Climate change is the biggest threat to the future of our planet, and humankind is exacerbating the conditions more and more. Other disruptions that have recently emerged are quite damaging to the struggle for the existence of human beings as well. In addition to climate change, the global food insecurity crisis and hunger are expected to deepen gradually.
The solution to the global hunger problem, as in all other issues, depends on the elimination of the causes. Among the main causes are climate change and drought due to global warming, which requires a collective effort at the international level. Internal conflicts, interstate wars, waste of resources and policies of protectionism are among the sources of food insecurity.
If global temperatures continue to rise; risks such as changes in precipitation patterns, increased drought and frequency of heat waves, sea level rises, melting of glaciers and an increased risk of more intense natural disasters will arise. These would not only cause material damage but adversely impact food systems and harm development processes across the globe.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), food supply and food safety will be seriously threatened if adequate action is not taken concerning the vulnerability of the food system to climate change over the next 30 years.
As a matter of fact, the adverse impacts of climate change on food production and quality have already been experienced. The IPCC has found that productivity in the food industry is 21% lower due to global warming; high temperatures and heavy rainfall harm soil health; and increased carbon dioxide levels reduce the nutritional quality of crops.
In particular, the IPCC predicts that staple foods such as soy, wheat and rice will decline throughout the 21st century, with a decline of 0.7%-3.3% per decade. In addition to these figures, it is calculated that the yield of rice, corn and wheat may decrease by 10%-25% per degree of increase in global temperature. At this point, it is worth remembering that the figures in question do not take into account other critical variables, such as deterioration in soil quality other than crop reduction, which may cause much larger effects in the long run. Considering that more than 80% of the calories consumed worldwide come from 10 crops, mainly rice and corn, we can understand the extent of the risk we face.
Another of the most frightening findings of the analysis is that these risks increase the risk of simultaneous crop loss in countries that are the leading food producers. Undoubtedly, this situation makes food security an issue that requires consideration and urgent action for all countries on a global scale. According to projections made in this regard, if the current conditions and policies continue, the number of people facing the risk of hunger, which is 8 million on a global scale today, is expected to reach 80 million by 2050. This picture reminds us that all countries should tackle the agri-food dimension of the climate crisis.
On the other hand, in addition to the difficulty of coping with the climate crisis, the shock wave caused by the Russia-Ukraine war shows how vulnerable the global food chain is to climate change and other disruptions. In order to understand the extent of the effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, it is important to look at the place of both countries in the global food value chain. Ukraine and Russia produce almost 60% of sunflower and seeds in the world and are responsible for almost 30% of the global wheat and barley market.
According to recent research published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 50 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia procure at least 30% of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Besides, 26 countries among these regions meet more than half of the wheat supply they need from Russia and Ukraine. The FAO analysis also estimates that the war alone will result in 7.6 million malnourished people in addition to the current number globally in the short term as a result of price increases in products exported by Russia and Ukraine, while in the long term, this figure may reach 8.1 million.
The food price index published by the FAO in April is also remarkable. It stated that food prices were 34% higher than that of the same period last year, breaking a record for the third year in a row. If the war continues, the picture is expected to become even more frightening. In this context, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes the current period as a hurricane of hunger and the collapse of the global food system. The World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which shared their forecasts on the current situation, calculated that at least 45% of the Ukrainian population is facing food insecurity as a result of the war.
Besides the short-term effects of war on food systems, the long-term effects on different commodities are also extremely critical. For instance, Russia is the world's largest natural gas exporter and the second largest oil exporter. In the context of the agriculture sector, natural gas is an extremely critical input for fertilizer production. So much so, that rising energy prices in the prewar period, when tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated, caused the closure of some large fertilizer factories in Europe. On the other hand, Russia has an important place in the global value chain in terms of fertilizer exports. In this context, Russia is the world's largest nitrogen fertilizer exporter, second largest potassium fertilizer exporter and third largest phosphorus fertilizer exporter. Russia meets about one-fifth of the world's fertilizer demand with its neighbor Belarus. Therefore, it seems possible that as a result of the sanctions imposed on Russia, there will be difficulties in the supply of fertilizers, which will reduce soil and crop productivity. At this point, it is reflected in the foreign press that many countries are seeking to increase their trade relations with Iran, which is a leading fertilizer exporter but has been struggling with sanctions. In this regard, after the U.S. softened relations with Venezuela in order to close Russia's deficit in fossil fuel supply, it would not be a surprise that a similar picture would occur with Iran in the fertilizer trade.
In the context of combating climate change, both the tightness in the public budgets of the countries and the product supply chain uncertainties brought by the war indicate that even if the Russia-Ukraine war ends soon, its effects will spread over the medium and long term.
Developing countries, especially the least developed countries, tend to be net food importers structurally. Therefore, rising food prices in the international market will make things worse for these countries. Moreover, they usually have enough food stocks within their borders to last only a few days. Declining agricultural productivity makes all countries even more vulnerable to sudden shocks, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, on a global scale.
In addition, fragile households in developing countries allocate more of their income to food and energy and are more exposed to price increases in the current conjuncture. Undoubtedly, this situation creates a critical obstacle for the development processes of these countries. According to a recent study published by the International Monetary Fund, a significant increase in debt ratios is also expected as a result of the increase in food and fuel prices in Sub-Saharan Africa, where food costs constitute 40% of household expenditures.
The table we mentioned shows that our current food systems are very vulnerable to the worsening effects of climate change and external shocks such as war and regional tensions. We need sustainable and resilient food systems to prevent their collapse as a consequence of the myriad challenges posed by climate change and the disruption in the global food supply chain due to the war in Ukraine. As the yield of staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice is predicted to decline in the coming years, diversifying food production will be crucial to ensuring that the global population can meet its nutritional needs.
Successful transformation also offers opportunities to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike other polluting industries, there is no need for intensive investment or technological development for sustainable solutions such as reducing food waste for food systems, promoting agroforestry or gaining sustainable dietary habits. All of these options will reduce emissions and enable us to move forward on issues such as food security and biodiversity. As a matter of fact, it should not be forgotten that agriculture and land use constitute approximately a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions today, and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase under current policies.
On the other hand, many countries will need financial and technical support to produce staple foods to increase their resilience to shocks such as war and weather events that could drastically cut off the supply of staple foods. According to the IPCC, the investment levels to support this necessary transformation are insufficient. According to the report, the largest investment gaps are found in the agriculture and land sectors, and it is calculated that investments need to be increased by 3 to 6 times compared to the current levels.
In short, if collective international action is not taken urgently, a great number of people will face crucial food-related problems, worsening climatic conditions will damage crops and animals, and harvests will be destroyed. Consequently, in addition to the climate crisis, the food insecurity crisis will also be exacerbated. It is in our hands to leave a healthy world with access to nutritious food for the next generations.
*Deputy Minister of the Republic of Türkiye’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy
**Expert at Türkiye’s Ministry of Treasury and Finance