Agricultural Innovation and Improved Nutrition Are Necessary for a Climate-Stressed World

The alarming realities of climate change are now evident almost everywhere. July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded. Countries all over the world are experiencing deadly heat waves. The climate threat is particularly perilous for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where populations and temperatures are both rising faster than anywhere else in the world.

From drought in East Africa that has displaced millions to the devastating floods last year in Pakistan, farming communities in Africa and South Asia are already among those suffering most from climate change, even though they are least responsible for it in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Home to more than 3 billion people, these regions also have the world’s largest concentrations of poverty and malnutrition. Most people in these areas depend on an incredibly climate-sensitive occupation to support their families or get their food: raising crops and livestock on a small parcel of land.

We must act urgently, and we must be bold.

If the world does not muster the will to help these farmers adapt, poverty and malnutrition will surge. At that same time, the converse is also true: Coming together to help smallholder farmers adjust to these changing conditions and increase their output of nutritious foods could mean outsized gains in poverty reduction and overall health and well-being. The road ahead is not set. If the global community acts, with drive and purpose, to support agricultural innovation and better nutrition, the worst consequences of climate change can still be avoided and a healthier, more equitable future for everyone can be possible.

The main threats of climate change for billions of people: hunger and malnutrition

To understand the stakes of this moment, consider malnutrition. Already responsible for nearly half of all deaths of children under age 5 worldwide, malnutrition has risen due to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing food prices, and supply chain disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. The number of people facing hunger has grown by more than 122 million since 2019, and climate change is worsening the situation. Higher temperatures and climate-fueled disruptions result in more lost crops and make it harder to produce nutrient-dense foods such as milk, meat, and eggs. Staple foods grown amid high atmospheric carbon often have less nutritional value as essential nutrients like zinc, iron, protein, and vitamin B are leeched out. There’s less food to go around and it’s less nutritious.

By the end of this decade, climate shocks alone could drive 132 million more people into extreme poverty; by 2050, the risk of hunger and malnutrition could rise by 20%. For every child who succumbs to hunger, many more are projected to not receive the nutrients they need in the first 1,000 days of life, which are critical for brain development and future health. Children suffering from stunting will be smaller, less robust, and at greater risk of illness throughout their lives because of the nutrient deficits they experienced as an infant. This in turn could place even greater burdens on struggling health systems, which must grapple with the lifelong costs of poor nutrition across an entire generation of kids. Children suffering from malnutrition will also be less productive, leading to a tremendous waste of human potential in already struggling communities.

One of the four priorities of this year’s COP28 climate summit is to put “nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action.” This means focusing on where climate change is hitting people now—such as in the current hunger and malnutrition crisis—and investing in solutions that can enable more smallholder farmers to cope with changing conditions and more families to have access to nutritious foods.

Solutions to help vulnerable communities adapt to a changing climate

A world in which we don’t meet this moment would be grim indeed. But a more hopeful future is possible too, especially if we work urgently to apply and scale up new scientific innovations that make farms and crops more resilient to changes in climate and boost nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life. Many of these innovations are already available; others are in the early stages of development but, given sufficient investment, can move quickly through the pipeline. They include:

  • Naturally climate-smart and nutritious crops. Farmers in Africa and South Asia have been growing naturally resilient crops like millet, sorghum, sweet potato, cassava, and pigeon pea for centuries. But these crops have gotten little attention from major crop breeding programs, which means current harvests are far below their potential. We’re supporting work by CGIAR, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network, and others to develop improved varieties of all these crops. For example, major investments in an African-led initiative have provided many new disease-resistant varieties of cassava, and new varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are benefiting millions of people in 17 African countries in three important ways: They are naturally rich in vitamin A, they grow well in hot and dry conditions, and they are generating new income opportunities for local farmers and food processors.
  • More resilient, lower-emission small-scale livestock production. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, livestock are often a family’s most valuable asset and a vital source of essential nutrients. Livestock experts are working with small-scale dairy and poultry farmers to identify hardy, resilient indigenous breeds and resilient feeds to help them sustainably increase production as temperatures rise. Similarly, small-scale aquaculture presents opportunities to address malnutrition and expand economic opportunity. CGIAR’s WorldFish Center is training fish farmers in Bangladesh in the cultivation of an improved type of rohu, an indigenous species of carp that grows faster, weighs more, and is packed with more micronutrients.
  • Adaptation Atlas. CGIAR has developed the Adaptation Atlas, an online, interactive data platform that partners can use to evaluate climate risks in different parts of Africa and then estimate the potential impacts of various adaptation innovations. The atlas shows that by the end of the decade, 200 million people in Africa will be living in areas that have exceeded 2 degrees C in warming over pre-industrial levels—the point at which we can expect significant harm to crops and livestock. Unless we act now to help farmers adapt, by 2050 that number could soar to 1 billion. An Adaptation Atlas for South Asia is also in development.
  • Large-scale food fortification. Fortifying foods with essential micronutrients like zinc, iron, iodine, folic acid, and vitamins A and D is a proven and highly scalable intervention that has already helped reduce the incidence of once-rampant preventable diseases like pellagra and beriberi. Every $1 spent on large-scale food fortification generates $27 in economic return from prevented disease, improved earnings, and enhanced work productivity, making it one of the most cost-effective measures available. But there are still many places where fortification isn’t happening for a variety of reasons, and thus opportunities to augment nutrition are being missed.
  • Maternal and child nutrition. Half of the world’s children and two-thirds of women suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. We are working on a number of fronts to reach mothers and children with better nutrition in the critical early years of a child’s life. For example, we are funding the development of new ready-to-use therapeutic foods for infants and young children. These nutrient-dense pastes are affordable, can be locally sourced, and are based on state-of-the-art microbiome science to ensure that children receive and retain the critical nutrients that support body and brain development. We are also supporting the creation and large-scale rollout of nutrition supplements to help women stave off anemia, have healthy pregnancies, and ensure their babies receive the nutrients they need to grow.
  • Diet quality for all. Vanessa Nakate, a UN Goodwill Ambassador and climate activist, was the first person I heard say that “climate justice is nutrition justice.” As we work to strengthen nutritious food systems for the new climate era, we should encourage healthier, more sustainable diets for everyone. For example, CGIAR’s Sustainable Healthy Diets through Food Systems Transformation (SHiFT) research initiative is working to improve diet quality and nutrition levels across entire food systems.

A make-or-break moment in addressing the climate crisis

We can still avoid a climate catastrophe in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but the window to act is narrowing. And even if we reduce our emissions to zero tomorrow, climate change will already lead to more heat waves, more superstorms, and more problems for smallholder farmers. That makes the COP28 climate summit an especially critical moment. While achieving new commitments to reduce emissions is essential, securing substantial investments in adaptation and nutrition is also critically important.

Right now, we have an opportunity to tip the balance in favor of more positive outcomes, but time is not on our side. We must act urgently, and we must be bold. By reaching more smallholder farmers with technologies to help them adapt and reaching more children with the food and nutrients they need to thrive, we can prevent untold amounts of human suffering and save trillions of dollars in health care costs down the road. We simply cannot afford to do anything less.

Source : Gates Foundation


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