Food Security and Displacement in a Warming World

Climate change poses serious threats to agriculture and food security globally.  Its impacts on agriculture include, but are not limited to, heat waves, pests, drought, desertification, freshwater decline, and biodiversity loss. The global poor, who are most dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, are most vulnerable to climate change impacts on agriculture. They are also the most likely to be forced from their homes when a drought or flooding wipe out agricultural resources on which they depend.

“Left unaddressed, climate change intensifies the stress on existing resources, increases scarcity and disrupts entire societies, with devastating consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable people,” said Ertharin Cousin, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP). “More than 80 percent of the world’s almost 800 million hungry people live in degraded environments, prone to natural disasters, and over the last 10 years half of WFP’s emergency and recovery operations were in response to climate-related disasters, costing some $23 billion.”

I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Cousin speak at Bread for the World’s annual Gala to End Hunger in November. Cousin spoke about climate change’s consequences for the global poor with David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World and former recipient of the Global Food Prize.  They noted that climate change could undo decades of progress made on eradicating global hunger, increasing its risk by 20 percent in 2050.

The global poor, who are most dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, are most vulnerable to climate change impacts on agriculture. They are also the most likely to be forced from their homes when a drought or flooding wipe out agricultural resources on which they depend.

A recent study revealed that climate change’s impact on food security could lead to 500,000 more annual deaths by 2050.

As a recent graduate of Georgetown, I am currently exploring my passions in food systems and forced migration by interning at Refugees International in the Climate Displacement Program and working for MISFIT Juicery, a cold-pressed juice company that works to reduce food waste by using produce that is the wrong shape, size, or color for commercial sale in its juice. The night was particularly poignant for me because Ms. Cousin made the link between climate change, food security and forced displacement clear and urgent. To move forward on climate change and adapt to its impact in a world facing a myriad of other challenges, the relationships between seemingly disparate issues must be brought to light.

Climate Change, Food Security, and Displacement

While there are no reliable global estimates for the number of people uprooted each year due to food insecurity brought on by drought, severe flooding, or other climate-related disasters, there are numerous tragic examples of the propensity of climate change-related effects to displace significant numbers of poor and vulnerable people. In 2011, drought and famine in the eastern Horn of Africa killed an estimated 260,000 Somalis – half of them children – and drove a quarter of the country’s population from their homes. Two factors in particular contributed to the drought’s impacts on displacement – the underlying vulnerability of the country’s rural poor, who were totally dependent on rain-fed agriculture to survive, and ongoing violence that made it harder for people in urgent need of food and water to access aid. Even today, and despite the fact the Somali government has now gained control of large parts of the country, one in ten Somalis remains displaced either within Somalia or abroad, many of whom are food insecure.

But agriculture is not only impacted by climate change; it also drives it. Agriculture accounts for 24 percent of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that drive climate change. Livestock production, deforestation for land cultivation, and water-intensive crops such as rice all contribute to climate change. Worse yet, of the food we produce, 30 to 50 percent of it goes to waste, emitting methane gas, a far more potent GHG than carbon dioxide. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the United States and China. Food waste is finally getting its moment in the spotlight as the cover story of the March 2016 National Geographic magazine.

Despite momentum on a national level going into the conference, the failure to mention food security or agriculture in the final Paris agreement represents a massive setback in the movement to promote sustainable agriculture.  

While the recently-adopted UN Paris Climate Change Agreement sets goals to cut global carbon emissions, it failed to identify agriculture’s massive contribution to global warming and thus undermined sustainable solutions for both farmers and the environment. Prior to the Paris Conference, individual countries submitted individual plans to tackle climate change. Many countries’ plans mentioned agriculture, including ways to reduce agriculture’s contributions to climate change and strategies to develop more climate-resilient agriculture. Despite momentum on a national level going into the conference, the failure to mention food security or agriculture in the final Paris agreement represents a massive setback in the movement to promote sustainable agriculture.  

The Way Forward

At a micro-level, farmers must be the primary actors in developing agricultural practices that are not only resilient to climate change impacts but also mitigate GHGs and that lead to increased productivity while achieving better food security. By promoting sustainable, climate resilient agricultural practices, agricultural production and farmers’ livelihoods could be bolstered while reducing agriculture’s impacts on climate change.

One example of a climate-resilient agricultural strategy is system of rice intensification (SRI). SRI reduces the amount of water and other inputs that go into rice production while dramatically increasing yields. There are countless other agricultural technologies, ancient and new, that can increase agricultural production, protect livelihoods, and reduce the environmental impact of more traditional agricultural practices.

At a national level, governments must make proactive interventions to protect vulnerable populations from the effects of climate change. The Ethiopian Government’s Productive Safety Net Programme gives transfers to food insecure households, helping families create local projects to “sustainably rehabilitate” the environment, and  builds resilience among local communities.

Fundamental to mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculturally-dependent populations is the need to better understand the linkages between climate change, food security, and migration. For example, more investments are needed in research and advocacy, including measures to better estimate the number of people who are uprooted due to climate impacts on agriculture annually and support for climate-smart solutions to mitigate displacement.

But you don’t need to be a farmer to help. Taking measures to avoid food waste at home is something we all can do. Until we make significant changes to our food systems, climate change will continue to pose risks to agriculture and harmful, unsustainable agricultural practices will continue to contribute to climate change. On a larger scale, food security and global security are at risk. 

Tessa Pulaski is a recent graduate of Georgetown University and an intern in the Climate Displacement program at Refugees International.