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 Climate Change

Food security
Published on: Aug. 4, 2021, 2:24 p.m.
How climate change affects food security
  • Climate change has come home to affect our food security in manifold ways

By Sabin Iqbal

Climate Change is not the stuff of imagination and it has already begun to affect agriculture and food security in the developing countries. To add to the pandemic worries the world over, more people are expected to go hungry this year.

In 1996, The World Food Summit defined food security as: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” It has three dimensions: food availability (production), access to food, and food absorption. Hence, adequate food production alone does not promise food security.

Globally, food security is a major concern of climate change as it hits hard in complex ways. It impacts crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and can cause grave social and economic consequences in the form of reduced incomes, eroded livelihoods, trade disruption and adverse health impacts. 

However, it is important to note that the net impact of climate change depends not only on the extent of the climatic shock but also on the underlying vulnerabilities. According to a report from the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), biophysical and social vulnerabilities equally determine the net impact of climate change on food security.

“Climate change threatens to reverse the progress made so far in the fight against hunger and malnutrition,” says the report. “An assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) says that climate change augments and intensifies risks to food security for the most vulnerable countries and populations. Four out of the eight key risks induced by climate change identified by IPCC have direct consequences for food security: loss of rural livelihoods and income; loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, and livelihoods; loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, and livelihoods; and food insecurity and breakdown of food systems.”

India will bear the brunt of climate change, as it affects the country’s long-term food security initiatives and food production. Climate change is poised to cause significant increases in inter-annual and intra-seasonal changes in monsoon rainfall. It generates considerable uncertainty about future water availability in many regions. It will affect precipitation, run-off and snow/ice melt, with effects on hydrological systems, water quality and water temperature, as well as on groundwater recharge. In many regions of the world, increased water scarcity under climate change will present a major challenge for climate adaptation. Sea-level rise will affect the salinity of surface and groundwater in coastal areas. 

Climatologists in India have agreed that the changing weather patterns have already taken a toll on the country’s agriculture, which supports nearly half of its population. This year, there has been ‘skewed’ rainfall and a ‘truant’ monsoon.

Experts say that longer dry spells and short periods of heavy rainfall are sure signs of the climate crisis’s impact on the monsoon. The rain-bearing system is critical for drinking, power and farming. “It is now widely agreed by scientists that the number of rainy days will decrease due to the impact of climate crisis but total quantum of rainfall will remain same,” says K.J. Ramesh, former chief, IMD.

Farmers across the country have sown crops in about 84.6 million hectares -- down 4.5 per cent from the 88 million hectares sown last year. The rains, however, pulled sowing up to a level considered normal, which is 84 million hectares -- the average of the past five years. Flooding in states such as Maharashtra has destroyed crops. Interestingly, in the usually rain-surplus Assam, authorities have declared a drought in paddy hubs as rainfall so far has been 20 per cent deficient.

In her paper for ‘Urbanising India’, Malancha Chakrabarty, a fellow with the Climate Change & Development Initiative, argues that the impact of climate change on water availability will be particularly severe for India, because large parts of the country already suffer from water scarcity, to begin with, and largely depend on groundwater for irrigation.

More than half of India faces high to extremely high water stress. Large parts of north-western India, notably the states of Punjab and Haryana, which account for the bulk of the country’s rice and wheat output, are extremely water-stressed. About 54 per cent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, with 16 percent of them decreasing by more than one metre per year.

According to the World Bank projections, with a global mean warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, food water requirements in India will exceed green water availability. The mismatch between demand and supply of water is likely to have far-reaching implications on food-grain production and India’s food security, points out Chakrabarty.

Urban India is not only an important contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions but also a victim of climate change as poor people account for the bulk of its population and, as observed earlier, climate change will have an enormous impact on urban food insecurity, adds Chakrabarty.

“India’s urban food insecurity indicators present an alarming picture. For example, over 30 per cent of children below five years are underweight in urban Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The proportion of urban children, who are stunted and wasted is high even in Karnataka and Maharashtra, which are relatively prosperous states.  The highest risks related to climate change are likely to be concentrated among the low-income groups residing in informal settlements, which are often located in areas exposed to floods and landslides and where housing is especially vulnerable to extreme weather events such as wind and water hazards. Mumbai and Chennai are especially prone to bear the brunt of climate change,” she says. 

Climate change will also have an adverse impact on the livelihoods of fishers and forest-dependent people. Landless agricultural labourers, wholly dependent on agricultural wages, are at the highest risk of losing their access to food.

The UN has estimated that the global food insecurity in 2020 had already hit the highest level in 15 years, as income loss made healthy diets out of reach for about one-tenth of the global population. Things are projected to get worse in 2021 as commodity inflation and disrupted supply chains sent world food prices to the highest in almost a decade, particularly bad news for poorer countries dependent on food imports.

Climate change has come home to affect our food security in manifold ways. It is imperative that we develop climate-resilient strategies and make adequate policy interventions.


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