Extreme weather and food insecurity - a sign of things to come?

By Dr John IngramFood Systems Programme Leader, Environmental Change Institute

The number of extreme weather events around the world appears to be increasing, and this is impacting on global food security. Here Dr. John Ingram of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University introduces new research and draws lessons from extreme weather events in Pakistan, Russia, the Philippines and East Africa since 2010.

This week's news again highlights the problems of flooding and drought faced by millions: powerful monsoon rains in recent weeks in Pakistan and India have claimed the lives of over 300 people and increased food insecurity for many more. Meanwhile, in Somalia, the late onset of the April to June seasonal rains has caused considerable delays in planting .

How will climate change, and particularly the associated changes in extreme weather, affect food security; and what are the implications for social justice in a world experiencing climate change?

Extreme weather has always affected food security, particularly for many of the world's poorest people. Perhaps we naturally think of the impacts on those engaged in agriculture. But extreme weather will affect many more people than farmers, both rural and urban, due to a number of factors beyond food production. For example, damage to food in store (which can lead to both actual loss and food safety issues), and/or to distribution infrastructure needed to replenish supplies away from production areas, and - often most importantly - extreme weather can lead to, or exacerbate, changes in food prices.

The years since the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 have seen a number of extreme weather events around the world, several of which were notable for their intensity, duration, and impacts on livelihoods and food security. There is concern in the scientific and in the humanitarian and development communities about the magnitude of food insecurity arising from such events. This is coupled with the further concern that climate change is leading to increases in the frequency and intensity ofextreme rainfall patterns (both too much, and too little), and heat waves.

These concerns prompted an analysis, published today, of four relatively-recent extreme weather events on food security: 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. Research was led by the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, in collaboration with the CGIAR Research Programme on 'Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security' (CCAFS) and leading Oxfam researchers. While each study was of course highly context-specific, some common threads begin to emerge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, each of the case studies reflects the fact that extreme weather events have played an important role in the destabilisation and instability of both short-term and long-term food security. It is also not surprising that they all also led to impacts on various aspects of life; in most cases, the impacts left citizens vulnerable and authorities unprepared.

While direct measures such as emergency preparedness and the strengthening of response-related institutions would have been helpful, the study identified the need for a wider cultural shift in many countries facing both food security issues and extreme weather events. The main feature is that more attention to vulnerable groups and inequalities are required, going far beyond technical improvements to equipment or redirected funding.

At the very heart of 'climate justice' is the promise that those who are most vulnerable will not bear the heaviest share of the burden when disasters inevitably strike.

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