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How to feed a hot, hungry planet

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The resilience and innovation of farmers and ranchers may play a key role in reducing global food insecurity


Ten years ago, when I first began researching and writing about the global food system and how it was responding to the increasing threats from climate change, I was intrigued by how people were talking. Everyone seemed a little panicked. Worry over food security was on the tip of every tongue.

Wheat and rice growers around the world told me about their inability to sleep for weeks as they experimented with new planting practices that might help their crops better withstand torrential rains. Ranchers in Minnesota sold their too-young-for-market cattle at a loss in summer to dodge heat-related deaths. Led by Susan McCouch, plant physiologists at Cornell University sought to increase crop yields by crossbreeding modern strains of rice with their wild and weedy ancestors sometimes found growing amid farmers’ fields in Asia and Africa. Corn researchers in Iowa were measuring losses of kernels from high nighttime temperatures during the phase when cobs fill. Agricultural policy experts were moving the needle on land rights, equity, and education laws for women in developing countries where women are the primary producers. Science teams explained the urgency of broad shifts in food systems needed to stave off disaster.

In the decade since I first began exploring food security around the world, the impact of climate on food supply chains has increased and my perspective has changed. As we begin to better understand what’s at stake, I’ve noticed people working in this realm are less unnerved, more serious, and more deeply focused on the innovation and shifts needed for food production. Agriculture is changing amid the climate crisis, and the change is far-reaching.

As climate change loads the weather dice with more severe heat, drought, torrential rain, and other extreme weather events that affect the world’s food production, our ability to integrate ideas that build resilience regionally and through the entire system could act as a lever for a positive shift. The goal in many areas is to maintain crop yields despite these adverse conditions while at the same time not contributing to higher greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

Caldas, Colombia - Ranchers in Colombia are raising cattle using mixed agroforestry practices that are restoring forests and slowing erosion.

Photograph: Getty Images

Take, for instance, the regenerative agricultural practices I saw during a visit to Meta, a department in central Colombia. Beyond the hills of the village of Lejanías, dark forests stretch into the foothills of the Andes to meet misty skies. On an overcast day in May, little more than thick grass covered Finca Costa Rica, an 80-acre family farm atop a once-forested hillside. Furrows cut by heavy rainfall left the hill rippled with deep channels that tripped up the cattle.

But as I looked closer, I saw hedgerows planted with leafy shrubs, young trees, and botón de oro, or Mexican sunflower. This was an effort to restore the forest on the hill and slow soil erosion while growing forage for cattle without chemical fertilizers. I’d see this change elsewhere in my travels as farm families that once cleared forests for pasture are now planting native trees, plants, and shrubs while penning their dairy cattle and practicing rotational grazing. In this manner the farmers are able to ensure that their cattle get fed nutritiously even as they increase tree cover, protect the environment, and attract birds and other biodiversity.

At first glance, this approach to regenerative agriculture can seem paradoxical. Scrappy grass appears in the foreground; newly planted perennial shrubs and trees dot the background. But the medley is a carefully shaped system designed from plant science, agroforestry research, agricultural economics, and animal husbandry practices. Today, through a project supported by the World Bank and other organizations, more than 680 ranchers in Meta, and 4,100 ranchers throughout Colombia, raise cattle using mixed agroforestry practices, which promotes regional food security, protects the animals, and buffers landscape from the effects of climate change — all while increasing farm income by 30 percent.

"I’ve heard it said that we are all about three missed meals away from experiencing food insecurity."

A pasture on a hillside in Colombia that is adopting new, regenerative crops to support dairy production may resemble little of what you might expect to encounter on a typical farm. But a growing number of food producers around the world are following a similar path as, in the face of climate change, they search for ways to increase food security.

Take the case of Joginder Singh, whose farm I visited in Punjab in northern India. Singh has adopted an array of sustainable practices to respond to climate change. He grows a rotation of wheat and rice and uses laser-guided tractors to flatten his fields with precision. Digital apps tell him when to apply fertilizer and when to irrigate, and he has reduced the amount of fertilizer and water he uses even while increasing crop yields. Prior to planting and throughout the season, Singh closely monitors weather forecasts delivered by voicemail to determine when the monsoon rains will occur. Climate change has made the time frame during which they might arrive increasingly variable.

Singh has taken other steps to deal with the drenching rains. A few years ago, a third of the total rainfall that the region typically receives in an entire season dropped over the course of a few days. Many fields became waterlogged because the soil could not absorb the inundation. But because Singh didn’t burn the remnants of the previous year’s wheat crop harvest from his field — something farmers usually do as they prepare to plant a new season’s crop — the soil on Singh’s farm contained more organic matter. It was able to absorb the water and his crop survived.

“I worried for a month until I saw the rice sprout,” Singh said. “It wasn’t until after the heavy rains that I knew the system would work.”

Punjab, India - Farmers in India, one of the world’s largest wheat producers, are adapting to increasingly erratic monsoon rains with an array of sustainable practices.

Saqib Majeed/AP images

Despite these kinds of forward-thinking efforts, global food insecurity has increased rapidly, with key drivers that include climate change, violent conflict, and a rising cost of living. In 2022, nearly 30 percent of the global population — some 2.4 billion people — was moderately or severely food insecure while up to 9.8 percent of the world’s population — about 783 million people — faced hunger on a regular basis. The food was too costly, unavailable, or spoiled before people could eat it or process it for consumption.

Regionally, disparities are substantial. In Africa, 19.7 percent of the population faces hunger, compared with 8.5 percent in Asia, 7 percent in Oceania, 6.5 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and less than 2.5 percent in North America and Europe. Projections indicate that the situation will only worsen in the coming years. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that, globally, climate change reduced productivity on agricultural land by 21 percent since 1961, while livestock losses ranging from 20 to 60 percent were recorded during serious droughts in recent decades. What’s more, these dramatic changes have the potential to cause widespread instability and spur mass migration.

Further aggravating the situation, world food prices reached an all-time high in 2022, as the cost of fuel rose by 86 percent and the cost of fertilizer by 35 percent between 2019 and March 2022. The production woes come at a time when more than 40 million people are on the edge of famine. According to the World Food Programme, the number of people facing high levels of food insecurity is now more than double what it was in early 2020.

I’ve heard it said that we are all about three missed meals away from experiencing food insecurity, a condition of not having sufficient food or food of adequate quality. As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization puts it, food security exists when an entire population at all times has “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets its dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

As the world saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, international trade plays a sizable role in food security. “The importance of global trade to basic food security is huge,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president of markets at the World Wildlife Fund. “It helps fill the cracks in the global food system.”

In 1980, he says, 6 percent of global food was traded across international borders; in 2000, the amount was 15 percent, and by 2020, it was 30 percent. Today, just 15 countries around the world are responsible for 80 percent of global food exports.

For cereal grains and oil seeds, the foundation of what the world eats, the number of countries we depend on is even smaller, Clay adds: Eight countries — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States — provide 70 to 90 percent of those exports.

“It’s not a large number of countries we are depending on,” reiterates Clay. “When there’s a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and as other countries experience climate-related downturns in production, we have enough to maintain the system, but barely.”

The “barely” margin couldn’t be more evident. In July, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which had allowed grain shipments from Ukraine and helped calm volatile commodity markets. Some grain has gone to countries that need it most for food consumption, including those in North Africa, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. But much of it has been sold on global markets to nations, such as China and Spain, for animal feed. Analysts indicated that a failure to revive the grain deal could plunge consumers in dependent countries into food shortage, reignite food price rises, and increase market volatility.

In the face of all this, producing food that is affordable and available to all has never been more needed, and it’s never been a riskier pursuit. As a major driver of climate change, accounting for about a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and over two-thirds of freshwater use globally, food production is also under increasing scrutiny to change. While our food systems are fragile and in stress, they also need to remake themselves to address the demands of our hotter, hungrier planet.

"Producing food that’s affordable and available to all has never been more needed, and it’s never been a riskier pursuit."

Nowhere are those kinds of changes more essential than in the world’s largest agricultural commodities exporter: the United States, where, despite this abundance, 34 million people live in food insecure households.

Nor have U.S. farmers and ranchers been immune from the impact of climate change. For example, in 2022, thousands of cattle in Kansas died during a summer heat wave. In Texas this year, historic heat waves and drought persisted, and much of the state was under severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Ranchers weaned calves early, culled their herds, and brought young cattle to market early due to rising costs of importing hay and water. And American winter wheat farmers abandoned acreage due to drought at the highest rate since 1917.

Pennsylvania, USA - Farmers in the U.S. are using climate-smart approaches such as cover crops, no-till farming, and nutrient management. Incentive programs are encouraging their adoption.

Christopher Dolan/AP images

Fortunately, a climate-smart approach to agriculture has arrived in the U.S. too. It’s built on the age-old desire by farmers and ranchers to adapt to conditions, and it’s a system that is spreading. Farmers are adopting regenerative practices to build resilience to the new regime of hot, dry, extreme, and unpredictable weather that comes with climate change. That includes shifts in production to create regional food hubs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out more than $3 billion in climate-smart investments to reach 60,000 farms. In total, this will encompass 25 million acres of land that will engage in climate-resilient production practices, such as cover crops, no-till farming, and nutrient management, as well as pasture and forest projects. Estimates indicate that these climate-smart practices will sequester carbon dioxide in an amount that’s equivalent to removing 12 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles from the road for a year. Other main players in investing in regenerative agriculture include Walmart and the Bezos Earth Fund, which has dedicated $1 billion to transform agriculture and food systems globally.

Here is just one example of changes underway in the United States. California is a fruit, vegetable, and nut powerhouse. The state produces a third of U.S. vegetables and two-thirds of fruits and nuts. It’s the leading grower of dozens of produce items and produces at least 99 percent of the country’s almonds, artichokes, celery, garlic, honeydew, kiwi, nectarines, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, plums, raisins, and walnuts. It is also prone to long-term drought and limited access to water.

A new agricultural hub in the mid-Mississippi Delta region is emerging to receive the baton from California and bolster U.S. fruit and vegetable supplies. Eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, southeast Missouri, and northwest Mississippi make up a region that’s vying for the role of “the next California” and has roughly the same amount of cultivated farmland. Broadening the U.S. food supply chain with more productive farms outside of California could mean that when a climate shock hits, it won’t disrupt the whole food supply as severely.

Research points to the need for the global system to continue to change to meet world food demands. With a thoughtful, science-based focus, shifts in where crops are produced will serve as a living laboratory for decades to come, providing lessons for crop adaptation elsewhere.

Ranchers in Latin America, as mentioned, increased dairy production by planting what looked like forests and shrubby perennial gardens for their cattle. After using regenerative planting techniques, rice growers in India stretched their arms to point to the 1-foot height difference in their rice plants versus their neighbor’s. Walmart has sourced tuna from a supplier in the Marshall Islands that uses sustainable practices. Soybean growers in Iowa have used advanced robotics and precision technology to monitor moisture, irrigate smartly, drive tractors autonomously, and use drones and satellites for resource efficiency. Lettuce producers established grow centers inside efficient warehouses on the edge of East Coast cities.

As we face an uncertain future, feeding the residents of our increasingly hot, hungry planet will depend on continuing these kinds of shifts and adaptations. Figuring out where society can sustainably grow more food and how people might effect that kind of change will be linked to national security, public health, and our economic systems. In my decade of reporting on this essential topic, I’ve only become more aware of the threats posed by global warming and global hunger.

But as I’ve seen the changes taking place over those 10 years, I’ve also grown more confident that we possess the intelligence, the resources, and the will to find solutions to food insecurity to ensure that humankind will not merely endure, it will thrive.

The author of Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change, Lisa Palmer is a research professor at George Washington University, where she is senior editor and education lead at Planet Forward, the school’s multimedia environmental storytelling community.

This story originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Rotary magazine

The Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group can share practical strategies to build sustainable food systems.