How Human-Caused Climate Change Affects Global Food Security

By Joanne Lu

After decades of progress, the United Nations recently reported that global hunger and acute food insecurity are on the rise for the third year in a row. Hunger levels have returned to similar levels as 10 years ago. In addition to persistent conflict and economic downturns, the UN cited the effects of climate change as a leading driver of food insecurity.

Food security, according to the World Food Programme, is when people have “availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Rising temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns and an increase in the frequency and severity of disasters is threatening food supply and access, especially for the world’s most vulnerable – many of whom rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The UN report says that since the early 1990s, extreme climate events, including heat waves, droughts, floods and storms, have doubled, averaging 213 such events every year from 1990 to 2016.

According to another report issued this month by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), unless human-caused carbon emissions are reduced rapidly in the next twelve years, by 2030 the world can expect to see a dramatic increase in widespread and severe droughts, famines, storms and flooding, disease spread, and species die-offs.

Even in the absence of extreme events, climate patterns are already changing and undermining food security, production and nutrition. The hottest days are hotter than ever and they are happening more frequently.

Warming has a direct impact on crop yield, because it speeds up the population growth and metabolic rates of pests that consume three staple crops: rice, maize and wheat. A recent published study by scientists, including several from the University of Washington, projects that for every degree Celsius that average global temperatures rise, crop yield losses to insects will increase by 10 to 25 percent. Temperate regions, including large swaths of North America and Eurasia, will be hardest hit, they say.

In addition to rising temperatures, rainy seasons are also becoming less intense, with fewer days of rainfall and “abnormally low total accumulated rainfall,” the UN report says, causing droughts, particularly in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.

Droughts, more than any of the other natural hazards, has the biggest impact on food production. According to the UN report, it is responsible for more than 80 percent of the total damage and losses in agriculture, mostly in crop and livestock sectors.

Not only have these events caused shortages in food production, they’ve also caused price spikes that coincide with income losses in agricultural communities. This has made it even harder for those who are most food insecure – particularly the urban poor – to feed themselves and their families. Additionally, changes in climate are damaging food nutrient quality, as well as increasing the risk of food and water contamination that can lead to disease.

As the world population continues to increase, climate researchers and innovators have been turning their attention to transforming the global food system. The new focus on sustainable food systems was evident at the Global Climate Action Summit in September, where several organizations announced major funding commitments. The Global Environment Facility launched a $500 million initiative focused on food systems, the single largest program in the organization’s history.

Also at the Global Climate Action Summit, the Rockefeller Institute and the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at the University of California, Davis announced a new initiative called FoodShot Global, which will provide up to $30 million dollars a year in debt or equity funds to global food innovations. Initially, it will focus on soil health, which research has shown could be the key to mitigating the effects of climate change on food production.

“The long-term sustainability of agricultural systems strongly depends on how we use soil,” Michigan State University Foundation Professor Bruno Basso said in a press release about his new study. “Ultimately, soil is the ‘home’ of the plants. If we aren’t caring for the soil, plants and crops are unsheltered and left to deal with climate change on their own.”

Better soil management also means better food security for the 94 percent of smallholder farmers who provide 70 percent of the world’s food supply. Many of these farmers are in low-income countries that bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, which is largely driven by wealthy countries.

Over the next decade, concerted efforts like these to create a sustainable global food system will be critical to meeting the Paris Agreement to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (or 1.5 degrees, if possible) by 2030. That’s because agriculture and livestock are responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Beef cattle, especially, are the largest source of agricultural emissions. According to scientists, hitting the targets could be the difference between manageable and dangerous levels of warming.

Innovative solutions that arise from partnerships and increased funding will also help ensure the world’s growing population is food secure, even amid the dangers of climate change. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is optimistic. It recently projected, based on economic and population growth, that the number of food insecure people in 76 low- and middle-income countries will drop from 782 million to 446 million over the next 10 years. It also estimated that the share of the population that is food insecure in those countries will drop from 21 percent to 10 percent; not to mention, the intensity of food insecurity will decrease by 34 percent.

In order to achieve – or perhaps exceed – those projections, however, communities must increase their resilience to climate change and food systems must become more sustainable and inclusive.

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The following Global Washington members are working to improve food security for vulnerable populations around the world.


Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package®, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. CARE places special focus on working alongside women and girls because, equipped with the proper resources, they have the power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. That’s why women and girls are at the heart of CARE’s community-based efforts to improve education and health, create economic opportunity, respond to emergencies and confront hunger. In 2017 CARE worked in 93 countries and reached 63 million people around the world.


Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers, protects fragile ecosystems, and builds strong, transparent supply chains through independent, third-party certification. Its trusted Fair Trade Certified™ seal signifies that rigorous standards have been met in the production, trade and promotion of Fair Trade products from over 50 countries across the globe.


Landesa champions and works to secure land rights for millions of the world’s poorest, mostly rural women and men to provide opportunity and promote social justice.


Mercy Corps is a leading global organization powered by the belief that a better world is possible. In disaster, in hardship, in more than 40 countries around the world, Mercy Corps partners to put bold solutions into action—helping people triumph over adversity and build stronger communities from within. The organization helps people in the midst of humanitarian crisis meet their most urgent food needs and also works to build long-term food security, partnering with the most vulnerable communities to develop comprehensive, integrated programs driven by local needs and market conditions. Last year, Mercy Corps provided urgently needed food to more than 1.5 million people in some of the most hard-to-reach areas of the world. Beyond meeting urgent hunger needs, the organization improves access to sustainable sources of affordable and nutritious food, encourages farmers to produce nutritious crops and healthy livestock, and provides nutrition education to promote healthy and diverse diets. Every year, Mercy Corps connects nearly 1 million farmers to the resources they need to increase production, feed their families and boost incomes.


Oxfam is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and social injustice.  Globally, Oxfam works with 22.1 million people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty and hunger. Oxfam America is one of 19 members of the international Oxfam confederation. Its vision is to create just, inclusive, and resilient food systems that sustain the planet and provide healthy food for all. Oxfam focuses on empowering and protecting the rights of women and youth who produce, process, and distribute food here in the U.S. and globally. It supports farmers, entrepreneurs, and workers to increase their income, protect their rights, and achieve food security. The organization engages with the top food and beverage companies, supermarkets, and traders through campaigns or direct engagement to foster an inclusive, equitable, and resilient food value chain. Oxfam also works with governments and international financial institutions to shape the right policies and practices to promote a more equitable world.


Resonance is a global team of international development and impact investment professionals that harnesses the power of collaboration to enable communities, companies and governments to drive market-based solutions to global challenges.


TFT is a global non-profit organization that helps companies and communities delivery environmentally and socially responsible products. TFT is active in the key stages of the supply chain.


World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice. One of World Vision’s largest partners is the UN World Food Program (WFP). World Vision partners with WFP in 63 projects in 18 countries to support immediate food security needs of vulnerable populations through food, cash, and voucher assistance as well as mid-term needs through nutrition monitoring and agricultural support.