Advancing Food Security in a Changing Climate

March 15, 2011

  • Agricultural production needs to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a world population of 9 billion.
  • In the next 40 years, agricultural land will be lost to urbanization, desertification, sea level rise and increasingly salty water.
  • Bangladesh, Kenya eye climate-smart farming practices.

In November 2007, powerful Cyclone Sidr claimed the lives of thousands of people in Bangladesh and wiped out a lot of the country's rice crop. A year later, Bangladesh became the first country to put together a multibillion dollar strategy on climate change, including a plan to boost agricultural production and food security in anticipation of more adverse weather.

“If one country is aware and taking action, it's Bangladesh,” says Maria Sarraf, a senior environmental economist for the World Bank's South Asia region. “While other countries are projecting climate change, Bangladesh has already suffered from it.”

Like Bangladesh, the majority of developing countries have economies grounded in agriculture. Globally, 75% of poor people live in rural areas and most depend on agriculture for their living. For this reason, agriculturally-based economic growth is two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. But, investment in agriculture and rural development has fallen short in the last several decades, and much more is needed to meet the needs of the future.

Experts predict agricultural production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a population of some 9 billion people.

And climate models predict a much more uncertain climate in the next several decades. A new study by the Foresight Project, The Future of Food and Farming, warns that in the next 40 years, agricultural land will be lost to urbanization, desertification, sea level rise and increasingly salty water in which few crops can grow.

Extreme weather events are also likely to become more severe and more frequent, and result in more volatile food production and prices, the study says.

Bad Weather = Higher Food Prices

Already, bad weather helped create a food crisis in 2008, and has driven up prices over the last year after major grain producers suffered droughts, excess rain and flooding. The World Bank food price index has risen almost 30% in the last year, and some 44 million people have fallen below the poverty line as a result of rising prices, according to the World Bank's Food Price Watch.

Almost 1 billion people are going to bed hungry,” says World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “We need collective action to boost agricultural production and productivity and also efforts to improve distribution networks, so people have food security by getting access to the food they need.”

While not necessarily signaling climate change, recent weather shocks are consistent with what would be expected from climate change – and this has significant implications for future food security, says World Bank Special Envoy on Climate Change Andrew Steer.

The Foresight study predicts climate change will affect crop growth, livestock, water, fisheries, aquaculture yields and “ecosystem services,” such as hydrology regulation, soil retention, and pollination. About 24% of 11.5 billion hectares of vegetated land has already undergone human-induced soil degradation, in particular through erosion, the study says.

At the same time, agriculture and associated deforestation are thought to produce up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But Steer says widespread use of “climate-smart” farming techniques, such as low tillage, could help soil to absorb 13% of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Such techniques would also increase farm productivity and incomes, and make agriculture more resilient to climate change, resulting in a “triple win” for agriculture, the environment and food security.

“This is about transforming agriculture to become part of the solution,” says Steer.

Steer and others argue that agriculture – and food security—should be a core element in global climate change talks.

“We cannot address climate change without addressing emissions from agriculture. For too long we have tended to look at climate change, food security and poverty challenges separately,” says Steer. “In today’s world, this is not only a mistake but a missed opportunity.”

Kenyan Farmers Leading the Way

In Africa, some 60,000 farmers on 45,000 hectares of land in western Kenya are at the forefront of demonstrating the benefits of climate-smart agriculture. The farmers are using sustainable land management practices to enrich degraded soil in a pilot project supported by the Biocarbon Fund, a public/private initiative administered by the World Bank.

If CO2 is sequestered as expected, each farmer will receive payments as part of a carbon finance scheme. And, in a changing climate, the productivity gains are significant, says Steer.

“These farmers wanted to get more output from their land while making their yields more resilient. These resources were a catalyst for making it happen,” says Steer.

The pilot project also provides for learning about how best to monitor, report and verify soil carbon sequestration while using a low-cost, farmer self-assessment approach in which improved agriculture practices are verified by independent third parties, says Patrick Verkooijen, the Bank's head of Agriculture and Climate Change.

Verkooijen adds that the next stage is “to continue to learn from these experiences, adapt and implement these approaches to scale in other countries, and to combine different sources of finance.”

Bangladesh: Ambitious Plan

Globally, particularly promising approaches to food security include intensifying agricultural production sustainably, agroforestry, improved weather information and water management, and better land use planning.

Bangladesh decided it couldn’t afford to wait for the world to agree on a climate change pact. In 2009, it created a trust fund to finance climate adaptation activities. The effort got a boost in 2010, when several donors established the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund to implement a national climate change strategy.

The same year, Bangladesh was among the first three countries in the world to receive funding from the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience: $50 million in grants and $60 million in concessional lending. The program is one of two Climate Investment Funds that channel funding through multilateral development banks to help developing countries pilot climate-resilient development.

The World Bank has committed an ambitious climate change and environmental program (above $1 billion in concessional lending) in its assistance strategy to Bangladesh for the next four years. A lot of these investments are geared toward developing a more climate resilient agriculture. Much more will be needed, says Sarraf.

Even before launching the official program, Bangladesh had become a world leader in weather forecasting and emergency preparedness and today is sharing its knowledge with other developing countries.

And with each big flood or cyclone wiping out a million or more tons of rice crop, it’s essential to improve agricultural practices and promote research to increase yields, says Bank Senior Water Resources Specialist Winston Yu, an author of Climate Change Risks and Food Security in Bangladesh.

There are signs of what is possible. Bangladeshi government research stations are growing rice at 6 or 7 tons per hectare, versus 1 or 2 tons a hectare on a typical farm. “That’s very stark to me – this big gap between what is theoretically possible and what is being done on the ground,” says Yu.

Another promising prospect: floating vegetable beds that rise and fall with the floods, now being tried in the country in a couple of places.

“We know these things work under certain conditions, we know what the costs are, so it’s just an issue of getting the resources to do more of this,” says Yu.