The rapid expansion of the world’s population combined with the effects of global warming are the perfect recipe for a disaster. Climate change and its consequences heightened competition for the already limited resources of our planet such as land, food, and water. However, the climate emergency is not the only culprit; many non-climate stressors are also putting pressure on our current food system. What factors are threatening global food security and what can we do to mitigate their impact?

What is Food Security?

In order to understand how climate change and other socioeconomic factors are affecting our global food supplies, it is important to provide a definition of food security. The term refers to a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have all the necessary means to access sufficient food to meet their needs and maintain a healthy life. Access to adequate food is recognised as a basic human right. Nonetheless, one billion people worldwide are currently undernourished, over two billion suffer from a lack of essential nutrients in their food while nearly six million children succumb every year from diseases related to malnutrition.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing conflicts, economic turbulence, and the consequences of climate change continue to loom, the world is on the brink of a devastating global food crisis. While the reasons for hunger and food insecurity are often country-specific, generally, they are a result of economic shocks, environmental issues as well as conflicts and humanitarian crises. These events, paired with the ever-growing human population which is contributing to an increase in demand for resource-intensive and environmentally impactful food, are putting a strain on the planet’s resources. 

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The Biggest Threats to Global Food Security

1. Climate Change and Environmental Shocks

The climate crisis is changing weather patterns and increasing the chances of extreme events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts. It is also responsible for changing and polluting entire ecosystems, compromising biodiversity and destroying harvests. All these events have a huge impact on food production, as they significantly limit the quality, availability, and accessibility of resources, and compromise the stability of food systems around the world.

According to a new NASA study, maize (corn) crops are among the most threatened under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario. If countries do not manage to drastically reduce their carbon footprint, maize crop yields are projected to decline by about 24% by 2030, with severe implications worldwide. The production of some other staple crops like rice and wheat is also projected to decline drastically as a consequence of climate change, with supplies of these resources shrinking substantially, particularly in food-insecure developing countries. 

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Figure 1: Change in potential average yields for corn, potatoes, rice, and wheat in 2050

Floods are among the most climate-related disasters for crops. China has made food security a priority but is now battling more frequent and severe weather events that, coupled with the soaring record demand for corn, soybeans, and wheat, are forcing the world’s second-largest economy to rely on imports. In recent years, the country has been dealing with unprecedented floods that have caused irreversible crop damage and drastically reduced the amount of arable land. An estimated 30 million acres of crops have been damaged in the record-breaking rains and floods that hit Chinese provinces in 2021. At the same time, planting on over 18 million acres of farmland, which account for one-third of the country’s total land reserved for winter wheat farming, has been delayed.

Global warming is also responsible for droughts and catastrophic wildfires, both of which represent a risk to global food security as they destroy agricultural land and reduce the availability of water, a crucial resource to keep extensive irrigated agriculture going. In South and Southeast Asia, extensive droughts are already having an irreversible impact on food availability and prices of food, all factors that are likely to boost the already high number of unnourished people. In the Horn of Africa, severe droughts caused by record dry conditions have left an estimated 13 million people facing hunger. Similarly, large wildfires like the ones affecting North America will contribute to the contamination of air and water, both of which have multiple social and economic implications. In Australia, devastating bushfires that repeatedly hit the country in the last two years have been responsible for the destruction of agricultural land and farmland, with the dairy industry paying the highest price. Aside from milk production, other products such as meat and honey have suffered greatly, sparking debates about food security.

2. Population Increase and the Modern Food System

By 2050, estimates predict that the total number of people living on Earth will reach nearly 10 billion. More people on the planet means more mouths to feed and this can put a strain on its resources as the modern agricultural system is already struggling to meet global needs. According to the 2020 IPCC Special Report on climate change, since 1961, food supply per capita has grown more than 30%. As a consequence of this, the use of nitrogen fertilisers and water needed to boost agricultural production have increased by a staggering 800% and 100% respectively.

The rise in demand has turned the global food chain into a machine designed first and foremost to generate capital. Looking into the modern food system, it becomes clear that food insecurity is in part a byproduct of it rather than an inevitable consequence of population growth. The biggest and most worrisome problem is related to food waste. Roughly one-third of the total food produced for human consumption every year – around 1.3 billion tons valued at nearly USD$1 trillion – is wasted or lost. This quantity would be enough to feed 3 billion people or nearly 40% of the global population. At the same time, producing all this food that remains uneaten represents a waste of one-quarter of our water supply, enough to be used by 9 billion people at around 200 litres per person every day. This data goes to show that rather than a problem of supply and demand, the world is currently facing an issue with the unequal production and distribution of food, the victims of which are, for the largest part, those living in developing countries. These losses in precious resources, therefore, exacerbate climate change without improving food security or nutrition.

Another issue related to the contemporary food system has to do with the ways in which we produce our food. To meet the demand, humans have developed intensive farming techniques that allow them to produce huge quantities of food at lower prices, from boosting crops using dangerous amounts of fertilisers to exploiting our seas and jamming large amounts of livestock into very small spaces. According to the United Nations, the global food system now accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, in large part a consequence of the more energy-intensive methods implemented to increase the amount of food available. Indeed, it is estimated that modern production processes account for 29% of the overall food system emissions.

3. Disruptions in the Food Chain

Two recent catastrophic events have heavily compromised the global food chain, sparking changes in consumers’ demand, leading to the sudden closure of food production facilities, restricting food trade policies, and adding financial pressure on the food system. Combined, these factors have led to shortages of food supplies and an increase in the number of people facing hunger and malnutrition. 

The first was the coronavirus pandemic. When COVID-19 unexpectedly hit the world in 2019, our current production and distribution systems were not prepared for what was about to happen. The pandemic has sparked not only a health crisis but also an economic crisis. Together, they pose a serious threat to global food security. Strict lockdowns, businesses shutdowns, and travel restrictions put a burden on the global economy, causing a sharp rise in poverty and inequality. People around the world but especially in developing countries experienced an abrupt disruption to food supplies and low-income households had to deal with hyperinflation and rising commodity prices.  In a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on food security, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that the world is at a crossroads: an estimated 928 million people – almost double the amount of the previous year – are experiencing severe food insecurity and hunger. Simultaneously, disruptions in the supply chain in developed countries led to enormous food waste.

Another more recent event that has raised questions over global food security is the war in Ukraine. Armed conflicts are one of the leading causes of hunger globally. At first, they lead to immediate food shortages in the countries directly involved in the conflict. However, the effects of wars on the food chain are eventually felt on a larger scale. As the conflict evolves, Ukraine will not be able to harvest existing crops, plant new ones or sustain livestock production, leading to the disruption of both local and national supply chains. However, there is an imminent threat between the conflict in Ukraine and food security around the world. Particularly, experts fear a global wheat crisis. Indeed, the European country and Russia combined contribute to nearly one-third of all wheat exports. According to estimations, in 2021, 55.1% of Ukrainian wheat was exported to Asia and 40.7% to Africa, with countries like Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Yemen among the largest importers of wheat. But wheat is not the only grain that Ukraine and Russia produce in large quantities. A crucial portion of the world’s corn and barley also comes from these two countries and is now trapped there because of the war, resulting in an unprecedented rise in food prices worldwide and foreshadowing a rise in world hunger. According to the New York Times, since the invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, wheat prices have increased by 21% and barley by 33%. This delicate situation, combined with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic that are still largely felt around the world, conditions could further deteriorate, with the UN warning that an additional 7.6 to 13.1 million people could go hungry as the war continues.

Ensuring the Future of Food Security

In examining the main threats to the world’s food system, it becomes clear that food insecurity is a global problem and in a large part, a human-made crisis exacerbated by the effects of climate change, our food habits as well as national and international conflicts. In order to protect food security, governments around the world need to take action. 

First of all, they need to mobilise resources to areas where the risk of hunger and malnutrition is most acute as well as strengthen social protection systems for nutrition. As extreme weather events continue to intensify, agricultural productivity is at risk of total collapse. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that nations do their part in slowing down global warming by adopting greener policies and more sustainable approaches to food production and distribution. Furthermore, countries need to protect themselves from sudden and unpredictable events that may arise in the future. While relying on imports is not necessarily wrong, countries are learning that they cannot entirely depend on other countries. This calls for a diversification of food production as well as the development of a monitoring and feedback system to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable crops. We also need to dramatically change our approach to food production and consumption, from using less intensive agricultural methods, fertilisers, and other polluting substances to growing our crops. Lastly, we have to commit to reducing food waste and better distributing resources across the world. If we manage to do all these things, we might have a chance to in mitigating global food insecurity.