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Climate Change Is Hampering Our Ability To Combat World Hunger

This World Food Day, we must make peace with nature.

Pictures: Sarah Dorweiler

The announcement that the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize came amid growing pessimism that the world is growing hungrier each year. With ten years to go until 2030, the year the United Nations has set as the target to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), we are now off track to achieve them. The SDG target of zero hunger by that date is no longer within reach.

As the news of the Nobel Prize spread across the globe, just one week before World Food Day, the award was a signal that the Oslo Nobel oracles were also concerned about the downward trajectory of food security. The decades-long-decline in hunger in the world was one of the great achievements of progress — the world’s ability to grow enough food to feed billions of people. The Green Revolution transformed wide swaths of Asia, Africa, and Latin America and lifted millions out of poverty. Today the data shows that since 2014, world hunger has grown.

By calling attention to the work of the World Food Program in this year of the plague, was the Nobel Committee sending a message to the world about the increasing impact of changes in climate, and conflicts, on the sustainability of our planet?

Even at a time when the United States has discarded its commitment to multilateralism, David Beasley, the WFP’s Executive Director, has moved the ball forward as he sounds the alarm about ongoing famines that require support that only a United Nations agency can provide. Under his leadership, and the dedication of a staff of more than 17,000 workers of which 90% reside in countries across the globe, he has taken the mission of the United Nations organization as a call for action. He has spoken out about the millions of people caught in a tangle of war, poor harvests due to drought, and now the consequences of a health crisis. This year WFP has fed more than 97 million people in 88 countries.

By calling attention to the work of the World Food Program in this year of the plague, was the Nobel Committee sending a message to the world about the increasing impact of changes in climate, and conflicts, on the sustainability of our planet?

Consider these facts, from the March report of the World Food Program’s annual assessment, The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World 2020.

// Nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9% of the world’s population — up by 10 million in one year, and up by nearly 60 million in five years.

// Nearly 750 million — one in ten people in the world — were exposed to food insecurity.

// The majority of the hungry live in eight countries wracked by conflict — 489 million people

// COVID-19 may add between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020 depending on the economic growth scenarios.


This year, as we observe World Food Day, can we really address the challenge of eradicating global hunger without considering how climate change, the looming existential threat to life in this century, is affecting the ability to feed the planet?

Four years ago, at the EAT Forum in Stockholm, Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson observed that unless we “make peace with nature,” we will never be able to solve the problems of global hunger. He forced a community of food experts to consider the nexus of a sustainable food supply with the ongoing threat of climate change, something that is all too often missing from these conversations.  His remarks were a first call to action.

Today, without a global effort we will certainly lose the battle for survival.

The United States and China, the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, have taken irresponsible positions regarding ways to keep the earth’s temperature stable. At the United Nation’s 75th General Assembly last month, United States President Donald Trump said that the climate problem was “overrated.”  Last year the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, the most important global targeting mechanism that commits nations to reducing their carbon emissions. China, while pledging to have a carbon neutral economy by 2060, will continue to burn coal for years to support its industrial economy. If we add on the climate change denier, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro (the nation that includes most of the Amazon rain forest, the world’s most important carbon removal ecosystem) there is little hope for trying to ensure that our planet’s natural life is not destroyed by the end of the 21st century.


So, what can citizens do on this World Food Day to create a global grassroots movement that puts the planet on a more hopeful trajectory to address hunger and the continued warming of the earth?

First, we must organize our youth who are individually very much aware of the connections between agricultural production and climate. The young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, has inspired a generation to call out their governments and their local communities to impose changes in the way they manage food waste and generate energy that does not pollute the atmosphere.

Second, mobilization requires the private sector to operate its own campaigns to use their businesses for good. There are so many multinational companies that are signing on to agreements to address their carbon footprints, but this movement must now also be duplicated in both small and medium size enterprises. A new United States initiative, 10x20x30 brings together 10 major retailers to pledge to enlist 20 suppliers to commit to meeting the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goal to cut food waste by half.

Third, the technology sector, which has created a remarkable array of options for generating energy that will not emit carbon, must now insist that these options for wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy generation be made available at low cost to countries at risk of falling further behind in the feeding needs of their populations.

Fourth, there must be financial incentives that both sovereign lenders and international financial institutions provide to those countries at the greatest risk, especially small island states where rising sea levels threaten their very existence.  Transition to new technologies will require a plan and a tax on carbon that is essential to help fund energy sector modernization.

Fifth, the fossil fuel production companies that talk a good line about transitioning to renewable energy are still focused on further extraction of oil. The United States and Saudi Arabia, the two largest oil producers, could better serve the global community if there was an agreement reached about a strategy to make this transition. Citizen mobilization must play a major role in redirecting investment dollars conditioned on a clean energy transition.

Sixth, the global food growing companies can become a positive force in each of the countries where they operate. Decentralizing agriculture that still allows them to produce what the world needs to eat, while also creating mechanisms to give farmers in the most remote parts of the world a way to reach markets. Big corporations have the logistical capacity to help governments develop these types of decentralized approaches to their agricultural policies.

Finally, food waste must be managed as a global problem rather than using a piecemeal approach to reducing carbon emissions. This coordinated action, with citizens and businesses working with governments, can connect global hunger with climate change.  According to Project Drawdown, if landfills were a country, they would be the third largest emitters of greenhouse gases, coming only after China and the United States. A global approach to landfills, while not easy to implement, could also help focus attention on food waste and create an enduring solution to one of the greatest offenders to the environment.

This World Food Day people around the globe have a chance to address how their own impact on the planet must be factored into the threats we all face. The United Nations, together with the leadership of the World Food Program, can help member states adopt what United Nations expert Stewart Patrick calls a responsibility to protect the earth.

We have reached a stage where ignoring the problems of global hunger, without considering its impact on climate is no longer an option.

We must make peace with nature.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. and an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service where she teaches ConflictCuisine.

Johanna Mendelson Forman

Editorial Board Member

With more than two decades of experience in the international arena, working on post-conflict transition and democratization issues, Johanna Mendelson Forman holds a wealth of expertise and insights into the role of food in driving conflict and connecting people and communities. An Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service where she teaches "Conflict Cuisine®: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table," Mendelson Forman encourages new ways of looking at diplomacy, conflict resolution, and civic engagement. She is also a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center where she directs the Food Security program.


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