BLOG

What you need to know about food security and climate change

29 November 20226 min reading

How is climate change affecting global food security today and what can we expect in the future? We asked William R. Sutton, Global Lead for Climate Smart Agriculture for the World Bank, to explain the potential impacts of a warmer world on the food system.

William R. Sutton
Global Lead for Climate Smart Agriculture 
World Bank



What is the state of global food security today, and what is the role of climate change?

The number of people suffering acute food insecurity increased from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million in 82 countries by June 2022, as the war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and the continued economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed food prices to all-time highs.

Global food insecurity had already been rising, due in large part to climate phenomena. Global warming is influencing weather patterns, causing heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts. Rising food commodity prices in 2021 were a major factor in pushing approximately 30 million additional people in low-income countries toward food insecurity.

At the same time, the way that food is often produced today is a big part of the problem. It’s recently been estimated that the global food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions—second only to the energy sector; it is the number one source of methane and biodiversity loss.

It’s recently been estimated that the global food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions—second only to the energy sector; it is the number one source of methane and biodiversity loss.

 Who is most affected by climate impacts on food security?

About 80% of the global population most at risk from crop failures and hunger from climate change are in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, where farming families are disproportionally poor and vulnerable. A severe drought caused by an El Nino weather pattern or climate change can push millions more people into poverty. This is true even in places like the Philippines and Vietnam, which have relatively high incomes, but where farmers often live at the edge of poverty and food price increases have an outsized impact on poor urban consumers.

How might climate change affect farming and food security in the future?

Up to a certain point, rising temperatures and CO2 can be beneficial for crops. But rising temperatures also accelerate evapotranspiration from plants and soils, and there must also be enough water for crops to thrive.  

For areas of the world that are already water-constrained, climate change will increasingly cause adverse impacts on agricultural production through diminishing water supplies, increases in extreme events like floods and severe storms, heat stress, and increased prevalence of pests and diseases.

Above a certain point of warming -- and particularly above an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures – it becomes increasingly more difficult to adapt and increasingly more expensive. In countries where temperatures are already extremely high, such as the Sahel belt of Africa or South Asia, rising temperatures could have a more immediate effect on crops such as wheat that are less heat tolerant.

Without solutions, falling crop yields, especially in the world’s most food-insecure regions, will push more people into poverty – an estimated 43 million people in Africa alone could fall below the poverty line by 2030 as a result.

 Without solutions, falling crop yields, especially in the world’s most food-insecure regions, will push more people into poverty – an estimated 43 million people in Africa alone could fall below the poverty line by 2030 as a result.

 How can agriculture adapt to climate change?

It’s possible to reduce emissions and become more resilient, but doing so often requires major social, economic, and technological change. There are a few key strategies:

Use water more efficiently and effectively, combined with policies to manage demand. Building more irrigation infrastructure may not be a solution if future water supply proves to be inadequate to supply the irrigation systems—which our research has shown may indeed be the case for some countries. Other options include better management of water demand as well as the use of advanced water accounting systems and technologies to assess the amount of water available, including soil moisture sensors and satellite evapotranspiration measurements. Such measures can facilitate techniques such as alternate wetting and drying of rice paddies, which saves water and reduces methane emissions at the same time.

Switch to less-thirsty crops. For example, rice farmers could switch to crops that require less water such as maize or legumes. Doing so would also help reduce methane emissions, because rice is a major source of agri-food emissions. But a culture that has been growing and consuming rice for thousands of years may not so easily switch to another less thirsty, less emitting crop.


Improve soil health. This is hugely important. Increasing organic carbon in soil helps it better retain water and allows plants to access water more readily, increasing resilience to drought. It also provides more nutrients without requiring as much chemical fertilizer -- which is a major source of emissions. Farmers can restore carbon that has been lost by not tilling soil and by using cover crops, particularly with large roots, in the rotation cycle rather than leaving fields fallow. Such nature-based solutions to environmental challenges could deliver 37% of climate change mitigation necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. But getting farmers to adopt these practices will take time, awareness-raising and training. In places where farm plots are small and farmers can’t afford to let fields lie fallow or even rotate with leguminous crops, improving soil health could pose a challenge.

What is the World Bank doing to help countries buildfood security in the face of climate change?

The World Bank Group’s Climate Change Action Plan (2021-2025) is stepping up support for climate-smart agriculture across the agriculture and food value chains and via policy and technological interventions to enhance productivity, improve resilience, and reduce GHG emissions. The Bank also helps countries tackle food loss and waste and manage flood and drought risks. For example, in Niger, a Bank-supported project aims to benefit 500,000 farmers and pastoralists in 44 communes through the distribution of improved, drought-tolerant seeds, more efficient irrigation, and expanded use of forestry for farming and conservation agriculture techniques. To date, the project has helped 336,518 farmers more sustainably manage their land and brought 79,938 hectares under more sustainable farming practices.