Greenhouse Gases and Empty Bowls
In October 2021, the Global Hunger Index ranked India at 101, slipping it seven ranks from 94, in a span of a single year. Even though the situation is particularly grim for India, the world, at present, stands on no winning side.
One out of seven people sleep on an empty stomach every night. India is not the only country of concern, rather its position is not as concerning as the African countries in the Sahara. While the condition in Somalia is ‘extremely alarming’, in countries like Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Madagascar and a few others, the condition has been categorised as ‘alarming’. Few of the South Asian countries too are the hotspots of hunger.
The adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2) aims at eradicating hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture. This was signed by 193 countries that aim to eradicate any and all forms of malnutrition by 2030, which now looks implausible.
With 820 million people suffering from chronic hunger, 20.5 million babies being born with low birth weight as their mothers couldn’t get enough nutrition, hunger has resulted in stunted growth of 149 million children. We, definitely, have a long road to travel!
Amidst the numerous reasons behind the rising hunger, the escalating climate emergency is a major contributor to this humanitarian emergency. The rapid economic growth that has been taking place for the last 150 years has resulted in a consequent rise in greenhouse gas emissions. This has pushed the average global temperature to 1°C above pre-industrial levels. The current rate of emissions, according to experts, will result in the average global temperature rising to somewhere between 1.5°C to 2°C in the period between 2030-2050.
Countries are predicted to have extremely hot weather conditions, untimely and heavy precipitation on the one hand, and a greater probability of droughts, on the other. These predictions are of utmost concern. Human systems, which includes food systems, will be largely affected due to these extreme conditions. Hunger and climate crises are inextricable in nature.
The United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) has analysed that a 2 °C rise in the average global temperature when compared to pre-industrial levels will result in an additional 189 million people being pushed to starve. The communities that are most vulnerable to this change include fishing, livestock and subsistence agriculture.
To sum it up, all the communities that contribute the least to the climate crisis shall bear the maximum repercussions with no pillar to hold during the blow. Lack of safety nets will leave these communities dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival like the migrants of war across the world.
Not only this, the UNWFP has predicted that 41 million people (across 43 countries) shall bear the brunt of extreme famine. The poorer and underdeveloped countries are going to be the worst hit, even though they (i.e. the top ten food-insecure nations) contribute to only 0.08% of the global carbon emissions. Water scarcity, untimely rain, crop failure and declining nutrition due to multi-breadbasket failures shall threaten millions who have very little or no contribution to climate change.
The weather anomalies will affect the prices of food, and thus, its access to the poorer sections. Such effects shall not remain limited to specific regions as there exists a high degree of cross-connectedness between global food systems. Thus, extreme events in some regions hold the potential to disrupt the global food system. The lower-income countries will be, once again, the worst affected.
Lack of safeguards against food insecurity and a fragile, rather deficit, capacity to adapt to climate change remain some of the many concerns for these countries. But the buck doesn’t stop here!
The nutrient value of the food items and the nutrients absorbed also change with changes in climatic conditions. The food item cultivated is likely to contain a decreased amount of protein, zinc and iron. This is because higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the environment result in the reduction of these nutrients; this has been backed by recent studies. An additional 175 million people could be deficient in zinc with 122 million more people experiencing protein deficiency by 2050, if this trend continues.
The impact is not limited to crops, livestock shall suffer equally. Livestock is the second worst-hit sector during droughts. Those dependent on aquatic life as a means of living and for food, are not better-placed either. The fish are extremely vulnerable to constant changes in temperature and climate extremes. No surprise that the affected regions will include South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The amalgamation of these deficiencies, increased prices and poor health infrastructure does not present a very happy picture.
Resilience-building amongst the vulnerable sections is the need of the hour in order to attain food security. The absence of collective and large-scale action increases the distance between the world and the goals of Agenda 2030 (to eradicate any and all forms of malnutrition by 2030).
Grassroot-level actions plans and locally adaptable dietary plans will work in the long run instead of generic and single plans for the entire world. Wondering, why? Red meat consumption amongst Americans is 6.5 times more than the recommendation. On the other hand, South Asians consume only half of what is required for a healthy body. In the absence of the same starting line, how will we achieve the same milestone together?
We must view the food systems using the prism of adaptation to climate change and mitigation. This includes making the most vulnerable sections resilient to both climate change and pandemics. The continuous efforts to a greener and more sustainable planet should not lose the spotlight in this process. Governments need to come together with stronger partnerships and cooperation. Sailing the boat will become easier if the private sector and civil society organisations are also roped in. Financing the adaptation needs to be discussed in detail. The current kitty is insufficient in building resilience to climate change. Multilateral development banks and other financial institutions will have to be put to good use in order to attain the goals of Agenda 2030.
In the meantime, protecting and improving the livelihoods of the vulnerable communities, adaptation practices in agriculture (for climate resilient crops like millet) can be put into place for nutritional security. Innovation for small-holder farmers coupled with information related to climate change, and inculcating preparedness can help the ‘developing’ countries like India.
Reimagining food systems towards sustainability, mitigation and balancing growth should be the new route to eradicate hunger.
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