The link between undernutrition and climate change

Seven children die of hunger every minute because they do not have access to treatment, but the impact of climate change on the drivers of undernutrition – food insecurity, health threats and water stress – could push up this number, the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) said at the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen (COP15).

The committee said it wanted to make the case for promoting and protecting nutrition as part of adapting to climate change by "collaborative action" and "building bridges" across the “biological, environmental, social and economic dimensions and sectors” to “develop synergies and alliances to ensure that political will, financial resources and human efforts are optimized”.

Andrew Mitchell, of the French NGO Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), a member of the UN committee, pointed out that links between climate change and nutrition were not restricted to getting enough food. "Malnutrition could potentially be the output of climate change’s impact on sectors such as health and water."

Over 19 million children face hunger-related death at any given moment but only three percent of them receive treatment, the UNSCN said in a statement as the two-week climate change conference began on 7 December. According to climate change projections, food production could shrink by as much as 50 percent by 2020 in some African countries, and by 30 percent in Central and South Asia, creating a very high risk of hunger

The UNSCN noted that undernutrition was caused by inadequate nutrition and disease, which stemmed from insufficient food, poor maternal and child care practices, and poor access to clean drinking water, unsafe sanitation and ill health - all of which were directly affected by climate change.

A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a US-based think-tank, projected in October 2009 that a decline in calorie availability by 2050 could increase child malnutrition by 20 percent. "Climate change will eliminate much of the improvement in child malnourishment levels that would occur with no climate change," the study noted.

The IFPRI authors called for "aggressive" investment – ranging from US$7.1 to $7.3 billion a year – to raise calorie consumption enough to offset the negative impacts of climate change on the health and wellbeing of children.

The UNSCN has called for the development of a knowledge base to inform future programming on climate change and nutrition, establishing a comprehensive nutrition surveillance system, and identifying, validating and costing the interventions required to protect nutrition from climate change and related hazards. It urged governments and aid agencies to scale up interventions that successfully reduced the impacts of climate change on nutrition, and increased community resilience to climate change.

The 2007/08 food price crisis, followed by one of the worst global economic recessions in recent times, has revived the humanitarian aid world's interest in malnutrition. Recent estimates show that the two crises have pushed the number of hungry people to beyond a billion.