Food Security in a Changing Climate

Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo
In 2011, drought and famine caused thousands of Somalis to flee their country for camps in Dollo Ado, across the border in Ethiopia. Here, Somali refugee children share a meal inside a tent in Dollo Ado.

By 2080 the effects of climate change—on heat waves, floods, sea level rise, and drought—could push an additional 600 million people into malnutrition and increase the number of people facing water scarcity by 1.8 billion.1 The precise impacts will, however, strongly depend on socioeconomic conditions such as local markets and food import dependence. In the near term, two factors are also changing the nature of food security: (1) rapid urbanization, with the proportion of the global population living in urban areas expanding from 13 percent in 1975 to greater than 50 percent at present, and (2) trade and domestic market liberalization since 1993, which has promoted removal of import controls, deregulation of prices, and the loss of preferential markets for many small economies.

Over the last two years, the worst drought in decades has devastated eastern Africa. The resulting food-security crisis has affected roughly 13 million people and has reminded us that there is still a long way to go in addressing current climate-related risks. In the face of such profound changes and uncertainties, our approaches to food security must evolve. In this article, we describe four key elements that, in our view, will be essential to the success of efforts to address the linked challenges of food security and climate change.

Improving Social Protection at the Local Level

The resilience of our food systems is determined by the evolving decisions and actions of people at all levels.2 Social protection, which includes efforts to transfer income or assets to the poor, mitigate livelihood risks, and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalized, has become a key policy response to poverty and vulnerability in rural areas. One form of protection, social insurance, is discussed below. Others include labor market interventions, such as minimum wage legislation and community-based or informal social protection, including social safety nets and coping strategies sustained at the community level. There are some encouraging success stories. Extremely food-insecure mountain farmers in remote areas of Nepal, for example, have developed regular inter-communal food exchanges by means of village-based feasts. During these events, groups of women provide food to the most food-insecure village groups, particularly children, elderly women, and chronically sick villagers. Communities around the world practice similar social protection interventions. Identifying and supporting these innovative approaches will be critical to international and national efforts to improve food security.

Sustaining Ecosystem Services


Levy/UN Photo
A shepherd, with his cattle, in Abba Antonios, Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, where drought and other climate-related disasters can have serious effects on agriculture and herding, the Horn of Africa Risk Transfer for Adaptation project is making low-cost insurance available to farmers.

Ecosystems directly and indirectly support food security through critical services, such as maintaining agricultural productivity (e.g., through soil and water quality, pollination, and forest products); income generation; and protection from environmental disasters (e.g., through natural flood control and storm protection). As climate change puts increasing pressure on our agricultural systems, our attempts to compensate will likely have profound environmental costs, including changes in biodiversity; water quality deterioration due to increased use of fertilizers and pesticides; waterlogging, salinization, and water scarcity due to changes in irrigation; and land degradation from increased use of less suitable agricultural land. These changes will further degrade ecosystem services, possibly irreversibly. Conversely, investing in ecosystem services could result in greater genetic diversity and supplemental food sources, enhanced water availability, and a reduction in the loss of farmland through degradation. Farmers in Burkina Faso, for example, rehabilitated over 200,000 hectares of degraded land following the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s in part by improving soil and water conservation through agroforestry. Their efforts raised water tables, extended farm areas, and intensified production.3

Weather-Indexed Crop Insurance

In the coming years, crop insurance will likely play a greater role in the developing world in absorbing shocks as climate change–related disasters become increasingly problematic for agricultural production. The Horn of Africa Risk Transfer for Adaptation (HARITA) project in Ethiopia provides a promising model. Oxfam America developed this risk management framework to enable poor farmers in Ethiopia to strengthen their food and income security through a combination of improved resource management (risk reduction), microcredit (“smart” risk taking), risk transfer (insurance), and risk reserves (savings).4 The HARITA project was initiated in 2007 and brings together Ethiopian farmers, local insurers and international re-insurers, relief societies, credit and savings institutions, local government agencies, and a local agricultural research organization. The project enables Ethiopia’s poorest farmers to pay for insurance with their own labor. The governments of Malawi and India have also initiated pilot projects with national smallholder farmers’ associations that have pioneered rainfall insurance schemes to ensure payouts when rain falls below a crop-specific rainfall index. Such risk-pooling efforts, where premiums are low since they are collected only to insure immediate livelihood recovery rather than full asset losses, are also being tested at the regional scale in the Caribbean. Despite these advances, the expansion of weather-indexed crop insurance faces key challenges, especially when it targets farmers engaged in noncommercial, marginal agriculture.

Early Warning Information Systems

The impacts of climate change will be most strongly felt by resource-insecure populations who are more vulnerable to changes in the distribution and magnitude of extreme weather events, as these affect crops, disease outbreaks, and soil and water quality. The use of climate data analyses and projections in early warning and information systems is an important and established mechanism to inform proactive risk mitigation and reduce the likelihood of a hazard becoming a disaster.5 An early warning information system involves much more than developing and disseminating a forecast. As employed in the national security arena, such a system entails the ongoing and systematic collection, analysis, and communication of information about impending risk. These systems (1) provide capabilities for generating specific risk assessments and scenarios, (2) inform the development of strategic responses to anticipate the evolution of crisis conditions, and (3) effectively communicate options to critical actors for the purposes of risk management. Early warning information systems support poverty reduction by helping to avert or alleviate food security shocks and by providing entry-points for longer lasting interventions.


Stuart Price/UN Photo
A woman and her young baby queue for food at the Badbado camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Somalia. In July 2011, the UN officially declared famine in two regions of Somalia, the first time a famine has been declared by the UN in almost 30 years.

The USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), for instance, integrates seasonal climate forecasts into three- and six-month food security outlooks, and it has developed ten- to 20-year climate projections for food-insecure regions of Africa. FEWS NET has also created livelihood zone maps, profiles, and baselines for some of the most food insecure countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. These maps and profiles describe areas in terms of food production, income generation, and market opportunities, and they make distinctions between different wealth groups and their respective coping capacities for dealing with shocks, including drought. These are valuable tools that could help countries develop adaptation strategies to cope with the predicted increases in drought frequency, duration, and severity.


Climate change, urbanization, and global trade will change the face of food security. To improve risk reduction efforts and responses to food crises, we need to first understand the vulnerabilities and governance contexts in which food security systems are embedded.6,7 Unfortunately, this understanding has been sorely lacking in many current efforts to promote food security, making it far more difficult to coordinate action among international, national, NGO, and community-based groups.5 It is our contention that attempts to improve this coordination, manage risk, and ensure food security should focus on strengthening local social protection measures, sustaining ecosystem services, and supporting early warning information systems and financial risk-pooling. These efforts can help ensure that food systems at every level are more resilient to future climate variability and change.