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Rising risk of food shocks and malnutrition with unchecked global warming
by Georgina Gustin
Inside Climate News
June 2018
Two new studies looking at corn and vegetables warn of a rising risk of food shocks and malnutrition with unchecked global warming.
Climate change will increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures across the world''s biggest corn-growing regions and lead to less of the nutritionally critical vegetables that health experts say people aren''t getting enough of already, scientists warn.
Two new studies published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences look at different aspects of the global food supply but arrive at similarly worrisome conclusions that reiterate the prospects of food shocks and malnutrition with unchecked global warming. While developing tropical countries would likely be hardest hit, the destabilizing financial effects could reach all corners of the globe, the authors say.
One paper analyzed corn—or maize—the world''s most produced and traded crop, to project how climate change will affect it across the major producing regions. Much of the world''s corn goes into feeding livestock and making biofuels, and swings in production can ripple through global markets, leading to price spikes and food shortages, particularly for the 800 million people living in extreme poverty.
The researchers found significant differences in corn yield depending on how high global temperatures rise.
An increase of 4 degrees Celsius—close to where the current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory would take us by the end of this century—could cut U.S. corn production by nearly half. If global warming is instead held to 2°C (the goal of the Paris climate agreement is to stay below that level) the projected loss in U.S. production would be closer to 18 percent, the researchers found.
While those numbers are pretty dramatic, the researchers find that the chances of the top-producing regions suffering extreme yield losses at the same time rises, too.
When the researchers looked at the four biggest corn exporters—the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine—they found that the likelihood of all four suffering yield losses of 10 percent or more at the same time rises from about 7 percent at 2°C warming to 86 percent at 4°C warming.
Such simultaneous shocks in the top-producing regions, which are rare now, could have significant impacts on global markets and drive up the price of food.
"Global grain prices have been going up because of demand and biofuels," said Michelle Tigchelaar, the lead author of the study and a researcher with the University of Washington. "That has made markets tighter, so when you have a yield shock, that has really big implications for the market."
And for global stability. During the last global food crisis, in 2007 and 2008, rising costs triggered riots and unrest in countries around the world.
The second study published Monday looked at how environmental changes brought on by climate change could impact the production and quality of vegetables and legumes—foods that government nutrition guidelines and nutritionists urge people to eat more of.
Researchers led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine looked at 174 studies, across 40 countries, published since 1975. The authors say it is the first attempt to systematically examine how climate-induced environmental changes could impact yields of vegetables and legumes around the world.
While previous research has shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide could boost some vegetable and legume yields, the new study finds that any benefits will be offset by the negative effects of increased ozone, less water availability and increased salinity.
Nutritionally important vegetables and legumes can be particularly sensitive to temperature increases and more vulnerable to heat stress than staple or cereal crops. The researchers found that without efforts to reduce emissions, a lack of water and increased ozone would cut yields of vegetables by about 35 percent in the second half of this century.
Globally, about 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies linked to a lack of vegetable and legume consumption, while worldwide per capita consumption of vegetables and fruits is between 20 and 50 percent below recommended levels.
"Vegetables and legumes are vital components of a healthy, balanced and sustainable diet and nutritional guidelines consistently advise people to incorporate more vegetables and legumes into their diet," said Pauline Scheelbeek, the lead author of the study.
"Our new analysis suggests, however, that this advice conflicts with the potential impacts of environmental changes that will decrease the availability of these important crops unless action is taken."
Another recent study that analyzed the impact of climate change on rice, a primary food source for 2 billion people, found that rising carbon dioxide levels will also diminish its nutrient levels.

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Business profit or diverse food systems?
by Right to Food and Nutrition, FIAN, GRAIN, agencies
In West Africa, more than 80% of the seed used by peasant communities stems from traditional species and varieties, and are selected, saved, used and exchanged according to customary practices. Despite guaranteeing diverse food systems and rural people’s rights, these traditional seed systems are under attack, as governments, corporations and development agencies proactively promote commercial seeds and intellectual property rights.
A new report launched today by the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition and the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles – West Africa describes the mechanisms behind a forced transformation towards farming and food systems that serve the interests of business. Based on discussions with more than 400 peasants in Burkina Faso, the report shows the profound implications for the lives of peasant communities of the introduction of commercial seeds. These range from the loss of peasant varieties, over more external input-dependent farming models, to less diverse diets.
Commercial seeds, leading to dependency
“Peasant seed systems are based on communities’ knowledge as well as on species and varieties, which they have selected and constantly adapted to the environment over centuries,” says Rosalie Ouoba of the Burkina Faso Platform of the Global Convergence of Land and Water Struggles – West Africa. “For peasant communities, seeds are more than a ‘genetic material,’ but a part of the web of relationships that they entertain with nature. Some communities that were interviewed described seeds as the ‘soul of the peasant’.
Women, and elderly women in particular, play a crucial role in the conservation and selection of traditional varieties.” Because of their adaptability, peasant seeds are also a key element for communities’ responses to climate change, as rain patterns in the region become more irregular.
While peasant seed systems ensure peasants’ control over the entire cycle of seed production and use and, consequently, gives them a large measure of autonomy and independence, the commercial system engenders a need to buy seeds and inputs. This, combined with legal and/or technological restrictions on seed saving and use, mires the peasants in increasing dependency. In addition, peasants maintain an enormous diversity of species and varieties through their seed systems, which is the basis of rich and diverse food and nutrition.
Corporations are “dividing the pie”
The spectacular failure of GMO cotton in Burkina Faso sheds a light on the consequences of a production system that is dominated by some few companies and transforms peasant communities into passive recipients of seeds and agrochemicals, while their farming activities are restricted by exclusive, patent-protected rights. “The introduction of GMO cotton exacerbated the debt-cycle in which cotton growers find themselves at the bottom of a transnational value chain.
Their complete dependency on the national cotton companies and the agribusiness TNC Monsanto, let them no choice but to grow GMOs using the chemical package that is sold by the very same companies,” underlines FIAN International’s Natural Resources coordinator, Philip Seufert. Until today, no independent assessment has been made about the consequences of eight years of GMO cultivation.
“Peasants’ rights to seeds are guaranteed by international law, including the human rights framework and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,” Seufert continues. “However, these rights are not being implemented and states have focused their efforts in harnessing the intellectual property regime, which limits peasant’s access to and use of seeds,” he adds.
Indeed, human rights obligations require states to recognize, protect and support peasant seed systems, preserve biodiversity and effectively protect people from the risks of biotechnology. However, current laws in West Africa leave the status of peasant seeds and their management in a grey-zone, which exposes them to biopiracy and confines them into so-called “informal” seed systems. At the same time, national and subregional policies promote the industrial production of commercial seeds and the establishment of a commercial seed sector.
Against these trends, social movements and peasants’ organizations are mobilizing to protect their seeds and advance their rights, through laws and policies that are based on agroecology and the right to food. Processes like the one towards a UN Declaration on the Right of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas or the development of guidelines for the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), provide important entry points. West Africa’s diversity of species and varieties is a treasure, which was developed and is kept by the region’s peasant communities, and whose importance stretches to all of humanity.

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