April 1, 2015 | By

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Climate Change Puts Global Nutrition at Risk


The Chicago Council’s campaign, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World,” builds awareness about the important role food can play in promoting health and alleviating malnutrition. We publish a blog post weekly exploring these issues and the series will culminate in the release of a new Chicago Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015 on April 16. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live steam on April 16.

By Louise Iverson, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
With 2.5 billion smallholder farmers worldwide who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and their nutritional intake, a changing climate will put the food security of people around the world at risk, particularly given that 805 million people worldwide—many of them smallholder farmers – remain chronically undernourished. As we seek to improve global nutrition, climate change adaptation and resilience, particularly among smallholder farmers in developing countries, will be crucial.

Climate change affects the global food supply. A changing climate will affect agricultural production- agricultural yields will become more variable, and optimal growing regions will change for many crops. Scientists predict that climate change could slow the growth in global food production by two percent per decade for the rest of the century, which, given that demand for food is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2050, will put significant strain on the global food supply. Consequences are likely to be the greatest for the agriculture-dependent populations in poor countries that are already struggling with high levels of food insecurity.
Climate change may also reduce the nutritional value of our food: Recent findings have shown that climate change could also reduce the nutrients in certain crops. In 2014, researchers found that higher CO2 levels led to decreased levels of iron, zinc, and protein in wheat, rice, and soy crops. Wheat in particular suffered the greatest effects, with nearly 10 percent less zinc and 5 percent less iron. With over 2.4 billion people in the world who depend on staple crops like wheat and rice for their zinc and iron supplies, these findings suggest that as global CO2 levels rise, increasing numbers of people globally will face greater risk of micronutrient deficiencies that result in poor health.
Climate change introduces pathogens, pests, and diseases to new areas that were previously unexposed: As temperatures increase, pests and plant diseases such as wheat rust are moving into new regions, and blighting crops in places that were previously too cold to be affected. And in 2012, European scientists reported that the viability of pathogens like listeria and salmonella increased with higher temperatures. Similarly, the World Health Organization has warned that “a warmer and more variable climate threatens to lead to […] increased transmission of disease through unclean water and through contaminated food.”
Smallholder farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change will be critical to ensuring food and nutrition security. Numerous efforts are already underway around the world to assist them. For example, Unilever is working with smallholder farmers to reduce their vulnerability to climate change, such as management of water resources and choosing the best crop varieties and production techniques. USAID’s Feed the Future initiative includes a Climate-Smart Development component to help governments and farmers assess their vulnerability and sustainably intensify their production. In September 2014, the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture launched at the UN Climate Summit, which will help governments, farmers, scientists, businesses, and civil society adjust their agricultural practices and social policies to better account for climate change and natural resource protection.  Current members include the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and other governments, as well as NGOs, universities, and other stakeholders. 
New innovation and technology can be particularly effective in ensuring that smallholder farmers have relevant information, such as weather data and early warning systems. For example, Tigo Kilimo gives farmers free weather information, with corresponding agronomy tips, via text message in Tanzania.
Around the world, smallholder farmers are already beginning to embrace climate-resilient farming methods and technologies. When smallholder farmers have the information, technology, and training to adapt to climate change and adopt climate- resilient techniques, they will be better able to continue producing nutritious foods for themselves and their communities, helping to ensure that global nutrition continues to improve, even in the face of threats from climate change.

Read previous posts in the Healthy Food for a Healthy World blog series: 

The Role of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene in Improving Nutrition

Leveraging the Digital Revolution to Improve Nutrition

Hungry Cities on the Rise

Women as the Force for Improving Global Nutrition

Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients

Food as Medicine—The Link Between Nutrition and Health

The $2 Trillion Market for Fruits and Vegetables

Economic Costs of Global Malnutrition


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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