Connecting the dots: Understanding climate impacts on food security and hunger

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 30 Apr 2012 15:04 GMT
Author: Kirsty Lewis, UK Met Office
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By UK Met Office

At present, close to one billion people suffer from hunger. Experts agree that there is a high risk of climate change affecting food security at the global level, with the most negative impacts in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. The additional risk of climate change could put several hundred million at risk of food insecurity over the next decades.

But even in today’s climate, food insecurity as a result of weather and climate events is a serious issue.  Extensive droughts and deep food security crises affecting parts of East Africa as well as the emerging crisis in West Africa remind us of this.

In 2011, the drought in East Africa threatened the livelihoods of 9.5 million people, and forecasts of poor rainfall suggest that millions could be at risk again in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. At the same time, food shortages associated with poor rainfall in West Africa could also affect millions of people and their livelihoods over the next few months. 

Climate change is expected to impact food security in a number of different ways, exacerbating existing drivers of hunger and malnutrition.  These include:

  • The overall availability of food is affected by changes in agricultural yields as well as by changes in arable land.
  • Changes in food production, together with other factors, are likely to impact food prices and will affect the ability of poor households to access food.
  •  Decreased water availability and quality in some areas are likely to result in increased health and sanitation problems, such as diarrheal disease, which, together with changes in the patterns of vector-borne disease, have the potential to increase malnutrition by negatively affecting food utilisation.
  • Changes in climate and increases in some extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, will disrupt the stability of the food supply, as well as people’s livelihoods, making it more difficult to earn a stable income and purchase food as well as other basic necessities.

Efforts to reduce the impact of climate change on hunger, support adaptation, and build resilience among the most vulnerable communities are critical elements of the global effort to respond to climate change. 

However, to be effective, these efforts require a better understanding of the food security impacts of climate change, especially the impacts on food security beyond changes in staple crop production. This is why the World Food Programme and the Met Office Hadley Centre are combining their expertise  with the aim of improving climate change and food security analysis that can help inform decision makers in responding to the risks we face. 

Despite uncertainties in the climate science it is vital that decision-makers have the best available evidence from experts who understand the twin complexities of the climate system and food security and thereby can reduce the likelihood of programmes and investments that lead to maladaptation.  However, to better be able to inform appropriate programmes that reduce risks and build resilience, a fundamental challenge is the lack of integration across disciplines.

Generally, modelling studies have simplified food security as food availability without explicitly addressing the issues of food access, stability and utilisation. If programmes are to be effective in reality, it is vital to evaluate climate science together with information about socio-economics and human vulnerability to better integrate the food access and utilisation dimensions of food security into climate change analyses. This will require a more systematic integration of climate science with food security vulnerability analysis to begin to develop a more robust understanding of the impacts of climate change on hunger at the global, regional and national levels.

As the first stage of a process to more systematically link climate change science with the best food security and vulnerability analysis available, WFP and the Met Office have develop an initial Hunger and Climate Vulnerability Index to illustrate the complex interactions between food security and climate change.

The Hunger and Climate Vulnerability Index is based on the definition of vulnerability to climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In this case, vulnerability is defined as the relationship between the degree of climate stress on populations (exposure), the degree of responsiveness to stress (sensitivity) and the ability of populations to adjust to the climatic changes (adaptive capacity). Indicators were selected based on their relevance to food security through rigorous statistical analysis. A total of 17 indicators were chosen for exposure (demographics, climate-related hazard frequency and intensity), sensitivity (agricultural and environmental profiles) and adaptive capacity (socio-economics, infrastructure and governance). 

This index has been generated first to understand current vulnerabilities, but as more data is available and [climate] models are refined, the aim is to extend it to show how vulnerability may change as the climate changes. The index has been combined with current undernourishment levels in an engaging and informative model that provides a global overview of food insecurity and climate change.  This poster, along with more information on the work between the Met Office and the WFP can be found at: or

Although still work in progress, the Climate and Hunger Vulnerability Index is a small first step to addressing the issue of integration and in determining who is vulnerable and why, in the context of climate change and food insecurity. Further improving this work to include additional projections at high spatial and temporal resolution will be a critical part of helping decision makers reduce the risk of food insecurity and hunger in the future.

About WFP and the UK Met Office Hadley Centre

As the United Nations’ frontline agency in the fight against hunger, the World Food Programme (WFP) has made addressing the impact of climate change on hunger a priority.  A core component of WFP’s strategy to address climate change is working with partners to improve the knowledge base for developing global, regional, and national efforts to address the challenge, building on WFP’s extensive food security and vulnerability analysis capacity.    

The Met Office Hadley Centre is the UK’s foremost climate change research centre and produces world-class guidance on the science of climate change. Moreover, the Hadley Centre is one of the world’s leading research institutions making significant contributions to the IPCC and effectively communicating the impacts of climate change on society. 

Kirsty Lewis is principal climate change consultant at the UK Met Office. This blog is part of AlertNet's 'Solutions for a Hungry World' package.



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