Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Food Security in a Climate-Altered Future (Part 1)

“Hotspots” Suggest Food Insecurity More Than a Supply Problem

Small talk about the weather with my Malawian taxi driver became serious very quickly. “We no longer know when the rains are coming,” he said as we bumped along the road toward the Lilongwe airport last November. “It is very difficult, because we don’t know when to plant.”

These days, he is grateful for his job driving a taxi. His extended family and friends are among the 85 percent of Malawians employed in agriculture, much of which is small-holder, rain-fed subsistence farming. Weather-related farming challenges contribute to ongoing food insecurity in Malawi, where one in five children is undernourished.

His observations of the recent changes in climate match forecasts for the region: in East Africa, climate change is expected to reduce the productivity of maize – Malawi’s main subsistence crop – by more than 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent analysis by Oxfam International.

I looked out the window at dusty fields and tried to imagine what Malawi might look like in 2030. For one thing, it will be more crowded. A lot more crowded. According to UN population projections, by 2030, Malawi’s population will have grown from about 15 million today to somewhere between 26.9 and 28.4 million. With climate change dampening agricultural productivity and population growth increasing food demand, how will Malawians – many of whom don’t have enough to eat now – have enough to eat in the future?

It gets quiet in the taxi as the driver and I both ponder this question. Malawi is not alone in being a climate-vulnerable country with a rapidly growing population dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Population Action International’s Mapping Population and Climate Change tool shows us that many “hotspot” countries – scattered across Latin America, Africa, and Asia – face the triple challenge of low climate change resilience, projected decline in agricultural productivity, and rapid population growth.

Agricultural trade, government safety net programs, and foreign assistance will no doubt continue to play an important role in the quest for food security in Malawi and other “hotspot” countries in the future. And climate change adaptation projects will, hopefully, reshape agricultural practices and technologies in ways that can boost yields and enable crops to better withstand temperature and precipitation fluctuations.

These interventions will be critical in addressing the supply side of future food security challenges. But what about growing demand?

Malthus Revisited?

Juxtaposing population growth with food production does, of course, bring us back to Thomas Robert Malthus’ original (and by now somewhat infamous) dire warning: that population growth would eventually outrun food supply. But seeing the scale of the challenges in Malawi firsthand, I must admit that my inner Malthus sat up and took notice.

It is true that technological advances have enabled astounding growth in agricultural yields that have enabled us to feed the world in ways the doom-filled Malthus could never have imagined in the early 19th century. But it is also true that the agricultural productivity gains that helped us keep pace with population growth for so long are beginning to slow: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aggregate agricultural yields averaged 2.0 percent growth annually between 1970 and 1990, but that growth in yields declined to 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2007, and is projected to decline to less than 1.0 percent in the years to come. More