Impact of Climate Change and Bioenergy on Nutrition

from International Food Policy Research Institute
Published on 01 Jun 2008
Despite a dozen years of solemn pledges by global leaders to take action to drastically decrease world hunger - promises made at the World Food Summit in 1996, the Millennium Summit of 2000 and high-level follow-up meetings held during the course of the present decade - food security in the world has deteriorated since 1995. This has contributed to the unacceptably slow pace of cutting the prevalence of malnutrition: between 1990 and 2005, the prevalence of child underweight in the developing world only fell from 30 to 23 percent. At that rate, it will not be possible to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the underweight prevalence between 1990 and 2015.

Against this very disappointing background, three major challenges have arisen that threaten to drastically complicate efforts to overcome food insecurity and malnutrition: climate change, the growing use of food crops as a source of fuel (bioenergy) and soaring food prices. As a result of climate change, agricultural production and the availability of and access to food are likely to decline drastically in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. That will increase the risk of hunger and malnutrition in the two regions that are home to three of every five undernourished people. Furthermore, climate change is expected to increase undernutrition through its effects on illnesses, such as diarrhoea and other infectious diseases. The expected increases in the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods and their potential impact on crops and cattle losses are especially worrisome. Drier weather may reduce the transmission of malaria in some places in Sub-Saharan Africa, while in others, the geographical range will expand and the transmission season may be changed (Metz et al., 2007).

For its part, rising bioenergy demand is likely to affect nutrition through a number of pathways. First, production of staple food crops, particularly maize, for biofuel markets can have a negative impact on the availability of grain for direct consumption as food and for use as feed for livestock to produce meat and milk. As demand for biofuels is likely to remain high and to be met with food crops for the foreseeable future, this may lead to the clearing of biodiversity-rich land for cultivation, including tropical forests and wetlands. Burning of forests will mean additional emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause global warming. Intensified production of energy crops such as sugarcane, as well as increased cereal production to meet competing demand for food, feed, fibre and fuel, may mean excessive or poorly managed use of water and farm chemicals, causing illnesses and deterioration in environmental health, with negative implications for nutrition.

In addition, bioenergy demand is a significant driver of recent dramatic increases in food prices; according to an analysis by IFPRI, it accounted for 30 percent of the escalation in global cereal prices between 2000 and 2007 and for nearly 40 percent of the increase in the real global price of maize (Rosegrant, 2008). Increased food prices are likely to result in calorie deficits, but even more importantly, they will probably cause micronutrient malnutrition, as low-income people may reduce their consumption of micronutrient-rich foods (such as animal products, fruit and vegetables) in an effort to maintain consumption of increasingly expensive staples. Jean Ziegler, the former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food of the UN Human Rights Council, has gone so far as to call the growing use of food crops to produce biofuels "a crime against humanity" (Ferrett, 2007).

Nevertheless, strong bioenergy demand also offers opportunities to smallholder farmers. If the right policies are in place, they may be able to boost their incomes and take advantage of technological spillovers to improve food crop production alongside their energy crops. This has positive implications for both food availability and access, key inputs for good nutrition.

A human rights-based approach - a conceptual framework that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights - can provide the tools for balancing many factors, reaching easier consensus and conducting a more effective and complete analysis, as well as a more authoritative basis for advocacy and for claims on resources. The human rights framework also offers the opportunity of embracing environmental concerns more explicitly and is thus highly relevant to assessing the challenges of climate change and bioenergy for nutrition.

To explore these issues in greater depth, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has organized a special event on Climate Change and Bioenergy: Implications for Nutrition, Food Safety and Human Health, to be held during the High-Level Conference on World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy, on 5 June 2008 in Rome. This paper is one of three background documents prepared for this side event. It was jointly written by teams from FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The paper examines the consequences of climate change and rising bioenergy demand for sustainable development, food security and nutrition throughout the lifecycle.
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