We all know climate change is contributing to more extreme weather and sea level rise, but it also directly impacts food security. Food security is usually defined as the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, and climate change directly impacts the accessibility and quality of nutrient-dense food. Climate change means wet seasons and wet areas are becoming wetter and dry seasons and dry areas are becoming drier--impacting food production, diversity and availability. Although climate change’s effects on food production may seem intuitive, some of its more subtle effects impacting food security may surprise you.
What is the current state of global food security?
According to the World Bank, the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity more than doubled between 2019 and 2022, with an estimated 345 million people now affected. Supply issues arising from the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted food supplies and pushed food prices up sharply. Even before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, global warming was affecting food supplies through extreme heat waves, droughts and severe flooding.
Who is most affected by climate change and food security?
The populations most at risk from hunger and climate injustice are those in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia where people are disproportionately poor and already experiencing extreme temperature highs, droughts and flooding. The devastating floods in Pakistan this past summer, destroyed 15 percent of the country’s rice crops in addition to destroying 2 million homes and killing 1,500 people.
It’s predicted that the greatest cause of childhood deaths due to climate change will be due to undernutrition. Malnourished mothers can’t breastfeed their babies. Undernutrition poses additional challenges to vulnerable populations and their resiliency and ability to adapt to other aspects of climate change. Vulnerable populations in conflict-affected states are at even greater risk from food security issues exacerbated by climate change. This article from concernusa.gov that explains which countries are facing food insecurity.
Impacts of climate change on agriculture
The primary ways climate change impacts agriculture is heat stress and water stress—both of which increase the prevalence of pests and disease in livestock and crops and can decrease crop yields and the suitability of lands for growing. As we saw this year, extreme flooding from climate change can have devastating results. In 2021, in India it was reported that over 30 million hectares of crops were destroyed by catastrophic flooding. According to the Pakistan Ministry of Food Security, this year’s summer floods destroyed over 40 percent of the country’s crops. On the other end of the spectrum, one-third of the world’s droughts occur in Sub-Saharan Africa countries, where Kenya and Ethiopia are experiencing one of the worst droughts in four decades. Rising temperatures also accelerate evapotranspiration—the process by which water or moisture evaporates from plants and soils. In areas already experiencing severe heat and drought, climate change means there simply won’t be enough water to grow enough food leading to starvation, death and forced migration often termed “climate migration.”
Impacts of climate change on livestock
In addition to the increased prevalence of pests and disease, the higher temperatures and extreme heat due to climate change affect both the health and productivity of livestock. Extreme or prolonged heat can cause oxidative stress, metabolic disruptions, and immune suppression leading to greater susceptibility to infection and death. Climate change also impacts the quality and availability of crops used for livestock feed and the quantity of plants available for forage. High temperatures have also been shown to negatively impact livestock fertility. The compounding of increased demand for water during periods of extreme heat and reduced availability of water due to droughts can have detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of livestock. In many parts of Africa experiencing severe drought, families have lost all their livestock, and entire communities have been forced to relocate to other regions or camps supported by international aid organizations.
Impacts of climate change on the nutritional value of food
What many people don’t know is that climate change directly impacts the nutrition value of foods. Studies suggest that the rising levels of carbon dioxide are making staple crops like wheat and rice less nutritious. Recent research coming out of the Harvard Chan School of Medicine suggests that when food crops like rice, soy, wheat and corn are exposed to CO2 at levels predicted by 2050, the plants show significant reductions in their zinc, iron and protein content. Both zinc and iron are crucial for a healthy well-functioning immune system, and protein is one of the essential building blocks of life. Further jeopardizing food security, higher temperatures can lead to increased food spoilage and waste, as well as increasing the growth rate of microbes in food and water which mean increased incidences of food and waterborne illnesses.
How Empowered by Light is helping fight climate change and food security
Empowered by Light is using solar energy to boost food security. In remote communities in Zambia, we’ve had solar water pumps, water storage and irrigation systems installed so women spend less time hauling water to and from the river (where they risk deadly encounters with hippos and crocodiles), and crops have regular irrigation so vegetables can grow better, feed more people and support economic development.
In Puerto Rico, we’ve supported new technologies for farming and we’re about to build a solar-powered cool storage structure so a farming cooperative supplied by farmers practicing regenerative agriculture can keep produce fresher longer allowing them to sell more. Puerto Ricans import over 85 percent of their food and supporting efforts to grow sustainable agriculture addresses food security while helping the planet. See How Solar Technology Boosts Food Security to learn more about our work in Puerto Rico.
You can help us help more vulnerable communities to grow their own food. There are many ways to support Empowered by Light’s mission. You can make a donation or follow along with our work to get involved today.