Climate change and food insecurity

Dr Om Katel

Lecturer & Dean of Research and Industrial Linkages in College of Natural Resources in Lobesa, Dr Om Katel shares his views with our reporter, Sonam Penjor regarding the climate change and the food insecurity and how they are interconnected.

What is climate change and what lead to climate change?

         Climate is the average weather in a place for over many years and climate change refers to a shift in the average conditions over the years and climate can take place from decades to hundreds of years to change. For climate change-related analysis, at least 33 years of data is required to claim that the impact is associated with climate change. Temperature and precipitation are two variables to link to climate change. When Green House Gases (GHGs) increase, it absorbs heat and increases the usual temperature and increasing temperature lead to a change in precipitation patterns such as a change in timing and frequency of precipitation which in turn affects food production, and security.  

How food insecurity and climate change are interconnected?

          Climate change affects food security in many ways or at least directly and indirectly. When temperature increases, it creates heat stress to crops thus the setting of fruits is reduced resulting in low yield. Increasing temperature also means loss of soil moisture as water availability and quality would be altered and is essential for crop production. On the other hand, increasing temperature also means an increase in extreme weather events such as storms, intensity and frequency of rainfall. Such extreme event has been a regular phenomenon around the world and in Bhutan than before. There would be too much rain when not required and there may not be rain when required thus no rain during farming season mean crop failures and this would put our farmers at risk. When rainfall occurs for a short period, there would be little time for the rainwater to percolate into the soil and recharge the aquifer and when aquifers are not recharged properly it would lead to drying up of the spring water.

Storms would destroy the crops and if occurs during the farming season, farmers lose crops and thus affects people living in cities as crops cannot be grown in cities and it has to always come from rural areas.

Other impacts would be the increasing incidences of pests and diseases. The impacts can be many as some others can be cited as loss of foods during storage, and transportation. All these impacts affect food availability, access and utilization which is referred to as food security.

What is more worrying is the mountain slopes are relatively more sensitive to changing climate due to their dependency on water. Climate change also means increasing heat stress to farmers leading to change in agricultural practices changing temperature has a direct bearing on the availability of water. Changing temperature also means increasing the cost of food when farmers do not produce enough to feed the families, they face food shortage and forcing them to buy foods from markets.

Essentially what is true is food insecurity would be one of the issues in the future. Because if the changing climate happens at the current rate, it would affect the food production system significantly and as a result affecting food nutrition. This is because when Carbon-dioxide concentration increases nutrition value of food at least in terms of protein, iron and zinc would be decreased.

Why developed countries should invest in climate change-related activities?

            Climate is changing and it is accepted globally that climate change is happening because of increasing GHGs. Evidence shows that there has been an increase in emissions since the industrial revolutions (the 1880s) and the bulk of the emissions came from developed countries. The way developed countries were dealing with or are making use of the agro-economy, fossil fuels, and other industrial activities are not very sustainable while poor countries get affected significantly which is not the fault of their own.  Climate change thus is a result of those emissions while many of the developing countries who have not contributed anything are simply the victims and feeling the brunt.  In this regard, developed or industrial countries having relatively higher emissions should invest in stabilizing the atmospheric GHGs concentrations so that other countries who have pledged to address climate change impacts would be effective.

How climate change has led to food insecurity?

               Many of the crops such as maize, wheat, potato production around the world has decreased due to extreme weather events, plant diseases, and water scarcity. Even in our case, about 20% of the crop losses such as rice, maize, potatoes, apples and mandarin is reported. Such decline in crop productivity and crop yield means food shortage and the household would be stress. Crop yields would be decreased due to heat stress reducing the setting up of fruits and in some crops even due to change in growing seasons or lack of enough period to mature. Change in seasons also means shifting of growing and flowering seasons resulting in loss of crop seeds. This is how some seeds of traditional crops were lost and such a trend would continue if the appropriate actions are not taken. The recent IPCC report acknowledges that food insecurity would be one of the major issues in the future.

What food insecurity led to the general population?

                The first and foremost issue would be food scarcity, which would lead to issues of food access. This means that food prices may increase and as a result affecting nutritional quality and stability as increasing temperature may also mean increasing incidences of diseases and pests and increasing incidences of extreme weather events. Food security means that “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food” so food scarcity and prices mean high risks of occurrence of undernourishment. There are already several pieces of evidence of children suffering from iron deficiency. Thus climate change is projected to create food insecure populations specifically in the poor countries where adaptation capacity is relatively poor. 

What evidence do we have as of now for climate change?

              There are several pieces of evidence claiming that climate is changing and climate change is real.  Some very pertinent evidence is precipitation around the world has become relatively unpredictable, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and incidences of extreme weather events such as storms, floods, droughts etc has become a regular phenomenon. Based on the temperature record of highs and lows which is done for hundreds of years in the past since 1880, it is observed that the global surface temperature has one degree Celsius. Other evidence includes the migration of birds, and their migration pattern, change in plants’ flowering time changed significantly and most importantly the amount of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere since 1800 has increased from about 280 parts per million (ppm) to more than 410 ppm.

What policy do we need to put in place for climate change and food insecurity?

             Climate change response can be complex and location-specific and cannot be applied uniformly in all the places and that too in Bhutan’s highly diverse landscapes, the impacts and adaptive capacity of individuals and ecosystems can be different which would be difficult to recommend. However, some of the common approaches can be recommended such as the carbon-neutral development approach and building resilience. There are several things that communities, governments and non-governmental organizations can contribute to minimizing the impact. Some of the recommendations could be making the local community awareness of the level of impacts that climate change has incurred, others include promoting indigenous technologies, sustainable and resilient technologies, incentivizing local food production systems, embracing a circular economy approach for waste management, etc. To address food insecurity, farmers must get support in diversifying the field crops, use of high yielding and improved seed varieties, increasing the frequency of irrigation infrastructures that results in the improvement of farm management practices.