How Climate Change Is Increasing Global Hunger

Yves here. The world hunger picture is getting worse thanks to climate change…and we haven’t yet seen the really bad effects start, like mass migrations as low-lying mega cities are hit with floods.

By Charles Benavidez, a New York City based writer and editor for Originally published at Safehaven

For the third consecutive year, global hunger has gotten worse, and this year the numbers have hit their highest since 2009, with the United Nations pointing the finger at climate change as the key cause.

As of this year, the number of hungry globally has reached 821 million, according to a new report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

The absolute number of people facing chronic food deprivation was 804 million people in 2016 and 784 people in 2015–levels last seen a decade ago.

Source: FAO

In other words, one in every nine people worldwide doesn’t get enough to eat. Even worse, 22.2 percent of children under five were affected by stunting in 2017 due to hunger.

What is causing these scary figures?

The main culprit is climate change and these figures might become even scarier if countries fail to tackle the problem and work to build up resistance to its unavoidable consequences, the report warns.

Extreme weather events–including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms–are said to be the key drivers behind rising global hunger.

The number of extreme climate-related disasters has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 annually from 1990 to 2016, harming agricultural productivity and leading to increases in food prices coupled with losses in income. It’s simple math that reduces access to food.

Data from the FAO study shows that the number of undernourished people tends to be higher in countries highly exposed to climate extremes.

As such, climate change is threatening to erase any gains made in the global effort to fight hunger.

“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes,” the heads of FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote in a joint foreword to the report.

Undernourishment and severe food insecurity has increased the most in African regions, where some 256.5 million go hungry and nearly 30 percent are in the “severe food insecurity” category.

“Africa is the region where climate shocks and stressors had the biggest impact on acute food insecurity and malnutrition, affecting 59 million people in 24 countries and requiring urgent humanitarian action,” the report said.

But it’s not just Africa that’s causing concern. The situation is also worsening in South America, where some 39 million people aren’t getting enough to eat. In Latin America, severe food insecurity has increased to just under 10 percent.

In Asia, while improvements had been improving the situation, those improvements seem to be slowing down now, according to the FAO. Projections for Asia for 2017 were at 11.4 percent for prevalence of undernourishment. That represents more than 515 million people.

On the flip side, only 1.4 percent of the population in North America and Europe is defined as facing severe food insecurity.

And then we have to take into account that hunger is only one form of malnutrition. It’s not just how much food you have—it’s what type of food is available.

The latest UN report titled “The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2018” released on Monday attempted to identify where global harvests will rise and fall by 2050. The report predicts that declines will most likely be in West Africa (2.9-percent drop in farming yield) and India (2.6-percent drop in farming yield). In the reverse, Canada, Russia and the United States are likely to grow their exports and output by 2050.


Source: FAO

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  1. kimyo

    the tricky thing is that if you want to grow more soy, you either need more 1) bone/blood meal or 2) natural gas and petroleum-based nitrogen (haber-bosch).

    thus, we’re trapped. either we need more animal carcasses or more fossil fuels. if the ‘consensus’ is correct, either option alone will destroy the planet.

    1. Eduardo

      Why more soy specifically?

      Drawdown has three food sector solutions in the top ten of their 100 “solutions.” Reducing waste, moving to a plant based diet and silvopasture would create a large climate benefit. I can’t speak to how doable they are or how rigorous their analysis is, but it is at least interesting.

      A third of the food raised or prepared does not make it from farm or factory to fork. Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in the global rubbish bin. The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions.

      Shifting to a diet rich in plants is a demand-side solution to global warming that runs counter to the meat-centric Western diet on the rise globally. That diet comes with a steep climate price tag: one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

      Plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.

      Silvopasture is an ancient practice that integrates trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock. Research suggests silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. Pastures strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Soy is a legume. Soy bean plants harbor nitro-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots. So soybean plants can bio-fix their own atmospheric nitrogen. They don’t need any haber-bosch nitrogen from outside.

      1. kimyo

        Nitrogen Fertilizer for Soybean?

        However, as soybean yields continue to increase and yields in this range and higher become more common, N fixation and soil N mineralization will reach capacity in many growing environments. Thus, an increasing number of N shortfalls are almost certain to occur based on the current understanding of this system, particularly at yields near 100 bu/acre. As the graph shows, soybean’s upper limit for N fixation (considered to be about 300 lb/acre) combined with the upper limit of the soil supply (usually less than 100 lb/acre) are insufficient to meet the needs of a 100 bu/acre soybean crop (Salvagiotti et al., 2008).

        To summarize, soybean requires a large amount of N. Because only a portion of this can be supplied by N fixation and soil mineralization, growing higher-yielding soybean will likely require another source of N.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Thank you for the interesting article. I have read it briefly and know how to come back here and find it again for any deeper reading.

          I understand the article itself to be saying that the soybean biofixes enough airborne N to produce 60 bushels per acre without any Haber-Bosch nitrogen. If pushed into a higher yielding gray zone between 60 and 80 bushels per acre, the soybean also has to be able to get native already-there-in-the-soil N from the N-bearing organic matter/ decayable plant residue/ dying-off microbes/ etc. to make up the more N needed. If we are going to try pushing the soybean beyond 80 bushels per acre, we are going to have supply N from some outside source.

          The article says it is so far being hard to know just how much more N-from-outside to add to get however much more yield we want. Experiments are ongoing. Advice is given to farmers on how to do their own on-farm experiments to get a rough feel for how much added N boosts growth and yield by how much.

          If other readers think I have missed some very basic things from the article, I hope they will say what those things are.

          But the basic principle remains, at or below 60 bushels per acre, soybeans can biofix for themselves all the N they need. So why are we trying to push soybean yields above that 60 bushels at which the N comes for free from out of the air? Is it to grow more food for more people? No. It is to grow moar fuud for feedlotted livestock, mainly cattle. If we settled for the 60 bushels per acre and ate all the soybeans ourselves while feeding zero of it to feedlot cattle, we would have more food for more people without any Haber-Bosch nitrogen.

          By the way, I wonder how much soybeans per acre that groundbreaking farmer outstanding-in-his-field Gabe Brown is growing in North Dakota? ( If soybeans will even grow in North Dakota). I wonder what farmer/author/agronomic consultant Gary Zimmer achieves with soybeans on his Certified Organic Otter Creek Farm in Wisconsin? I don’t know, but if he is getting over 80 with zero Haber-Bosch N, that would be good for everyone to know about.

  2. Frank Tuijnman

    How selfish, greedy, well-off people are blaming something that they cannot change, i.e. the climate in the near term (if at all), for something that they can change immediately, i.e. their own despicable behavior leading to completely avoidable widespread hunger.

    Hunger is a political problem, and always has been since the invention of agriculture. Just as true today, as for example for the great famine in Ireland (around 1847), or the Bengal famine in 1943.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Your statement is nonsense.

      The Mayan civilization collapsed due to protracted drought.

      In the American Southwest, there was a thriving and pretty advanced Indian culture, the Anasazi, living in Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. They were in a marginal area and the Anastasi eventually resorted to cannibalism.

      Human remains found at a twelfth-century A.D. site near Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado provide further evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi (see “A Case for Cannibalism,” ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1994). The remains of 12 people were discovered at the site, designated 5MT10010, but only five were from burials. The other seven appear to have been systematically dismembered, defleshed, their bones battered, and in some cases burned or stewed, leaving them in the same condition as bones of animals used for food. Cut marks, fractures, and other stone-tool scars were present on the bones, and the light color of some suggests stewing. Patterns of burning indicate that many were exposed to flame while still covered with flesh, which is what would be expected after cooking over a fire.

      Human remains from other sites in the area were similarly treated, and three explanations have been proposed: hunger-induced cannibalism, ritual cannibalism adopted from Mesoamerica, or something else altogether. Patricia Lambert of Utah State University and Brian Billman and Banks Leonard of Soil Systems, the contract archaeology firm that excavated 5MT10010, propose that cannibalism was associated with violent conflict between Anasazi communities in the mid-1100s, contemporary with a period of drought and the collapse of the Chaco system. They note a sharp increase in evidence of cannibalism between 1130 and 1150, followed in each case by the abandonment of the site, then a decrease in the early 1200s as the climate improved.

      And unless you have spent time in Africa trying to feed people, you are every bit as much a “greedy, well-off” person.

      1. Carolinian

        I’m not sure your examples invalidate his examples although the statement “always has been” is indeed way too broad. Clearly both environmental and political factors can create famine and what the British aristocracy did to Ireland during the potato famine is close to what we would now call genocide. Indeed their Malthusian pronouncements were accompanied by a great deal of racism toward the Irish. And of course Churchill felt the same way about the Indians in the 1940s

      2. Frank Tuijnman

        My comment contained an ad-hominem element that was uncalled for, and for which I would like to apologize. And yes, I too am just another greedy, well-off person.

        Nevertheless, when ranking causes of hunger in Africa climate change should come dead last. In particular taking into account that the Sahel has become markedly greener ( , that the population has markedly increased, that war is endemic in many African states, and that internal solidarity in many African states does not appear to be any larger than between English and Irish in the UK in the middle of the 19th century.

    2. pretzelattack

      there’s no question, scientifically, that humans are causing the climate to change. leading off your post like that does not enhance it.

      1. Wukchumni

        I think we have to agree that the climate is changing all the time, for instance, the contribution of the Anasazi to climate change, was the cutting down of trees to supply timbering for their amazing 4 story buildings, and for use in fire. That’s about it really.

        You couldn’t really blame them for a 50 year drought that caused them to leave after about a decade into it, shift happens.

        Now throw on a changing all the time climate, with all of the pollution we have been contributing since the oil age started in earnest, and you’ve got the makings of a potential double-double of doom.

        The gigantic difference being that people weren’t mobile back then, it wasn’t as if the Anasazi could hop a 787 from Albuquerque to somewhere else, where things were better climatically.

        1. pretzelattack

          that was regional, though. the climate wasn’t changing globally, as it is now. as i understand it, climate is pretty stable until something causes it to change; from what iv’e read, we started doing that around the start of the industrial age, and it accelerated rapidly in the 19th and 20th centures.

        2. Plenue

          There’s a massive difference between regional variation and a consistent, upward global trend. ‘The climate is always changing’ is a tired bit of denialist obfuscation.

    3. Shane

      I love the “hunger is always a political problem” trope. It seems to be arguing that anytime anyone ever starved it was always someone else fault. There is a limit on how much food a system can produce, and the more we produce now the less we produce later through the accumulating effects of resource depletion and ecological degradation. Don’t get me wrong- there are plenty of examples of people starving while food was exported from their country for profit (including the well publicised 80s Ethiopian famine) but that isn’t always the case. That type of global hunger was banished a hundred years ago due to the linking of fossil fuel energy and artificial fertilisers into agriculture- you only have to look at population over time graphs to understand that. Unfortunately the fossil fuels that prop up the whole endeavour are starting to run short and the situation will only worsen in coming decades. Genuine famine can’t be too far away, though who is to say who will starve and who will profit during these time?

  3. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    I have been in France for the past month.

    Over the summer, it has been interesting to observe what the British and francophone media cover.

    Almost daily, there are reports in French, Belgian and Swiss media about the warm and long summer in Europe and the natural disasters overseas, the impact on agriculture, public health and the environment etc, including scientific analysis. The Swiss and French have also featured discussions about climate change refugees. The bulletins are more practical and about bread and butter issues.

    The NC community outside the UK may be surprised to hear that the UK media prefers to focus on, not necessarily in that order, Trump, Russia, Syria, Corbyn and his merry band of racists, and identity politics, including gender identity confusion in children of junior school age on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday. Not a peep about the disaster(s) unfolding.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Welcome back to posting here Col! Good to hear that update.

      I do think the last year has been a gamechanger for climate change. Its now part of normal conversation that its here, and it will be very nasty indeed. But as you say, you have to move beyond the anglophone media to know just how much things really have changed.

      1. c_heale

        I went back to the UK twice this year for short vacations, and was shocked by the low quality of both journalism and the frankly pathetic lack of coverage of important issues. Even on Brexit, the most important political issue of the moment to UK residents, the complete complacency of the UK media, regarding the arrogance and complete incompetence of the current government, is appalling.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you.

          It’s just as well that you missed Tuesday’s edition of the Today programme. I listened in Normandy and got depressed at having to return to la la land.

          There was a segment about Brexit featuring the Europe, economics and political editors. The ignorance, or arrogance, was astounding. I can understand Kamal Ahmed getting the economics wrong as he’s not an economist, but Katya Adler’s office is next door to the Commission, so one would think she could ask Commission officials and the MEPs etc. down the road at the Place Luxembourg. As for Laura (von) Kuenssberg, she’s a Tory and lives with a guy whose (American) firm lives off the public sector.

      2. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, PK.

        I was thinking about you when going around Ile de Re and La Rochelle. The region is cyclist friendly and, further to an exhibition at the quai Valin in La Rochelle last Saturday and an announcement from the French PM the day before, to be made more so.

        A friend is cycling from St Malo to St Jean de Luz this month.

        Also, and further to a thread we exchanged a few months ago, I kept wondering about Anglo-American wishful thinking for “socialist France” to collapse. From my observation, I think the UK and US will fall apart before “socialist France” will.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Thanks Col., I haven’t gone cycling in France for a few years now, I do miss it – those areas just outside the tourist hotspots can be heaven either side of mid-summer.

          Yes, for all Frances many problems, it does seem to have remarkable staying power as an economy. Even if it did suffer a major reversal, I’ve a feeling the French people would prove more resourceful and robust event than many other countries I can think of. I really do wonder how the UK will get through a really nasty post-Brexit recession without it becoming very toxic.

          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you, PK.

            You should go back.

            I bumped into a Hennessy in Cognac. His family have been there for generations.

            What I found most interesting about the Poitou-Charentes and Normandy regions are the opportunities for people to have a decent career and balance work and play. There’s no need to drift to bigger cities or too far from home. One person has only worked in Champagne, Burgundy and Cognac.

            The influx of Brits has not slowed. It’s more difficult due to Sterling’s weakness, but many retirees do part-time work, e.g. teaching. Some villages have up to a third of their population from the UK, spanning all ages and family structures.

      3. Plenue

        It may be part of normal conversation, but I wonder about the depth of most people’s understanding of it. I don’t think most people understand how bad it’s going to get. Just judging by fiction (for whatever that’s worth), there seems to be a common perception that yes, sea levels will rise, and that’ll suck, but that’s the end of it. A lot of people will have to move, or might even die, but life will continue on for the majority much the same as it was before.

        There’s so much focus on melting icecaps that I think it crowds out all the other negative effects. Climate is changing globally, melting ice is only one effect. Breadbasket regions may no longer function as they do now, and some regions, like the equator and the Persian Gulf, could reach wetbulb temperatures and humidity and literally become lethal.

        And methane releases supercharging the warming don’t seem to be on much of anyone’s radar, least of all most climate scientists.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I don’t know enough to know what percent of climate scientists are not really thinking about methane eruptions. If any of them really aren’t, it is probably because methane eruptions are so very too awful to think about that their brains and minds shut out thinking about them. I know that students of the Arctic and subArctic are thinking about methane eruptions very hard.

  4. The Rev Kev

    That map in the article looks contrived to my eye and I seriously doubt that this will how it will work out in practice after climate change does its particular number on our planet but it won’t make much difference. I am afraid that Dr. Malthus will get the final word here.
    The long and short of it is that the only real solution to this problem is a drastic reduction in the population of this planet by a number of billions. Yeah, I know what I am saying but that is the brutal truth. There are far too many people alive than this planet can support.
    A smaller world population would require far less land and resources to feed it and would be more resilient to changes in climate. The only country that I can think of offhand that is doing this for whatever reason is Japan. The only reason that we have so many people alive right now is because it is being artificially being propped up to such a level but it cannot and will not last.
    Having written all this, I can understand why Malthus is sometimes described as being humourless.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      The “Number of Undernourished People” seems a poor measure for assessing the impacts and future impacts of climate change on agriculture. The world could see bumper crops and still have large numbers of starving people if food isn’t distributed to where it is needed. However “Number of Undernourished People” does measure the pressures on the existing population, and it at least suggests what I believe to be the case — that our present agriculture is barely feeding our present and rapidly growing populations.

      I am also troubled by the idea that “extreme weather events” are the key drivers of global hunger. While “extreme weather events” do indeed cause harm to agriculture I believe an earlier than usual frost or a rain too hard too soon after planting can also harm agriculture. Events don’t have to be extreme to harm agriculture. Agriculture — plant life in general — relies on a certain predictability to the weather. Climate Disruption promises to make our weather much more Mercurial. While “extreme weather events” are growing more frequent and common so are the sudden shifts in weather that can damage crops. What we are calling “extreme” now will probably become sufficiently common that the connotation which I tend to attribute to “extreme” of an event much out of the ordinary — will fade.

      1. taunger

        Mrs. T and I recently left the city and bought a plot that used to be a dairy farm. We have been here a couple of years, and benefit from records of prior owners and other farmers in our largely agrarian community.

        Weather has been difficult the past few years, with significant drought, record cold winter, and late arrival of spring. Whilst we discuss it I constantly remind the both of us that we should be looking at this as normal – things ain’t going back to what they used to be

    2. Lorenzo

      I think you should also consider how sustainable Japan’s overall population and economy is relative to their own resources. Their population density is similar to India’s but the former’s consumption levels dwarf the latter’s, so even if Japan’s or rich industrial nation’s population numbers seem to be moving in a better direction that those of developing nations, the former also have a much longer way down back to sustainability.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      If we achieved that by equitably-shared birthrate reduction, that would be one thing. But if we have it achieved for us the way the Overclass wants to do it . . . through Applied Jackpot Engineering . . . that would be a much worse and more unpleasant thing.

  5. TimmyB

    The existence of the current large number of human beings on this planet is completely dependent upon crops that grow within a small range of temperature and precipitation variance.

    When the temperature and/or precipitation changes and becomes outside the range needed to grow crops in areas where our main food crops currently grow, there will be wide-spread famine, which in turn will bring its own host of additional problems.

    I strongly believe people moving to escape sea rise will be the least of humanities’ global climate change problems. By the time large numbers of people must move (except in low lying places like Bangladesh that are already threatened by sea water rise) I suspect billions will have already died from the inevitable starvation global climate change will bring.

  6. JTMcPhee

    Comfort ye, my people: It’s a long (and for me, in my cynicism and fearfulness, a scary) read, but the US Imperial Military-Industrial-Security-Political Complex has already priced in all this change, and how the USIMISPC will “manage the savagery and disruptions” by growing still larger and more plenipotent and telling the rest of us “We’re in charge here!”:

    Defense Science Board Report on Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security:

    Roles all laid out for the Battlspace Managers and Captains of Industry of all sorts (construction, engineering, armaments, national police training, of course the soldiers who will enforce the New Order, heavy equipment manufacturers, the chemical giants that seed and feed and the FIRE entities that co-loot with them, etc.), all neatly planned out in this and subsequent doctrine documents that the strategizers have carefully, advisedly and thoughtfully prepared, all ready to pull down off the shelf, open up to page 1, and activate as the SHTF…

    There’s also (now somewhat dated, of course, since publication in 2011) a big-picture and more nuanced and granular summary of the data and science on what-all is transpiring in the biosphere. And of course a nice catalog of all the anticipated disruptions and conflicts and “mass migrations,” all of which are to be managed by our Battlespace Managers…

    So not to worry — the people who are so diligently managing the Global War on Terror are on the case, prepared to insert and move as the place goes downhill.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Is this the latest plan for dealing with future unrest? Our DoD takes Climate Disruption seriously, most especially when it helps argue for new or bigger funding lines. There should be updates by now. I thought this and other documents from around 2011 had play in helping fund the Air Force’s new fighter-bomber along with several improvements to the Navy’s assets. The Army was supposedly winding down its commitments in the Middle East and still enjoying the benefits of spending on the Future Combat Systems Program. That was also about the time Obama announced a strategic shift focusing on the South China Sea. I thought upgrades to our Nuclear Missile Capabilities and sputters of a new Star Wars type program were the latest “hot rocks”. Aren’t there some new threat assessments and corresponding mission statements to grease the skids for these new strategies?

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Just a thought — slightly related to the military slant of your comment and the post topic — I think our police departments would get a lot more useful service from surplus Army water purification vehicles and portable electric power generators than they will from the Bearcats and battle armor they seem to favor.

        1. JTMcPhee

          See the opening scenes of “Soylent Green:” garbage trucks re-purposed to scoop up and crush restive “citizens,” more gruel for the algae vats…

  7. Gator McKlusky

    Jeremy Grantham has been talking about this as one of his primary concerns about the effects of climate change.

    I highly recommend going to his company’s site, GMO, and reading Grantham’s quarterly letters even going back to 2010. They are eye opening and sobering.

  8. ruralcounsel

    So climate change is going to solve our overpopulation problem. The trick will be to not be the part of the herd that gets culled.

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