Food Insecurity Heats Up With Rising Temperatures

Afshin Molavi

Image courtesy of Fayez Nureldine / AFP

To understand the globalized nature of our food system, look no further than your morning cup of coffee. That jolt of caffeine comes to your table via an elaborate network of some 25 million coffee farmers from Brazil to Vietnam linked to the world by a far-flung supply chain of traders, roasters, financiers, shippers, grocery stores, cafes, and, eventually, to your cup.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after crude oil, and it comprises a $466 billion industry, landing at your table in no small part due to the fossil fuels that power the ships and create the packaging. Coffee is globalization in a mug.

But coffee is not alone. Our food system comprises a world of ever connecting supply webs crisscrossing seas and continents, bringing Mediterranean olive oil and California almonds, Ukrainian wheat and Indian rice, and West African cocoa and Brazilian soybeans to markets worldwide. Our ecosystem of food is relentlessly global, creating an abundance the likes we have never seen before in human history.

That same abundance fueled by globalization has a flip side: Sudden disruptions can wreak havoc, leading to food insecurity and mass hunger. We’ve experienced three major disruptive events in the past two and a half years: the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and, more recently, ongoing droughts and historic heat waves from the US West Coast to Europe and China.

The latter problem, driven by rising temperatures, could prove to be the most disruptive over the long term. Consider the havoc in Europe today. Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy have all recently suffered historic heat waves and some of the worst droughts on record dating back five centuries. This one–two punch of heat and drought has lowered river levels, withered crops, taxed electricity grids, and slowed manufacturing.

Lower river levels has meant less hydropower. Diminishing hydropower capabilities have come at a very challenging time for Europe’s energy infrastructure given the meteoric rise in natural gas prices. Germany is using more coal – the most polluting fossil fuel – to get by. However, lower river levels have even complicated coal usage: Ships that carry the coal on the Rhine River are paralyzed.

European governments have deeper buffers and stronger supply chain safeguards than most countries worldwide. While the current disruptions will be painful, we will not see mass levels of food insecurity or hunger. Not so for the Horn of Africa. The most extreme drought in four decades has left some 18 million people across Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia struggling to find enough food to eat, and tens of millions face varying levels of food insecurity. We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, driven in part by the exogenous shocks to our food system over the past two and a half years. The Horn of Africa is a vivid example of the climate-food nexus.

As for the Middle East and North Africa region, the World Food Program of the United Nations has issued a stark warning: A major crisis is growing across the region with 73 million people across 14 countries lacking access to sufficient food supplies. While some of the worst-hit countries are plagued by factors beyond climate, such as war, mismanagement or corruption, the climate-food nexus will play a prominent role in the region’s future.

A recent IMF report noted that climate disasters displace 7 million people a year across the Middle East and Central Asia. On average, climate disasters also lead to 2,600 deaths and $2 billion in damage annually. These IMF numbers only tell the story of disastrous events. They fail to capture the long-term health effects of everyday air pollution or bouts of inadequate food consumption for children.

Further exacerbating the problem, the MENA region is the most water-scarce  region in the world, according to the Population Reference Bureau. As PRB notes, the region is home to only 1.4 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water despite hosting some 6.3 percent of the world’s population. Demographic pressures on the water supply are set to persist over the next two decades.

Droughts have also hit China. Several Chinese provinces have experienced the worst dry spells in more than six decades. This has slowed manufacturing, disrupted supply chains, and dented Chinese demand. China has been a major demand engine for Arabian Gulf oil and gas over the past two decades. Any signs of faltering demand can weaken oil prices.

Extreme weather volatility should now be considered the norm, not an outlier. Our food systems should not be surprised by such volatility. The climate-foodnexus needs better safeguards. As the next two global climate gatherings are scheduled to take place in the MENA region – in Egypt in 2022 and the UAE in 2023 – the climate-food nexus should be at the top of the agenda.

This is about more than just a rising price for your morning latte. For many in the world, the climate-food nexus is about life or death.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the Emerging World newsletter. Twitter: @AfshinMolavi