Left unchecked, climate change aligned with population explosion and low agricultural yields will drastically increase global poverty and hunger over the next two decades, warns the international aid organization Oxfam in a report released today (May 31).
The prices of staple foods such as corn and rice will speed up their ascent, Oxfam predicts, and will climb by 180 percent and 130 percent, respectively, by the year 2030.
In a world where the poorest people now spend as much as 80 percent of their incomes on food — the average Filipino spends proportionally four times more on sustenance than the average British person, for example — drastic food scarcities and price hikes will likely push many struggling populations into hunger and, potentially, starvation.
In its new report, Growing a Better Future, Oxfam says current trends indicate that the world's population will reach 9 billion by mid-century; meanwhile, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990. Left unchecked, the gap between food demand and supply will continue to widen.
"The food system must be transformed. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet and demand for food will have increased by 70 percent. This demand must be met despite flatlining yields, increasing water scarcity, and growing competition over land. And agriculture must rapidly adapt to a changing climate and slash its carbon footprint," wrote Robert Bailey, Oxfam's senior climate advisor, in the report.
Climate change has already driven up food prices in many areas by causing drought and desertification, Oxfam reports, and of all the factors contributing to rising food prices, it will create the most serious impact of all in the coming decades.
"The impact of climate change on food prices is clearly closely linked to the impacts that climate change will have on crop production," Bailey wrote. Rice crop yields decline by an estimated 10 percent for every 1 degree-Celsius rise in dry-season minimum temperature, for example.
Aside from raising global temperatures, climate change "will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke," the report states.
Fixing the system
Global poverty is fueled by a broken system in which wealthy countries take advantage of the poor, Oxfam states. To curb the problem, the international community must address "the appalling inequities which plague the food system from farm to fork. We produce more food than we need. In the rich world, we throw much of it away. In the developing world, nearly one billion of us go without."
Industrialized countries must initiate major policy changes in order to fix the broken system, Oxfam continues. They must redirect tax breaks toward clean energy initiatives and place taxes on greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, "we must manage trade to manage risk by building a system of food reserves; increasing transparency in commodities markets; setting rules on export restrictions; and finally putting an end to trade-distorting agricultural subsidies."
The new report points to examples of the changes that must be undertaken to curb global poverty and hunger. In Brazil, social activism has led to agricultural policies that decreased hunger by one-third between 2000 and 2007. Vietnam achieved comparable results through land reform and a program of investment in smallholder agriculture — single-family farming.
"Thankfully, the vast transformation needed is already under way – led by individuals, organizations and movements who have taken the future into their own hands," the report states.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.