Extreme weather is worsening our food supply

By Matt Freeman, Executive Director, Stronger Foundations for Nutrition.

Originally posted in Euronews.

Last year was the hottest ever on record, and scientists worry this year will be worse. Thunderstorms in Europe destroyed 9.1 billion euros in assets, while the U.S. experienced twenty-eight separate weather and climate disasters throughout 2023 costing at least one billion dollars a piece. Again, the most ever. It’s not hard to see a trend.

If we don’t avert an impending climate crisis over the next 26 years, in 2050 a quarter of a million more people will die each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Nearly every child on earth – over 2 billion children – will face more frequent heatwaves which put them at greater health risk, while shocks from extreme weather and climate-related conflict displace hundreds of millions from their homes. In all, the IPCC predicts a 10% decrease in years of healthy life from climate change-induced malnutrition alone.

The impacts of this climate crisis will be particularly acute for girls and women, amplifying existing gender inequalities. By mid-century, up to 236 million more women and girls will be food insecure, compared to 131 million more men and boys. Increasingly intense heat waves will also have profound effects on pregnancy – increasing risks like pre-eclampsia and infection, and leading to stillbirth, complications from gestational diabetes, and preterm birth.

26 years is not some far off future world. Most people have been on the planet for more time already.

By 2050, our growing and strained population will demand 35% – 56% more food from crops that will yield dramatically less – with NASA studies projecting impacts on maize and wheat production as early as 2030. And it’s not just production volumes – due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other climate effects these crops will be less dense in key minerals and protein. As a result, 23% – 62% more people will be severely stunted, with their physical and mental potential irreversibly held back.

26 years is not far off, and global malnutrition is already at crisis levels. Right now around the world, half of children and over 60% of adolescent and young women are already deficient in essential micronutrients which are the building blocks of good health. This is the global picture, but it’s a crisis everywhere. Over a third of women and young girls in the US are iron-deficient, as are 61% – 97% of Europeans. And for countries like Somalia and Ethiopia which are on the verge of famine, the story is even more tragic.

The clock is ticking. Imagine the world just ten seconds from now. McDonalds will have sold approximately 750 hamburgers in America. Also, the next child will have died of malnutrition. This is not just about our future, it’s about the present.

What will we do? Will we let millions of children die, every year? Will we limit the potential of billions of children, girls and women all over the world? Will we stay on the path of burning our planet to the ground to grow foods that kill us, rather than sustain us?

The answer has to be no, we won’t.

We can’t be resigned to a depressed fate when there is so much to live for.

More than three million children a year don’t have to die. More than 1 billion girls and women do not have to be undernourished. We can stop it. We can close the nutrient gap and live in a world where choosing healthy and sustainable food is the easy choice, for everyone.

I do not say “we can” in hopeful belief, but rather in confidence because the evidence and innovation is increasingly on our side. It only takes the will. How? For all its very real complexity, it’s also pretty clear what needs to be done.

Children shouldn’t be dying from malnutrition. Instead of spending trillions of dollars on fossil fuel subsidies, , just a tiny fraction of that would be more than enough to end global hunger. Instead of wasting money, we should be stopping children from dying of wasting – making critical sustained investments into life-saving Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Foods, and cost-effective interventions like prenatal vitamins, which nourish mothers and their future children and can help prevent this tragedy from happening in the first place.

Instead of subsidizing billions of dollars of corn and soybeans that never leave US farms and contribute to the more than one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions caused by our broken food systems, we should be strengthening local nutritious food, health systems and safety nets.

It is possible to live in a stronger world. Through leveraging the collective global strength of governments and non-state actors to make producing and consuming nutritious, sustainable food the easy choice, we can support leaders to offer better policy solutions, unlock responsible capital, and empower consumers to make decisions which are healthier for their bodies, and for the planet.

We can nourish everyone alive, and every child being born, every second, for twenty-six years and the rest of our collective time on this planet.

Progress is slow and the road ahead is hard, but this is a fight we cannot resign ourselves to lose. Twenty-six years is tomorrow so let’s start today.