26.02.2024 Author: Taut Bataut

The Climate and Food Security

The Climate and Food Security

Climate Change is undoubtedly the greatest existential threat facing humanity today. As wars rage around the globe and countries pursue economic and political policies that are causing ever-increasing fragmentation, scientists and climate activists find that their voices fall on deaf ears.

The COVID-19 crisis exposed societies all over the world to the risks posed by large-scale shocks to the system of Global Value Chains (GVCs) that bring food from farmers thousands of miles away to our supermarkets and our tables. However, scientists argue that a climate change crisis, though not as sudden (or unexpected) would be far worse, given that it would affect the supply of food not in its distributive networks, but at its source. Increasing temperatures and water scarcity have already caused stagnation or even falls in agricultural productivity the world over, and climate-related disasters such as floods have also devastated arable land.

Amidst this dismal state of events, how does the world begin solving the impending crisis of food scarcity, even as population growth continues growing on its runaway trend? And how do countries, especially those least equipped with the resources to do so, prepare themselves for these now unavoidable shocks?

Many have taken to caring for themselves first. Countries that produce staple foods have increasingly imposed export restrictions on these foods in order to satisfy domestic demand and – where they are capable – to begin stockpiling for the future. Restrictions on the supply of rice by India imposed in July this year, the world’s largest exporter, have caused global prices to rocket. The effect is also never static; India’s export restrictions have led to other major exporting countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar – despite having higher prices to take advantage of – might also be forced to impose certain restrictions in order to prevent domestic shortages.

The situation of staple foods was already worsened by the conflict in Ukraine, with both Russia and Ukraine being two of the largest exporters of wheat to the world. As food prices skyrocket, the effect compounds with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis to cause a period of global inflation at an unprecedented scale. While some argue over whether the issue is of supply or that of price mechanisms, the end-result is the same: food-shortages.

Scientists say that part of the solution is reorganising how countries think about production. Due to the rapid pace of globalisation and the overwhelming increase in both demand and logistical efficiencies, producers all over the world had established a “just-in-time” strategy. This prioritised efficiency, only producing when an order would come in and immediately shipping it to its destination. As such, stocks of products – across sectors – were always low, but logistical efficiency and industrial capacity meant this was not a cause of major worry – until the COVID-19 crisis.

As supply chains fractured in 2020, consumers all over the world faced the repercussions of this absence of stocks. Though pharmaceutical companies did commendably well in picking up productive capacity in a matter of weeks as demand for face-masks and disinfectants skyrocketed, the absence of agricultural stocks and other goods in countries meant that consumers had to suffer from shortages for a long time till the crisis was managed enough to allow GVCs to start operating again.

The lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for all industries was that efficiency cannot be prioritised endlessly over ‘resilience’, i.e. having the capacity to survive and tide over a shock till production and distribution can be reinstated; illustrating the need to transition to a “just-in-case” instead of a “just-in-time” production strategy. This holds true for not just the production of pharmaceutical goods, but also food. It is perhaps even truer for food, given that global pandemics are likely to be a less frequent occurrence as compared to the inevitability of global food insecurity, already a truth for much of the world.

In this vein, scientists and researchers have also increased the effort to create crop varieties that are able to thrive in more diverse climates and that are more robust to climate-change, the same way that crop varieties resistant to pests have been prioritised. Much of global food insecurity can stem, after all, not from increased demand due to population growth but from the decimation of harvests due to drought, harsh weather and the degradation of soil.

Unfortunately, many are pessimistic about the possibilities. For some, technological progress that would make crops more resistant to climate-change simply cannot outstrip the pace of climate change. Global temperatures are rising by almost 0.2 degrees Celsius a decade, and the famous 1.5 degree mark (i.e. 1.5 degrees Celsius above the global average temperature pre-industrial times) is set to be crossed within just the next 5 or so years. Research in developing robust crop varieties can take over a decade.

The most likely scenario seems a nightmarish one. Food insecurity is set to skyrocket, compounded by decades of inaction by those with the power to pursue change, even as experts warned them. Poor agricultural countries with little power may be forced to export their agricultural produce to richer countries that can afford to pay higher prices, exacerbating inflation and causing famines.


Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine  “New Eastern Outlook”.

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