The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Global Warming and Food Security

Global Warming and Food Security


January 30, 2011

A recent report on climate change sees crop prices rising over the next 40 years as the globe heats up. Using computer modeling, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) assessed the harmful impact of climate change on food security through 2050. Their results suggest 15 future scenarios, ranging from pessimistic to optimistic, that examine the potential numbers for population growth, income growth and various climate situations.

Compared to a future without climate change, climate change will cause lower rice yields all over the world in 2050. According to one of the scenarios, maize exports are also projected to decline in developed countries, though maize yields are actually expected to increase in developing nations. Wheat yields are projected to fall in all regions. Overall, the report finds that between now and 2050, food prices could rise by 42 to 131% for maize, 17 to 67% for wheat, and 11 to 78% for rice, depending on the scenario.

Addressing poverty is crucial to fighting the effects of climate change. According to Gerald Nelson, IFPRI senior research fellow and report co-author, when families have more income, they are able to cope better with all kinds of uncertainties, including those from climate change such as droughts and floods. For governments, more economic growth means they have more resources to provide public infrastructure such as rural roads and market facilities that help farmers get higher prices for the products and pay less for their inputs. It also helps government to invest in the people needed to come up with solutions to the challenges from climate change.

In addition to fostering economic development, the next steps to meeting the growth in food demand are to both strengthen international trade agreements and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More open trade can help by enabling regions of the world where agriculture has been less negatively affected by climate change to supply food to those areas and countries where food production has decreased because of climate change; reducing greenhouse gas emissions can slow the effects of climate change.

“Agriculture broadly defined to include deforestation accounts for about 1/3 of total emissions, so agriculture is part of the problem and must be part of the solution. A low emissions development strategy is needed in all countries, developed and developing. We humans might be able to manage the likely temperature increases to 2050 but without significant cuts in GHG emissions, the challenges beyond 2050 will be increasingly unmanageable,” says Nelson.

Finally, the study indicates that we should invest in agricultural productivity improvements. Increasing productivity on current farms would lessen the need to cultivate new farmland, which in turn protects the environment. And for farmers, says Nelson, higher incomes mean they can experiment with new technologies – such as small scale irrigation systems, conservation agriculture, or agroforestry practices – that might help them adapt to climate change. Crop productivity investments mean more crop per unit of land or water. 

“We’re already running up against water and land limits in some parts of the world. Climate change is likely to cause more challenges for managing growing water demands from agriculture, industry, and for human use. Furthermore the right kind of agricultural productivity improvements can make production more resilient to the changes in both temperature and precipitation averages and the increased variability that is likely to occur because of climate change,” says Nelson.

The report concludes that after 2050, global average temperature may rise by 2 to 4 degrees centigrade, and that the effects of climate change on yields will likely be more dramatic. The time to act is now, says Nelson.

He adds, “Many have made the case that we have to address climate change to fight poverty. We are saying you must address poverty as a key part of climate change adaptation. Once the most serious effects of climate change kick in, it will already be too late to respond effectively.”