March 30, 2016 | By

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Food System Resilience in the Face of a Changing Climate

On March 2, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new campaign, “Growing Food for Growing Cities,” to explore the challenges posed to global food security by urbanization and the opportunities it creates for small-scale farmers to connect with burgeoning urban markets. We will publish one blog post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live stream on April 26.
The impact of climate change on global food security cannot be overstated. With 2015 the hottest year on record, and 2016 following suit, sea level rise, drought, flooding, and changing patterns of disease abound. As these types of disasters continue, researchers estimate that 500,000 people could die every year as climate change alters our dietary intake—specifically, as a result of losses to fruit and vegetable availability. As such, the global food system must evolve to resist shocks to agricultural production due to adverse weather patterns, or risk the food insecurity of billions.


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Devastation in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
Climate change disproportionately affects developing regions. In rural areas, a changing climate has the potential to decimate water availability and agricultural production in the short and long term, affecting rural incomes and food security. The rural poor will bear the brunt of these impacts, specifically female-headed households and others with limited access to land and modern agricultural inputs. Diminished agricultural production will also impact urban dwellers in the form of food shortages and price spikes. Additionally, the large percentage of urban residents in developing countries that crowd into slums and other informal settlements will be exposed to increasingly harsh weather conditions and new disease burdens as a result of climate change, putting their health and safety at risk.
Sub-Saharan Africa is already experiencing the near-term impacts of climate change. Much of Southern Africa is currently in crisis, as last year’s El Niño contributed to one of the driest rainfalls experienced by the continent in thirty-five years—2.5 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance to restore food security, but unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. In a region highly dependent on agriculture for food, income, and employment, the average temperature is rising above the necessary level for optimal wheat production. And, drought and aridity could result in the loss of 40-80 percent of cropland devoted to maize, millet, and sorghum production within 20 years. The loss of these staple crops, which many people rely on for subsistence, poses serious risks to food security across the continent.
In South and Southeast Asia, the short-term impacts of climate change have materialized in the form of tropical cyclones and temperature extremes, which cause drought or flooding and damage to agricultural infrastructure and production. Southeast Asia in particular is beginning to experience problems associated with the long-term effects of climate change: sea level rise, ocean warming, and increasing acidification that cause salinity intrusion, crop inundation, and declines in fish stocks. Rising sea levels in the Mekong Delta, which contributes significantly to Vietnam’s rice exports, could result in a loss of 12 percent of rice production by 2040—a loss that will have severe implications for rural livelihoods.   
The supply chains of developing countries must insulate themselves from the damaging impacts of climate change on agricultural production and food security. Not only must they develop the capacity to source from diverse regions—to reach areas that are still producing a certain crop that others cannot, as a result of changing agroecologies, for example—but they must also adopt production innovations designed to resist, and even reverse, the effects of climate change.
Production Resilience
A number of technologies can help agricultural production adapt to a changing climate. In development are a number of drought-, heat-, salt- and flood-tolerant varieties of many crops; a notable version is a new breed of bean able to thrive in increasingly high temperatures. Not only is the bean heat-tolerant, but the new breed has a higher iron content than original varieties.
Additionally, techniques such as intercropping—the planting of multiple crops on the same plot—don’t require access to expensive technologies, and can help farmers to retain yields despite adverse weather conditions. In Uganda, for example, intercropping coffee and bananas has increased farmer incomes by 50 percent. Shade from the banana trees protects the coffee plants from extreme heat, and the trees’ root systems prevent soil erosion and replenish soil carbon stocks.
As always, the question here is whether or not these life-altering technologies will be made accessible to small-scale producers through investment and development programming. And, many of them involve genetic modification—a technique that continues to face apprehension in public discourse. The Zimbabwean government has gone so far as to ban the import of any genetically modified foods at a time when 16 percent of its population is in need of food aid. However, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Food Safety Agency, and a number of other scientific bodies have all concluded that the consumption of genetically-engineered foods does not pose a safety risk. The threat of climate change is urgent and demands immediate action—small farmers across the developing world need climate-resistant technologies to protect their production from extreme weather events, and they must be made available both under law and in practice.  
Agricultural Innovation to Mitigate Climate Change
Moreover, agriculture currently contributes 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant target of efforts to reduce the global carbon footprint. The good news? Not only can innovations help agricultural production adapt to a changing climate, but the adoption of improved technologies and practices can reduce greenhouse gases from the atmosphere safely and cost-effectively while accelerating agricultural productivity. 
A soybean plant designed by NASA, for example, produces greater yields with less water than can normal varieties, and the plant can help to offset emissions. Scientists found that by varying the arrangement of leaves on the plant, they could alter bean production as well as the amount of light that the plant reflected back into space.
Additionally, agricultural companies can better manage their emissions with tools like the Agricultural Guidance—a new framework to help companies identify their livestock, crop production, and land use change emissions. This tool is the first to set standards for agricultural emissions to help distinguish between man-made effects from natural ones. With better data, companies can identify emissions reduction opportunities, improve farm productivity, and reduce the cost of farm inputs.
If supply chains do not build resilience to climate change and accompanying resource scarcity, global food production could falter, alongside rural incomes and food security. However, through the widespread distribution of new technologies and training, the international community can help to insulate small-scale farmers and urban consumers alike from the production disruptions brought on by climate change. If we are able to harness these technologies at scale, we can not only strengthen global production possibilities, but we may also begin to tackle and reverse climate change. 

Read previous posts in the "Growing Food for Growing Cities" blog series: 

Delivering Good Nutrition 

Food System Development to Improve Food Security

Urbanization Is an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers 

Food Security in an Urbanizing World


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.