[This article was written by Simon Lloyd, Postdoctoral Fellow at ISGlobal, and Zaid Chalabi, Honorary Associate Professor at University College London.]
Climate change poses a major threat to future health. Hunger is a pervasive and durable problem that has proven to be quite resistant to decades of global-level attention (notwithstanding successes in some places). And, climate change is expected to further impede efforts to reduce hunger.
What do we know about how climate change may affect hunger?
There are multiple routes from climate to hunger, but prominent among these are reductions in food quantity and quality. Modelling efforts over the last 25 years have focussed on these aspects, consistently showing that reductions in calories, nutrients, and “healthy” foods such as fruit and vegetables, are likely to compromise future nutrition.
Photo: Ethiopia. Sally Vogel / Pixabay.
Collectively this work suggests: under climate change, less or lower quality food will mean more hunger. This makes intuitive sense: at the individual-level, if dietary intake is compromised, it is a universal biological fact that a person will be undernourished. Thus, if climate change reduces food production, we would expect more hunger and undernutrition.
Yet… At present, despite the large numbers of people affected by poor nutrition, there is currently more than enough food to feed everyone; enough, in fact, to make us all chubby. Historically we have moved from a world in which we had hunger amidst genuine scarcity to a world in which we have hunger amidst abundance.
At the population-level, the primary causes of hunger tend to change over time, and, at present an overall lack of food doesn’t seem to be the major issue
That is, at the population-level, the primary causes of hunger tend to change over time, and, at present an overall lack of food doesn’t seem to be the major issue.
What, then, is the central cause of hunger at population level? There is no simple answer to this: hunger is complex and evolving, and many processes must simultaneously be addressed if it is to be eradicated.
In other words, when we aim to further our understanding, we must choose how to frame the climate-hunger relation. One unexplored choice is to ask:
Photo: Jawa Barat (Indonesia). Ramadhani Rafid / Unsplash.
How might future farm development trajectories impact on hunger and health?
We use a model to explore this unexplored avenue in the paper Climate change, hunger and rural health through the lens of farming styles: An agent-based model to assess the potential role of peasant farming, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Why do we think this perspective is important? Firstly, about two billion people call “small farms” their home. Despite being food producers, they comprise half the world’s undernourished people and the majority of those living in absolute poverty.
About two billion people call “small farms” their home. Despite being food producers, they comprise half the world’s undernourished people and the majority of those living in absolute poverty
Secondly, these same “small” farmers could potentially play a key role in achieving healthy, sustainable futures. How this could be best achieved is a core part of current debates on the future of farming. For instance, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Undernutrition, point to crucial differences between farm development paths that may superficially appear similar. “Sustainable Intensification”, which includes “Climate Smart Agriculture”, is essentially about increasing productivity per land area. “Agroecology”, on the other hand is not just about what happens on a plot of land: it is about reducing inputs, fostering diversity, and pursuing social and political transformation.
Given these differences, we would expect different development trajectories to have different health implications. We used our model to take a first look at these.
Agroecology is not just about what happens on a plot of land: it is about reducing inputs, fostering diversity, and pursuing social and political transformation
The model distinguishes two “farming styles” –based on the work of van der Ploeg – that roughly correspond to the development paths described above. “Entrepreneurial” style is analogous to “Sustainable Intensification”, and, “peasant” style is analogous to “agroecology”.
These styles differ in multiple ways, but of central importance is that differences are not just about how food is produced; they are also about how the farm connects to the rest-of-the world: entrepreneurial farmers are market-dependent; peasant farmers use markets as an outlet but avoid market dependence.
Stemming for all this, the styles differ in their goals: entrepreneurial farmers aim to expand the farm and market share; peasant farmers seek to deepen their autonomy (which does not imply they seek isolation).
We use a model to ask: how might different farm development trajectories - under various farming style preference, climate and policy scenarios – impact on hunger and health-related conditions in rural areas? The model is set in a hypothetical rural community in which subsistence farmers (that is, farmers who are just getting by) may develop by either adopting an “entrepreneurial” or “peasant” style of farming.
Photo: Lagos (Nigeria). Omotayo Tajudeen / Unsplash.
What did the results show?
In brief, we found that –in the absence of climate change or policy supporting any particular farming style– entrepreneurial futures produced both the most and the cheapest food, but, farms tended to be in crisis. That is, there was a trade-off between producing cheap, abundant food, and, the viability of farming livelihoods.
In brief, we found that –in the absence of climate change or policy supporting any particular farming style– entrepreneurial futures produced both the most and the cheapest food, but, farms tended to be in crisis. That is, there was a trade-off between producing cheap, abundant food, and, the viability of farming livelihoods
We then introduced climate change and policies that supported either entrepreneurial or peasant style farming. Overall, the model suggested, firstly, that under high climate change there was more and cheaper food in peasant futures.
Secondly, rather than only being about food availability to consumers, patterns of hunger were associated with different facets of farm development trajectories: blocked development, farm abandonment, successful development and total food production. Overall, hunger tended to be lowest in peasant futures, but there were contradictory outcomes with some groups doing well and some suffering (hunger is complex!).
Photo: Sergio Cerrato / Pixabay.
Thirdly, farm development trajectories simultaneously shaped a number of health-supporting conditions: farm incomes, income inequality, labour and employment, and environmentally sound use of the land. For all these, conditions tended to be better in peasant compared to entrepreneurial futures.
We need to think beyond individual needs associated with food quantity, food quality, and individual diets. How farming is done –encompassing not just different forms of production but also different ways of connecting to the rest-of-the-world– is also important
What does this all mean?
Given the hypothetical nature of our model and its various assumptions, the findings should not be interpreted as demonstrating that a peasant-based future is the best way forward.
What it does suggest, though, is that when we consider hunger under climate change, we need to think beyond individual needs associated with food quantity, food quality, and individual diets. How farming is done –encompassing not just different forms of production but also different ways of connecting to the rest-of-the-world– is also important. This shapes not only how much food we have and its quality: it also shapes a range of health-supporting conditions that may sustain the viability of rural communities, and, may also influence equity, justice and democracy.
Peasant farming may contain the seeds necessary to positively influence all of the above. Future climate-hunger work should explore this potential further.