A growing global food shortage has caused prices to double in recent years, and a growing consensus of scientists now blames climate change as one factor in an equation that includes a burgeoning population and increasingly scarce water supplies. More people around the planet are going hungry as a result.
Even as prices have also risen in the United States, most residents may not grasp the scope and severity of the problem.
Americans toss about 40 percent of their food in the garbage, according to a 2009 study. In this country, food waste per person has increased 50 percent since 1974.
Yet one in seven people go to bed hungry every night, according to the United Nations World Food Program. Hunger kills more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The problem is worst in developing countries. But the problem has implications beyond the borders of those poor countries.
Saw it coming
Scientists have been predicting for years that a warmer planet coupled with increasing water demands could cause food shortages. A study in 2007, building on and confirming previous research, warned that climate change could help cause food shortages leading to war. Other scientists have predicted that water shortages will fuel war.
The situation became acute in 2008 when food shortages helped fuel uprisings in several poorer countries. High food prices played a role in the ouster of the Haitian government that year.
Meanwhile, a consensus had emerged that food prices would likely double by the year 2080.
That projection has been blown out of the water. Global food prices have spiked since the year 2000, mostly since 2006, with some key crops doubling.
"Food security" has emerged as a political buzzword in conversations about stability in the developing world. Three-fourths of the people in the least developed countries live on $2 per day. "Recent global food price hikes threatened to create a new food crisis in those nations, where the poorest people often spent three-quarters of their income on food," according to a recent statement from the United Nations. "Only through greater investment in sustainable agriculture — a long-neglected area — could those nations ensure both food security and competitiveness on the international markets."
Today (June 5), The New York Times provided an extensive look at a world struggling to feed itself. After interviews with dozens of scientists, farmers and food industry experts, the article confirmed what many experts have been saying: World population growth is outpacing food production, particularly with the four crops that provide the bulk of the world's nutrition: wheat, rice, corn and soybeans.
As studies have shown previously, there's little land left to convert to farming, water supplies are drying up, and global warming is wreaking havoc on the growing seasons and contributing to weather extremes that destroy crops.
But the urgent global food shortage problem is not being matched by urgent research efforts to improve the outlook in the future, the article concludes.
"There is just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the highly dangerous situation we are in," Marianne Banziger of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center told the Times.
International aid organizations and scientists have been sounding the alarm bell for years. In 2008, the World Food Program called the situation a "silent tsunami" of world hunger.
The global population, just 3 billion in 1959, is now at 6.92 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With 4.2 people born every second, the population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2044.
Meanwhile, a long-running, well-funded research effort that doubled global crop production more than once in the 20th Century — an effort called the Green Revolution — has stalled. Thinking the problem largely solved, research dollars were put elsewhere in recent decades.
A report last month from the international aid organization Oxfam warned that global food prices will continue rising. With the world's poor spending about 75 percent of their income on food, the situation is expected to cause more to go hungry and also to fuel dissent.
"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," wrote Robert Bailey, Oxfam's senior climate advisor.
Key conclusions in today's Times' article:
- Thanks to significant research dollars spent on developing new strains of key crops and better growing techniques, global food production outpaced population growth for much of the 20th century, leading to a decline in the percentage of people going hungry. However, grain production per capita has fallen since the mid-1980s.
- Climate change is, as predicted, contributing to extremes — floods, droughts, heat waves — and altering growing seasons, all contributing to crop failures. [While no single event can be tied to climate change, climate experts have long said a warmer planet will cause more extremes in temperatures, precipitation and storminess.]
- Science had long expected that increases in carbon dioxide would actually help crops. But that logic has proven faulty in more recent studies. Though carbon dioxide is like fertilizer to plants, the well-documented CO2 increases since the Industrial Revolution — and higher levels predicted for the future — don't offset strains caused by heat, drought and flood. In short, scientists now say, heat kills.
- Increasing demand for drinking water is sucking acquirers dry faster than Nature can possibly replenish them, making water scarcer for farmers.
- The unrest sweeping the Arab world this year has also been linked, in part, to the rising cost of food.
Global experts see a bleak future if significant action is not taken soon, especially since research dollars can take years or decades to turn into more food on plates.
"Climate change is expected to add another 10-20 percent to the total of hungry people by 2050," according to a United Nations World Food Program report issued last month. "By 2050 we can expect to have 24 million more malnourished children as a result of erratic weather – 21 percent more than without climate change."
Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently said of people in the poorest nations: "They have no buffer. When prices go up, they go hungry. Women and children are the worst hit."
Scientists and analysts and governments largely agree on one thing: Food output needs to be doubled yet again if the world is to be fed in the near future, but given that fewer resources are being applied to crop research nowadays, "the last doubling is the hardest," one researcher told the Times.
There is hope. Scientists in Japan are experimenting with growing food without dirt in sterile environments. Other efforts at genetically modified crops (GM) hold promise for higher production. And efforts are underway to engineer crops and methods to create another Green Revolution, particularly by developing crops that can withstand climate and weather extremes.
Better distribution methods are also needed. About a third of all food produced each year is lost or wasted, according to the UN.
The outlook also depends on how many mouths there are to feed. Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration and subsequently to Hillary Clinton, said in 2009 that humans have exceeded the Earth's "limits of sustainability."
"We need to continue to decrease the growth rate of the global population; the planet can't support many more people," Fedoroff said.
- Earth in the Balance: 7 Crucial Tipping Points
- Climate Change Understanding Falls Along Political Lines
- What's the Fate of Earth?
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.