Photo Credit: IFPRI/Milo Mitchell
Researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have published an extensive report highlighting the effects of climate change on agriculture and global nutrition. The report, Climate Change and Variability: What are the Risks for Nutrition, Diets, and Food Systems?, compiles evidence-based research to provide a detailed look at food security, agriculture, and food systems in relation to climate change. The authors also examine future projections in these areas, seeking to acknowledge the complexity and importance of those relationships as both global population and global temperatures rise.
The report frames the food system as both a victim and a driver of climate change: while climate change negatively affects agriculture and the ability to feed the world, the food system intensifies climate change by significantly contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
In an introductory post, the reports’ authors urge more research and action, calling the task of ensuring adequate global nutrition for all “the challenge of our lifetime.” The authors cite research projecting that at current rates of climate change, “it is likely that global food production will decline by two percent every decade until at least 2050, just as the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people.”
A 2016 report modeled the effects of this climate change on global health, estimating “excess mortality attributable to agriculturally mediated changes in dietary and weight-related risk factors,” and predicted half a million agricultural climate-related deaths in this time period.
The IFPRI authors state that nutritional status, ultimately leading to morbidity and mortality, “can be exacerbated by the effects of climate change at all stages of the food value chain.”
Featuring seven focal areas through a food system lens, the report brings together research on each piece of the food value chain and anticipated challenges posed by climate change. The authors suggests both climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies using a nutrition-sensitive approach that is also climate-aware.
The food system lens begins with agricultural input—elements like seeds, agricultural extension services, fertilizer use, soil quality, irrigation—and the importance of understanding how crop productivity and nutritional value can be simultaneously maximized. Next, food production and food storage are considered, stressing that increasing global temperatures and changing precipitation patterns cause changes in what food is grown, where it is grown, how it is stored, and whether it is nutritionally valuable and safe from pathogens.
Citing research by Colin Khoury and colleagues at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the report asserts “food supplies are becoming increasingly homogeneous and dependent on a couple of truly ‘global crops.’” According to Khoury, “reliance worldwide on these crops heightens interdependence among countries in their food supplies, plant genetic resources, and nutritional priorities.”
Experts like Khoury say homogenization of crops grown reduces biological diversity, making crops more susceptible to climate events and pests, and reduces dietary diversity by limiting the variety of foods available to consumers. Dietary diversity is commonly associated with nutritional status, in particular with adequate consumption of micronutrients.
By decreasing crop variety or negatively affecting nutrient content of foods, climate change also has implications for food processing. The report explains increased need for food processing to fortify foods for populations with decreasing access to adequate nutrients, and to help ensure nutrient quality or stability nutritious foods if food storage and transport are challenged by climate change.
Among other distribution challenges, the report cites that rising temperatures will increase need for more refrigerated storage and transport, therefore increasing food system GHGs.
The IFPRI authors also address rising animal-source food consumption, citing World Resources Institute (WRI) research on the importance of animal-source protein in vulnerable populations’ food supplies, while urging that “those eating more [animal-source food] than is nutritionally necessary decrease their consumption.”
The final component of the food system lens is consumption and utilization of food, which involves consumer knowledge and food preparation skills. Utilization also depends on general health and absence of disease that affects nutrient absorption or increases nutritional needs.
Reduced food access will most affect consumption, the report says, because “climate change is expected to increase [food] prices as well as price volatility due to decreased production and increased loss.” The IFPRI authors cite evidence for the negative effect of food price increases on increased micronutrient deficiencies and other forms of undernutrition.
Reduced food access also increases incidence of obesity and noncommunicable diseases, the report says, referencing findings that “increasing food prices may lower the nutritional quality of dietary intakes, exacerbate obesity, and amplify health inequalities.”
As climate change decreases agricultural productivity and access, the authors argue, it will intensify inequity: the rural poor will be least equipped to adapt. The IFPRI report concludes that a food system that is both climate- and nutrition-sensitive is necessary to be sure nutrition is a key consideration in the development of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
According to the authors, the strategies encompassed in the nutrition-sensitive and climate-aware food value chain must both “maximize nutrition entering the food value chain” and “minimize nutrition exiting the value chain.”
The report includes many recommendations, such as an adoption of agricultural practices that “maintain necessary levels of nutritious food production while minimizing the environmental effects of agriculture.” In addition, the report recommends working to enhance food storage and processing to address food safety concerns and maintain nutritional value of foods, arguing that, in addition to decreasing undernutrition, this could reduce food waste in low- and middle-income countries.
Other recommendations include improved infrastructure and transportation for improving smallholder farmer access to markets, and the creation and dissemination of public health campaigns for promoting the need for sustainability considerations in dietary guidelines. Prior research has recommended public health campaigns for mitigating the negative health effects of climate change.
For safeguarding vulnerable populations from climate change, the report suggests social services “to protect the most vulnerable from long-term stresses and short- term shocks that threaten food security.” It also emphasizes the importance of addressing and decreasing disease in these populations for increased utilization and absorption of nutrients consumed, as well as the importance of dietary diversity.
The authors also emphasize a need for improved early warning systems for detecting both slowly shifting patterns of rainfall or temperature and for extreme weather events.
IFPRI published this report in the days before the Trump administration announced that the United States will back out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. The report’s authors suggest that collaboration and cooperation between the private sector, NGOs, and governments is key to improving nutrition using climate-conscious methods to “[protect] the health of people and the planet.”