How Will Food Security Be Affected by Climate Change, Energy Constraints & Water Availability?


photo: Yvon via flickr

From August's Russian heatwave and fires causing staple food prices to rise, to fears that expanded biofuel production will take agricultural land out of production, to concerns over food miles and the absurdity of local zoning ordinances prohibiting the amount of food you can grow in your backyard, food security issues are all around us. It may be tempting for residents of rich nations to think that food security is something that people in a semi-mythical 'over there' location have to worry about, which is somewhat accurate today, but the changing energy and environment landscape means that won't always be true. Here's why that's the case:

Ability to Produce, Access & Use Food at Center of Issue
Since food security is a fairly wonky term, somewhat nebulous and abstract, here's the policy textbook definition, from the World Health Organization:

The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life". Commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences.

Furthermore, food security has three broad components: Food availability (consistently having enough food), food access (have sufficient resources to get that food), and food use (having the knowledge and means to use that food nutritiously, as well as having adequate access to water and sanitation).


map: Maplecroft

Based on those criteria, recent studies have ranked the areas of the world with the highest food security risks. Currently Afghanistan and large areas of Africa fall into the highest risk category, which anyone who even casually pays attention to world news would probably guess. At the other end of the scale, most of the rich nations in the world (with the exception of Italy, Portugal, and other Mediterranean nations) have the lowest food security risk--as the map above illustrates.


Though the reasons why food security in rich nations is more precarious than the map above may suggest have been well documented on TreeHugger, this animation produced by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture really gives a good overview of the situation.
Rich & Poor Nations Have Different Food Security Issues
As with the population growth-resource consumption nexus, there a different food security issues at either end of the global income scale.

In rich nations, the amount of food imported from abroad or shipped long distances domestically (perhaps more an issue in North America than in Europe) is utterly dependent on cheap, accessible and abundant energy. Without that, food security risk rises precipitously. Food availability, access and use aren't such the pressing the issues they are in poor nations, but the whole system is wholly dependent on high levels of energy use.

In poor nations, the issue is different: The ability to produce enough food on the land and do so sustainably; land tenure issues for farmers; encouragement of using high priced inputs to increase crop yields rather than more appropriate, ecologically sustainable and lower priced techniques; lower starting income levels reducing the ability to pay for available food; dumping of food from rich nations crippling local farmers ability to sell their produce, combined with pressures to prioritize export-led development over self-sufficiency; distribution issues. This list could go on and on.

The one thing that will unite rich and poor alike is that climate change, energy constraints, and unsustainable use of water in many places will raise food security risk for all. As is the case now however, for a while the rich will continue to be able to financially deflect some of the problem, while the poor will still not have that recourse.


In June 2008, Residents reach out for a tag numbers as a proof that they've queued at the Bankerohan market in Davao City, Philippines on Monday morning. The residents said they've started to queue as early as 1a.m. to avail of the cheap rice sold at National Food Authority (NFA) retailers. But the retailers started to release the two-kilo rice at around 7:30a.m already. The prices of commercial rice in Davao City reached P51 per kilo last week. A 'good quality' Thailand rice, which the government sells at a subsidized price of P25 per kilo. Photo and caption: Keith Bacongco via flickr

There are three main things, all linked with each other, that will have a (mostly negative) impact on food availability, food access and food use: Climate change, energy constraints, and water availability.

Climate Change Stresses Agriculture
Though climate change may benefit agriculture and food production somewhat in a small number of places, overwhelmingly the reports coming out on increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, and changing precipitation patterns show that in the vast majority of places the impact will be negative, if not always catastrophic.

A quick TreeHugger archive review reveals:


Water Availability & Unsustainable Usage Major Problem
Then there's water availability, some of which is due to unsustainable water use practices as farmers try to more aggressively irrigate and increase food production and some of which is due to climate change changes precipitation and snowmelt patterns. Some examples:
  • Intensive agricultural irrigation in pre-monsoon weeks in India is actually contributing to lower monsoon rainfall.
  • Climate modeling also reveals that abrupt climate change could drag the monsoon out over the ocean, reducing water availability.
  • Changing dietary habits, towards more meat-centric diets, is resulting in increased irrigation throughout Asia and declining water tables. Without better water management, and health and nutritional improvements will be short lived.

A similar situation exists in Africa (one-quarter of the continent faces water shortages due to climate change) and the Middle East. Sanaa, Yemen is likely to be the world's first capital city to run out of water in modern times, and Aden has already experience riots caused by water shortages.

In parts of North America, from the desert Southwest to California's central valley, the story has different characters and has a slightly less urgent feeling at present, but the plot is largely the same.

And then there's energy usage...

Rich Nation's Food Supply Entirely Dependent on Fossil Fuels
Most TreeHugger readers by now probably have firmly implanted in their memory the fact that the average ingredient in a meal in the US has travelled over one thousand miles before ending up on their plate. Even though there has been increasing interest in local and/or organic food production, the fact remains that for the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, and in most rich nations, most of their food requires prodigious amounts of fossil fuels to grow and transport. It's also grown in concentrated regions, or imported from small numbers of nations.

Remove that energy--either because renewable energy can't fully replace the amount of power contained in fossil fuels (a possibility), because dwindling supplies of easily accessible fossil fuels drive prices higher (also very likely), or because fossil fuel availability, critically oil, collapses entirely (virtually ensured in the long term)--and the entire system as currently constructed falls apart, spiking food security risk and potentially causing widespread hunger.

Reduce Energy Usage, Fight Climate Change, Diversified Sustainable Agriculture - All Increase Food Security
The solution to these problems is pretty much the very reason TreeHugger exists and a perusal of the archives will reveal the myriad ways that these risks can be mitigated in both rich and poor nations.

But a basic sketch solution goes something like this, admittedly slanted somewhat towards rich nations: 1) Diversify food sources both geographically and in terms of types of crops grow, encouraging more local production and seasonal consumption; 2) Transition towards lower energy use in food production, towards more organic and sustainable methods of production and away from fossil fuel intensive industrial agriculture (even if for some crops intensive organic cultivation is part of the picture); 3) Better water management helps, regardless of location, but critically in those places with current or projected low availability; 4) Reduce energy usage and emissions overall so as to prevent the worst effects of climate change; 5) Immediately begin more rapid transition towards a future all-renewable energy supply.

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More on Food Security:
Transition Town Plants Up Nut Trees for Food Security
Staple Food Prices to Rise Up to 45% Over Next Decade, UN FAO Warns
Japanese Government Animation Explains Global Food Security
Raising Water Productivity to Increase Food Security
UK Chief Scientist: Food Crisis Will Bite Before Climate Change
Russian Heatwave's Effect on Agriculture a Sign of Things to Come Elsewhere?

Tags: Energy | Farming | Global Climate Change | Renewable Energy | Water Crisis