S. Midwest led to maize and soybean prices hitting record levels. These price spikes were compounded by extreme weather in other regions, including heavy rainfall in Australia and a winter drought in China.
Climate change is already acting as a catalyst for these disturbing trends, suggesting that the past will not be a reliable indicator for the future. Analysis has shown that rising greenhouse gas emissions increased the likelihood of both the Syrian drought and the Russian heatwave. We know that rising mean temperatures and changing precipitation patterns as well as more frequent extreme weather events are already putting downward pressure on average global yields.
The negative impact of climate change on food security will only increase in the decades to come, compounded by rising incomes, population growth and changing diets. One recent study found that the average price of staple foods could more than double in the next 20 years, with up to half of the increase caused by climate change. The prices of maize, wheat and processed rice could rise by up to 177% and one or more extreme events in a single year could bring about price spikes comparable to two decades of projected long-run price increases.
Ensuring the availability and accessibility of basic food staples is not just a development issue. Like climate change, food security should be recognized as a foreign policy challenge, and one that will be critical to maintaining global peace and stability.
Whether or not the future impacts of climate change on food systems are successfully managed will depend on how governments choose to react to these growing risks. In the past, some countries have responded to food price increases with export controls, which can further inflate prices and contribute to unrest. Food scarcity could increasingly pose a significant challenge to the global open trade regime, and is therefore an existential issue for the world’s largest food importing regions, including vulnerable countries in the Middle East and North and Sub Saharan Africa that are already prone to instability.
While there are important steps that individual countries must take to increase their own ability to cope with food price volatility and food scarcity, it is clear that the nexus of food and climate risk can only be addressed by a new approach to international cooperation. In particular, any international risk management approach to climate change that is designed to increase resilience will need to integrate food insecurity into its framework.
There are several important initiatives underway that should serve as building blocks to a broader and more comprehensive approach. This past summer, an annex to the Leader’s Declaration from the G7 Summit included a summary of steps that will be taken to address hunger and malnutrition, which also recognized the negative effects of climate change on food security. The G7 countries pledged that “Comprehensive joint risk analysis will form the basis for our interventions wherever possible, allowing us to better understand and address root causes of food insecurity.” Indications are that the US, Germany and Japan will continue to work closely together to ensure that food security remains high on the G7 agenda in 2016. New approaches can also build on the work of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UK’s Global Food Security Programme, and the State Department Office of Global Food Security.
The UNFCCC must also play a key role in addressing food security, but will need to evolve in order to do so. Food security as such has not received much attention in the UNFCCC historically, and agriculture has always been a thorny issue in both international and domestic policy debates. Nevertheless, the UNFCCC can serve as an important platform for new multilateral efforts that experts have called for, such as agreements on improved and open source climate modelling and data sharing on food reserves. The UNFCCC can also set the stage and improve the political space for advances in other venues, such as ensuring open global trade regimes through the WTO. The negotiators in Paris have many important issues to chew on – but food security must be on the table. http://newsroom.unfccc.int/lpaa/resilience/food-security-climate-resilience-facility-mechanisms-to-build-resilience-for-the-most-food-insecure-people/  Kelley et al. (2015) Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 112 No. 11.  Werrell, C., Femia, F. & Slaughter, A. The Arab spring and climate change. Stimson Cent. Am. Prog. 02, (2013).  Kelley et al (2015); Rahmstorf and Coumou (2012) ‘Increase of extreme events in a warming world’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (44).  Oxfam 2012: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Extreme-Weather-Extreme-Prices.pdf  Oxfam 2012: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Extreme-Weather-Extreme-Prices.pdf  Tim Benton and Rob Bailey. Extreme Weather and Food Shocks. New York Times. 8 September 2015.