Publication Date June 14, 2017

FACT FILE: Climate change, food security, and adaptation

Photo: Maria Olsen, EC, ECHO

Author's Note

This is the third in a series of four fact files that is part of a special project exploring the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe

How does climate change affect food security?

One of the key effects of climate change is that extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, and rainfall variations become more frequent and more severe. Rising sea levels linked to climate change cause coastal erosion and loss of arable land. Rising temperatures encourage the proliferation of weeds and pests and threaten the viability of fisheries.

All this has a direct impact on agricultural production, on which the food security of most people in developing nations primarily depends. This is because agriculture in these countries is almost entirely rain-fed, and so when rains fail, or fall at the wrong time, or major storms strike, entire crops can be ruined, key infrastructure damaged or destroyed, and community assets lost. Consequently, climate change is widely seen as the greatest threat facing the estimated 500 million smallholder farmers around the world.

According to the WFP, “Changes in climatic conditions have already affected the production of some staple crops, and future climate change threatens to exacerbate this. Higher temperatures will have an impact on yields while changes in rainfall could affect both crop quality and quantity.”

Rising grain prices and falling yields hit the world’s poorest people hardest, as they spend most of their income on food. In the long term, climate change could “create a vicious cycle of disease and hunger”, WFP warns.

By 2050, child malnutrition is expected to increase by 20 percent relative to a world with no climate change.

Why is agriculture in Africa especially vulnerable?

Smallholder farmers account for some 80 percent of food production in sub-Saharan Africa. With only a tiny proportion of farmland under irrigation, and reliable water sources becoming scarcer, most crops depend on rainfall, which climate change is making increasingly erratic and unpredictable.

Farming in Africa is often done in marginal areas – such as flood plains, deserts, and hillsides – where ever more frequent weather shocks cause severe damage to soil and crops. While there have always been variations in climate, the current pace and intensity of these changes mean that traditional methods of adapting to changes in weather patterns are no longer sufficient.

The millions who raise livestock in more arid areas of Africa are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, as the current drought affecting Somalia and Kenya demonstrates.