IIED 'Critical Theme' seminar: Climate change and food security

Critical theme
The head of the Food Systems Programme at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) looked at the links between environmental change and food security at an IIED seminar.
Dr John Ingram speaking on food security at IIED (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

Dr John Ingram discussed the complex interactions between human activities related to food and nutrition and the environment.  Ingram said that food system activities, such as producing, processing and distributing food, were affecting the environment. At the same time, half the global population was under- or mal-nourished.

It was important for governments and policy institutions to take action to ensure future food and nutrition security for the most vulnerable. While environmental change could bring increased challenges in the future, there was a need to repair some systemic failures in food systems now.

Ingram described the concept of 'planetary boundaries' – the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the earth's biophysical systems. He said that as planetary boundaries are crossed, there is a danger that important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state. Such shifts could have damaging consequences, including a dramatic impact on food security, food safety and nutrition.

Ingram said three planetary boundaries had already been crossed: biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle and climate change. Food system activities contributed to crossing the planetary boundaries, especially through biodiversity loss, disrupting biogeochemical cycles and degradation of fresh water resources.

You can see the slides from Ingram's presentation below. They are also available on IIED's SlideShare site.

IIED provided live coverage of the meeting and the following discussion and we published a round-up via Storify.

The University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) hosts the Food Systems Research and Training Programme with the aim of increasing understanding of the interactions between food security and environmental change.

In his presentation, Ingram described ECI's recent study of four extreme weather events and their impact on food security. The study looked the 2010 heat wave in Russia, the 2010 flooding in Pakistan, the 2010-11 drought in East Africa, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. The research, funded by Oxfam, showed that the extreme weather played an important role in the destabilisation of both short-term and long-term food security.

The extreme weather events led directly to significantly higher food prices, affecting poor people most. Extreme weather also impacted food storage, food safety and distribution networks, affecting many more people than farmers. He said that in most cases, the impacts left citizens vulnerable and authorities unprepared.

Preparing for the future

Ingram warned that extreme temperature and rainfall events look likely to increase globally over coming decades, resulting in even greater impacts on the vulnerable groups. The study, which was entitled 'A sign of things to come?', found that governance had a key role to play in maintaining future food security: it found that the weakness or strength of governance at various levels could intensify or mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events.

The report called on governments and policy institutions to:

  • Set up emergency preparedness programmes
  • Encourage their citizens to subscribe to insurance schemes
  • Create funds to help restore livelihoods following extreme weather events, and
  • Work with neighbouring countries on regional warning measures and emergency responses.

About the Critical Theme series

IIED's Critical Theme meetings feature a wide range of speakers and topics. In October 2014, Peter Jones, senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at University College London, discussed the Governance of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  Previous events have looked at the work of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) in reducing urban povertythe relationship between financial systems and the green economy and the importance of importance of meaningful stakeholder reporting.