Climate and food security in 2035
4 Mar 2022| and

This is the fourth in a series of edited extracts from a new ASPI publication, The geopolitics of climate and security in the Indo-Pacific. The first article presented a 2035 climate security scenario, which is the reference point for subsequent articles, including this one.

The Indo-Pacific region is home to almost half of the world’s chronically hungry people and some of the food systems at most risk from the impacts of climate change. In ASPI’s 2035 climate scenario, the climate-related impacts on food production are severe. We’ve learned that the relationship between climate change and political, economic and social unrest throughout the region often runs through food systems.

Today, the world produces more than enough food to go around. Notwithstanding downward revisions due to extreme weather in major ‘breadbaskets’ in 2021, global wheat, rice and maize production is still expected to reach record levels. Globally, the most commonly traded foods, including maize, wheat and rice, are grown in an increasingly small number of highly productive monoculture breadbaskets. In the decade leading up to 2035, global agricultural production continues on this trajectory, leaving the global food system vulnerable to disruptions in those major production centres and heavily reliant on trade to distribute calories.

Rain-fed systems dominate food production in the Indo-Pacific, and these systems are highly sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns, temperature and climate-related extreme events. Climate and crop modelling, in just one example, suggest that a 1°C rise in mean temperatures in the South Asian region will result in the loss of 4–5 million tonnes of wheat.

By 2035, the South Asian subtropical monsoon is triggering extreme flooding due to a powerful La Niña. In Bangladesh, meanwhile, almost a quarter of the country’s territory is inundated each year from rainfall, cyclones and sea-level rise. In extreme years, more than half of the country is affected, destroying crops and agricultural land. According to research by the UN World Food Programme, monsoon rice production in the country could have fallen by as much as 20% by the 2030s, increasing food insecurity by nearly 88%.

There are also lingering questions about food availability in the face of climate change due to the impacts of rising sea levels on major food-exporting and -importing countries’ port infrastructure. Most food in 2035 is still moved by boat and is therefore vulnerable to maritime trade disruptions. By 2035, the increase in climate-related extreme weather events and sea-level rise produce supply-chain disruptions in global food trade, closing flooded and damaged ports for extended periods and affecting food access through price increases and empty shelves in local markets.

But food can be out of reach to people because of cost, even while markets and store shelves are full. Our global food system is complex and interdependent—even more so by 2035. International trade in food commodities continues to grow year on year. By 2021, enough food was traded annually to feed approximately 2.8 billion people. Food trade is especially important in countries that rely heavily on imports to feed their populations, including the Pacific islands. In this setting, production shocks in one part of the world can dramatically affect food prices in another.

We’ve seen evidence of this in recent years. In the 2007–08 global food-price crisis, for example, the price of staple commodities rose dramatically over a short period as a result of climate-related production shocks and trade protectionism. That resulted in civil unrest in nearly 40 nations and the toppling of at least one government. Just three years later, production shocks in major wheat-growing regions in China, Russia and Argentina were linked by some researchers to instability across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring in 2011.

The 2032 global food security crisis sees food prices for major staple crops, especially rice, skyrocket, and multiple countries in the Indo-Pacific experience the vicious feedback loop between food insecurity and conflict.

Achieving food security also requires people to consume the right mix of micro- and macronutrients. By 2020, one in three people were unable to afford a healthy diet, and more than 2 billion people suffered from so-called hidden hunger, lacking key micronutrients in their diets. Nearly two-thirds of people who lacked access to a healthy diet lived in Asia and the Pacific.

The global food system had produced a world facing the double burden of undernourishment and obesity, often side by side in the same countries. The Pacific island region, for example, was already facing some of the highest rates of obesity in the world, with rates of over 50% for adults in Samoa and Tonga. This same region relies on fisheries for protein needs and indeed subsistence food supply, but by 2035 cyclone activity risks destroying fishing infrastructure, and a warming ocean results in critical habitat loss and coral bleaching, threatening livelihoods and food security in the region.

There’s also considerable risk that climate change will reduce the nutritional density of commonly consumed foods. General food insecurity among children has also been connected to powerful El Niño events. For example, researchers have demonstrated that the 2015 El Niño probably led to an additional 6 million children globally suffering from chronic undernourishment.

Climate change presents major challenges to achieving food security in the Indo-Pacific, with run-on effects across the region. Projections hold that 77 million more people will be food insecure globally by 2050 without necessary investment in climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Such impacts require transformational, systems-level change to address those challenges.

Climate-smart agricultural practices and investments in social protection systems that provide a safety net for vulnerable populations are important no-regret interventions in the face of climate change. The demand for humanitarian food assistance will continue to rise by 2035 in the Indo-Pacific without necessary investments in food-system transformation. And there are innovative ways to deliver assistance; the UN World Food Programme’s forecast-based financing, for example, uses sophisticated weather forecasts to enable food and other assistance to be distributed before a disaster strikes.

Adapting our global food system to the impacts of climate change will require transformative solutions, not mere tinkering at the margins.