Food – the big picture*

Global food security is not just about how much we grow. To achieve it, we need to look at the bigger picture, particularly at the way in which water and energy needs underpin production.

Climate change threatens all of that. Rainfall variability directly affects crop production, but also energy generation (think of hydropower) – essential to grow, store, process and move food.

Tropical regions are the worst affected. “Not only are the areas closer to the equator more prone to weather extremes such as flood or drought, but smallholder farmers often don’t have the resources to cope with changes in the local climate,” Frank Rijsberman, head of CGIAR, the global agricultural research consortium, told IRIN.

While extreme events used to occur once every 100 years, they can now be expected every few decades. Seasonal weather patterns are also changing, altering habitats often irreversibly. 

Coffee production is one example. In Nicaragua, warmer temperatures and erratic rainfall are forcing farmers to move their plantations to higher ground. The longer-term outlook is not good. Research suggests that climate change will reduce coffee yields, increase pest and disease pressure, and lead to an overall drop in the quality of the crop.

It’s not just coffee but many other crops essential to sustain the diet and economy of rural communities across the world. 

What can be done?

One solution, said Rijsberman, is to develop strains that can endure harsher conditions, such as so-called ‘scuba rice’, which can survive underwater for two weeks. Among other improved varieties of staple crops are drought-resistant maize and the recently developed ‘super bean’, a variety rich in iron developed to tackle malnutrition.

“We have to move away from the idea that feeding the world just means providing enough food to people,” said Rijsberman. “It must also be the right food for a healthy diet. Currently, two billion people lack basic nutrients and improved breeds help tackle that.”

We also have to take a hard look at energy production. Modern intensive agriculture uses large amounts of fossil fuels; artificial irrigation is an energy drain; chemical fertilisers gobble lots of energy to produce, and because they deplete the soil, must be constantly re-applied. Thirty percent of food grown globally is lost each year through inadequate handling and storage – a shocking waste, but also a major energy loss.

“We must change the way we use farm inputs, how we grow and process food, and how we reduce loss and waste,” said Rijsberman. “Ultimately, we have to link the sectoral issues in agriculture, energy, health, and environment – and come up with holistic, integrated and truly sustainable solutions.”

Losing power

Climate change-induced drought is going to have a major impact on hydropower capacity in the developing world.

One of the most badly affected countries right now is Zambia, which after months of poor rains is rationing power supply to both citizens and industries. Both Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe receive the bulk of their electricity from the Kariba Dam on the Zambesi River. But as low water levels have become the new normal, industries relying on hydroelectricity, including the agricultural sector, are paying the price. 

In Zimbabwe, power is currently cut for periods of up to 48 hours. The country needs approximately 2,000 MW of electricity per day, but is able to produce only 900.

For rural communities, energy poverty is the norm. The challenge is to increase energy security without using fossil fuels, which not only pollute, but are also prone to price volatility. A spike in diesel prices, for example, has a knock-on effect throughout the food chain – starting at farm production costs and working up to the final consumer price tag.

Africa has long been wedded to hydropower and creaking, dilapidated power grids. But the continent is increasing turning to renewable energy, with a slew of major projects underway. Better energy supply would mean that farmers - among others - could not only improve production in the face of environmental extremes, but also process and store their food more safely.

How can they boost supply?

“In the short-term, we should look for cleaner energy solutions, such as solar-powered irrigation systems to pump water when rivers go dry,” Simon Winter, a researcher at Technoserve, which develops solutions to support farmers, told IRIN.

There are also subtler ways in which energy scarcity impacts rural people. “Lack of energy for food preparation will regulate the kind of food consumed,” Patrick Rader, a Uganda-based food security expert for the international development company Chemonics, told IRIN. “By taking time and effort to source fuels and water, it will reduce the time a family has to process, cook and consume the right kind of food, at the right time.”

There are a host of alternative, environmentally sustainable measures available, including green stoves and water capture systems. But take-up is typically small scale and funded by NGOs rather than as part of a national strategy of adaptation to build resilience to climate change. 

According to Technoserve’s Winter, tackling the food, water and energy nexus at a local level requires the involvement of the communities as well as public and private partners. “Right now, we are addressing the challenge by coming up with shiny innovations and waiting for the markets to invest and scale them up,” he said.

But many of these innovations are not designed with local needs in mind, holding back acceptance. “We need to nurture and develop long-term programmes so new projects can be slowly replicated and adapted to the local environment,” Winter concluded.


At the Paris climate change summit underway this week, African nations in particular are demanding that industrialized countries commit to supporting a low-carbon, climate-resilient development model. They also want a far greater focus on financing for adaptation programmes - a key component to climate action that hitherto has been underfunded.

* This story was amended on 7 December to add links to IRIN's climate change series: 

COP21: A turning point?