Food security in a changing climate: Look beyond supply
A growing population on a planet with limited resources and an increasingly erratic climate indeed spells trouble for food systems.
Finding ways to make them more efficient makes absolute sense. However, many proposals include solutions—like land conversion, pesticides and fertilizers—that exacerbate environmental problems.
Even technology and innovation in the agricultural sector will only slow the growth of the environmental footprint without reducing it overall.
Ultimately, we must question whether we really need to produce more food for global food security.
Food security has an official four-dimensional definition, but the concept is popularly understood as the need to produce more food for a growing population, often with an emphasis on high-yield, resource-intensive crops.
It clearly conflicts with climate mitigation measures in the agricultural sector, such as limits on the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, and the expansion of agricultural frontiers.
In order to address the 'food security vs. climate change mitigation dilemma', we must take a critical look at the assumptions behind the food security narrative.
A growing population does not automatically require increased food production
The idea that food production should rise with population growth may sound plausible, but is actually a logical fallacy. Despite the ever more frequent and intense climatic shocks to food production, such as erratic rainfall patterns, flash floods and prolonged droughts throughout the world’s food producing regions, agricultural yields have been on a steady rise for decades.
Although localized food supply shortages do occur, particularly in the aftermath of disasters or in conflict contexts, food scarcity is far from being a global issue.
Furthermore, the math does not quite add up. In 2012, when the global population was just over 7 billion, the world was producing food to feed 10 billion people.
Global food supply has been rising continuously in the decade since, while the global population still hasn’t crossed 8 billion. Estimates of global population growth see a population peak between 9.4 and 12.7 billion people by 2100, after which the world population will begin to decline. In other words, it is very likely that we already produce enough food today to feed the peak global population estimate.
In fact, about one third of the food produced today (or roughly US$1 trillion per year) is either lost post-harvest, due to a lack of storage or processing capacity, or wasted at the other end of the supply chain (retail and households).
We can boost food availability without increasing production simply by tackling food loss and waste.
Associating food consumption with population size can direct blame towards the world’s poorest and fastest-growing countries, the same places that are least responsible and most affected by climate change.
Many arguments for boosting food production assume increased demand for resource-intensive foods, such as meat and dairy, in the developed world—something we should not be endorsing, let alone including in our calculations of the resources we need to feed the world.
Food availability does not equal food security
Another misconception is that the simple availability of food guarantees food security. The four-dimensional concept of food security encompasses availability, access, utilization and stability.
An individual, community or region is food secure only when it fulfils all four criteria. The fact that sufficient food is available in a given region does not create food security.
In fact, food insecurity arises predominantly from the other three dimensions.
Food availability is of little help to low-income populations if they do not have the financial means to purchase it (access); the resources to prepare it (utilization); or are constantly threatened by economic, political and environmental crises (stability).
Can we produce more food using fewer resources?
Sustainable intensive agriculture has come into the limelight in recent years for its ability to produce the same amount of food as extensive agriculture using fewer resources. Sustainable intensive agriculture would result in fewer hectares of deforested and degraded lands.
Still, it is not a magic bullet: The fact that our resources are limited is inescapable, as stated in the famous 1972 report The Limits to Growth. Particularly when looking at food loss and waste, much can be done to increase food availability without increasing resource use at all.
Food security vs. climate action is not a real dilemma
Many people believe we have a dilemma on our hands: should we mitigate climate change and protect the environment or guarantee food security through ever-increasing food production?
Food supply has repeatedly taken priority over climate and environmental concerns. The sooner we realize that there is no global food supply problem, the sooner we can eliminate hurdles to effective climate and environmental action.
Does this mean that policy makers can ignore supply when addressing food security? Absolutely not.
The matter of localized food shortages is very real, especially under advancing climate change certain countries and regions experience decreasing yields or regular shocks to food supply or need emergency food inputs to feed populations displaced by conflict, violence or natural disasters.
In such specific contexts, food production is crucial to food security, as regular food imports would be a logistical nightmare (not to mention its climate footprint).
Nevertheless, the generalization that food supply must increase on a global scale, rather than only in the localized contexts where supply can indeed be the main issue, continues to be inaccurate and counterproductive in light of urgent climate and environmental goals.
In the long-term, maintaining a stable global food supply is a matter of resilience. The solution is not to maximize food production in a changing climate but to address the root causes of climate change itself.
To be sure we must provide a safety net for farmers as we reconsider the need to increase food production. The agricultural sector is the lifeline of many economies around the world, comprising 27% of total global employment and up to 59% in low-income countries.
The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) projects payments to farmers for environmental services, but such policies must be aligned with global climate and environmental goals; and we need feasible solutions for less stable economies.
Ultimately, a stable and long-term food supply will require significant prioritization of climate change mitigation and environmental restoration. In order to break the endless loop of globally increasing yields, the climate and environment communities must play a key role together with all the relevant stakeholders: farmers, communities, governments, companies and—critically—consumers.