It is the year 2080. As climate change continues, unhindered by weak regulations and international disagreement, temperatures have risen several degrees Fahrenheit. In tropical and arid areas, water is in short supply. In other parts of the world, heavy rainfall causes devastating floods. The rate of extreme weather events has increased — catastrophic natural disasters seem to be almost a normal part of life. Food insecurity has soared; advances against hunger in developing countries have been all but erased. Yet the United States and Europe are growing richer: an increase in temperature has spurred crop growth in their temperate regions, and yields are rising. Developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are forced to rely on developed countries, which have little incentive to reduce their own emissions, for aid. As international inequity grows, so do political tensions.
Consider another case. It is the year 2080. Concerned about the effects of climate change, governments of developing countries, assisted by international committees, have incorporated climate considerations into national policy. Food producers, from major corporations to family farms, have adapted to changing conditions with improved packaging, diversification, and transportation. Trade has kept food prices relatively stable, and Aid for Trade programs have helped boost economies while regulating carbon emissions. Developed countries, recognizing both the benefits of these policies and their own vulnerability to climate change, have made a commitment to cooperation. While 2080 does not look like 2016, international trade, foreign aid, and bilateral and multilateral partnerships have helped the world escape the most devastating effects of climate change.
Neither of these scenarios is likely to occur exactly as described; the future may fall somewhere between them. However, climate change will almost certainly have significant effects on global food production. The most detrimental impacts will occur in developing countries, as a result of their economic reliance on climate-sensitive sectors, limited capacity to respond to changes, and geographic conditions, which will worsen inequality. Meanwhile, in temperate areas of developed countries, food yields could actually increase in the short term. However, climate effects will reduce the quality and safety of food in these areas. Adaptive measures will be difficult and costly, requiring significant international financing and a cohesive global plan. Ultimately, though, if nations recognize the possible consequences and their own stakes in changing them, these measures have the potential to successfully mitigate the effects of climate change.
The Effects of Climate Change on Food Production
According to the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC), climate change has five major consequences that universally alter food production. The magnitude of these consequences can vary with location; some negatively impact the availability of food, while others can actually increase crop yields, despite their detrimental effects on other aspects of life. First, climate change causes changes in temperature, which in turn affects plants, animals, pests, and the water supply in a variety of ways. Second, changes in precipitation patterns also affect the water supply, which then alters plant growth. Third, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide directly affect crop yields as well; carbon dioxide acts as fertilizer, increasing the productivity of some plants, but also allowing weeds to grow more quickly. Fourth, climate change leads to extreme weather, which can have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and transportation systems. Finally, a rising sea level can lead to flooding and reduce the availability of arable land.
As a result, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, climate change will likely have a major impact on international markets and food prices. Climate change increases variability in crop and livestock yields because it leads to extreme weather and alters precipitation patterns. In turn, this causes uncertainty in production totals, which can affect domestic and international markets. Global food prices decreased steadily throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but they have been increasing since 2000, according to the 2015 Food Security Assessment of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This increase can be partially attributed to the detrimental effects of and the uncertainty caused by climate change.
Climate change has a serious impact on all aspects of food production and security, from agriculture to transportation to economic markets. However, these effects are not equally distributed across nations. In developing countries, climate change puts food security at risk; in developed countries, concerns focus more on food safety and health. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this divide — essentially quantity versus quality — stems from a number of vulnerabilities within developing countries, including inherent geographic conditions, the importance of climate-sensitive sectors to the economy, and a more limited capacity to anticipate and respond to climate change effects. The temperate climate and diverse economy of most developed countries will allow them to avoid food shortages; however, in the long run, citizens’ health will be seriously harmed if action is not taken.
Quantity: Climate Effects in Developing Countries
An increase in temperature can have significant repercussions for food production in arid and tropical areas, many of which house developing countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), almost all of the countries with “alarming” food insecurity levels are located in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, meaning that those countries that are already the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest by climate change. Plants growing in these areas are already near their temperature thresholds for healthy growth, and a change of even a few degrees can prevent crops from developing. Climate change will also reduce the availability of water in subtropical areas and cause droughts and flooding in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The problem of temperature change and water shortages will be compounded by developing countries’ heavy reliance on agriculture. In Liberia, for example, the value added by agriculture accounts for 66 percent of the GDP, according to the Institute for Global Policy (IGP). Other African countries are similarly reliant, with the value added by agriculture representing 30 to 60 percent of their GDPs. In Asia, the value added by agriculture is also considerable, ranging from 20 to 35 percent of GDP. Moreover, agriculture exports account for a large percentage of GDP in many developing countries, and countries such as Malawi and Kenya are expected to experience a 10 to 25 percent decrease in exports by 2080 as a result of climate change. Since agriculture accounts for such a large portion of these countries’ economies, declining yields will create major burdens. This will contribute to rising food insecurity, as food becomes scarce and as citizens who rely on agriculture for a living experience a decrease in purchasing power.
Finally, developing countries generally have a smaller capacity than their developed counterparts to respond to the impacts of climate change. For instance, climate change has been linked to extreme weather. In developing countries, these extreme events tend to cause far greater damage and death than in developed countries, according to the OECD. Smaller, more agrarian economies will be less resilient in response to environmental catastrophes, and under-resourced governments will be less able to implement adaptations to climate change. Thus, the countries that will likely be most affected by climate change will also be least able to adapt.
The predicted effects of climate change on developing countries are grim. However, if the international community devotes enough resources, environmental adaptations and economic programs could be quite effective in softening the blow. And the effects of climate change on developed countries ought to motivate the governments of the world’s richest nations to take action.
Quality: Climate Effects in Developed Countries
The economies of developed countries, their locations in temperate regions, and their relative economic and political strength will likely prevent drastic impacts on food security. However, these nations still have reason to worry if climate change continues at its current pace; it could adversely affect food quality and safety and, by extension, citizens’ basic health.
Climate change increases variability and uncertainty in food markets, which can increase prices. As food prices rise, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people tend to choose foods with less nutritional value — processed snacks and meals over fresh fruits and vegetables, and fatty, cheap meats rather than healthier, leaner cuts. This both lowers overall dietary nutrition and exacerbates obesity, already a major issue in the United States and other developed countries. Since lower-income people within developed countries will be forced to make a greater dietary change in response to higher prices, health disparities could increase.
Production methods will also adjust to the effects of climate change. For example, livestock production cycles and diets are likely to change. While these changes could potentially reduce carbon emissions, different production methods coupled with climate-altered ecosystems give new bacteria and diseases the chance to emerge, according to the NIH. The use of irrigation water in agriculture — meant to help avoid freshwater shortages — would also increase the risk of pathogen transmission. Therefore, climate change and corresponding adaptations will detract from food safety.
Finally, diets may change in an effort to decrease carbon emissions. For example, governments might encourage citizens to eat less red meat and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter to reduce the need for transportation. While eating less red meat could have positive health effects, it could also lead to iron and zinc deficiency, and eating less fresh produce would reduce the nutritional quality of the average diet. Overall, climate change is likely to reduce the quality of diets in developed countries and to damage the overall safety of the food supply.
While consequences in developed countries are less severe than the food shortages and economic crises that are possible in developing countries, their effects on the health of average citizens and on health equity are causes for significant concern. With the state of cooperation and climate efforts today, 2080 seems like it could be a bleak year for food security and safety. But if governments of developed nations give adequate weight to the effects of climate change in their countries, momentum might finally shift in the direction of meaningful global adaptations to climate change, prevention efforts, and international trade — which would greatly aid developing countries as well. Ultimately, if governments agree to cooperate on and invest in new policies and programs, adapting to and preventing climate change could prove successful and beneficial to all states.
Trade and Stability
Unstable food prices pose a threat to food security and quality. According to the USDA, price volatility has risen in the past decade as a result of extreme weather and competition for a shrinking amount of fertile land, both results of climate change. However, international trade can stabilize prices. Currently, one-sixth of global agriculture production is internationally traded, demonstrating that the infrastructure and support is present for large volumes of trade. A further increase in trade that is targeted and cohesive would help alleviate some of the most serious problems caused by climate change worldwide.
Trade’s ability to stabilize prices is the clearest benefit. In developing countries, consistent, relatively low food prices will allow a greater percentage of the population to be food secure and to avoid price shocks. In developed countries, stable prices will help avoid a switch to a less nutritionally rich diet. In the short term especially, an increase in international trade would help citizens of developing countries afford food, and would allow citizens of developed countries to maintain the quality of their diets. In an ideal world, of course, citizens of all nations should be able to purchase a high-quality supply of food. While the international trade is not a cure-all, it will help reduce some of the most pressing burdens of climate change.
More fundamentally, the quantity of fresh water, usable land, and cultivatable crops are rapidly shrinking in tropical and arid nations. This means that developed countries such as the United States will need to serve as a source of “virtual water” by exporting food to these countries. If imports of crops damaged by higher temperatures in warm countries increase, developing countries will be better able to avoid dangerous food shortages. Meanwhile, more temperate countries will be able to capitalize on their increased crop yields, thus improving their economies. Trade that is guaranteed to provide the most needed staples to developing countries will need to be planned through cooperative efforts, but the benefits it will bring to all nations and the catastrophes it will prevent should be motivation enough for international mobilization.
Finally, trade can be used as a mechanism to reduce climate change while helping prevent food shortages, which would simultaneously provide short-term and longterm solutions. Currently, the Aid for Trade program provides financial assistance to developing countries to strengthen trade infrastructure. This type of program could be specifically targeted to climate change prevention, by providing aid-based incentives for greenhouse gas reduction, or funds to help developing countries implement climate change adaptations such as more efficient transportation. Furthermore, Aid for Trade can be used to influence trade policy that could help spur a broad movement to prevent climate change. For instance, countries could place greater border taxes on countries that do not tax or cap carbon usage, thereby pushing those countries to create their own carbon-reduction policies. In turn, carbon emissions would be reduced and climate change would slow, benefiting developed as well as developing countries.
Internal Adaptations and Prevention
Trade is a valuable method of preventing some of the most pressing issues caused by climate change, but for permanent, long-term progress, countries will need to adopt internal adaptation strategies as well. A study in Ethiopia found that adaptation strategies for individual farming families, such as changing crop varieties and soil and water conservation, led to significant differences in food productivity. Community education and incentives would be required to spread these adaptations and similar ones, like strategies for diversification and greener transportation, throughout a country. As the case study demonstrates, though, the adaptations would potentially be very successful in increasing crop yields and slowing the effects of climate change.
These initiatives would require significant financial investment that would need to come at least in part from international funds. There are currently two dedicated funds for climate change adaptation under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and more dollars could come from private investment, other international funds, or private philanthropy. An initial investment from other nations seems a small price to pay for the ability of families to sustainably support themselves and the invaluable prevention of the environmental consequences of climate change. Adaptations within developing countries are more sustainable than a reliance on developed countries for food assistance, so in the long run, these programs would benefit both developed and developing countries.
The most effective actions against climate change require cooperation and investment from all nations, something that can seem almost impossible to achieve. However, a lack of action will lead to a future characterized by hungry citizens and food shortages in developing countries, undernourished populations and reduced food safety in developed countries, and environmental catastrophes and rampant inequality. To avoid this bleak future, governments of disparate states must act to create targeted trade policies and provide funds for adaptations in developing countries. While agreements at the recent Paris conference are not strong enough to fully mitigate the effects of climate change on food production, they provide hope that nations can come together to protect a fundamental necessity of human life. It is the responsibility of all countries to put aside conflict and nearsighted self-interest, develop a cohesive global plan and source of funding, and achieve a 2080 as free of hunger and tragedy as possible.