As the war in Ukraine continues, there has been a serious disruption of supply chains in the global food trade. Wheat export from Ukraine has been affected, especially by the sea route but also by land and rail. Since Ukraine is among world’s leading exporters of wheat, global food security is threatened. Russia, the world’s leading wheat exporter, has been sanctioned.
With the world facing a food crisis, India offered to step up its wheat exports to partly fill this void. As India is the second-largest producer of wheat, this held out hope to countries in Asia and Middle East. However, the severe summer heat this year affected wheat production and also diminished grain size. So, a kilogram of wheat would produce less flour than in the past years. Indian government imposed a ban on exports in May this year, to avert domestic shortages.
This led to criticism from some foreign governments and international agencies. While such a reaction is instinctive during a global crisis, critics must recognise that India’s agriculture is the victim of climate change which resulted mainly from their own actions and emissions over several decades. While all available resources must be mobilised to address global food inequities, environmental degradation will cast an even darker and longer shadow on global food security.
Climate change, which is propelling global warming to higher temperatures each year, will affect agricultural production through heat stress and water stress. Both staples and non-staples will be affected. In India, wheat and rice are already being grown at the highest level of heat tolerance. It has been estimated that each 1oC rise in temperature, in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, will result in 10% loss of yield of these staples.
With rise in temperatures and increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, crop quality will be affected too. Rice and wheat will have reduced levels of zinc, protein and iron. It has been estimated, by scientists at the Columbia University, that India would have 49.6 million new zinc deficient persons by 2050 due to climate change. There would be 38.2 million new protein deficient persons, while 106.1 million children and 396 million women would be iron deficient.
With rising temperatures, non-staples will suffer too. Fruit and vegetables will ripen early and rot soon in the heat. As water temperatures rise, aquaculture will suffer and marine fishing will have lower yield. With rising sea levels, coastal flooding will inundate agricultural fields and infuse salinity. In India and Bangladesh, which share the Sundarbans, each year’s flooding destroys a quantity of rice which can feed 30 million people.
Wildfires, consuming forests and agricultural land, will also become more common with climate change. Water scarcity, with shrinking reservoirs, will lead to droughts. In North America, patterns of crop cultivation are changing. There is a northward shift in the cultivation of corn towards southern Canada, while farms in Kansas and Oklahoma are having less water for agriculture. In any given year, half the world’s population has extreme water scarcity. Around 54% of India presently experiences high to extremely high water stress. These challenges will worsen with climate change. Crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to drop by 22% for cassava and 8% for maize, as climate changes. Animals too are reported to be growing to a smaller size in Africa. With climate change, pests that destroy crops will proliferate.
Peter Sands, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), recently warned that growing global food shortages pose the same health threat to the world as Covid-19. In reality, it may pose a graver threat since the impact of climate-related food shortages will be felt over several decades. Over the coming decades, global demand for food will increase due to a rise in population, expanding urbanisation and a rise in average incomes. At the same food production will decrease due to less land becoming available for agriculture and the adverse effects of climate change (principally heat stress and water stress).
We need to act with collective global resolve, to mitigate global warming. Recent reports warn that the world is perilously close to crossing the 1.5oC limit, on rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels, in this decade itself. We need global will to speed up our journey to a carbon neutral future. We also must pursue intelligent strategies of adaptation, to reduce the impact of climate change on food systems. We need to grow more climate resilient nutrient rich crops, which can withstand heat and water stress better.
We also need climate-smart agricultural practices, discarding those that are detrimental to nature. We need to grow nutrient-rich crops, rather than killer crops like tobacco which consume large amounts of water, pesticides and fertile land. Other water -guzzlers that also demand high levels fertiliser must yield to crops that provide higher levels of nutrition per unit investment of land, water and energy. Quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum and chickpea are among the crops that are highly resilient to extreme weather conditions. They are good for nutrition too!
(The author, a cardiologist and epidemiologist, is president, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). Views are personal)