Millions will go hungry without urgent action: UN

More sustainable farming methods needed to ward off climate change effects, says agency

ROME • Farmers urgently need help to adapt their methods of growing food if the world is to curb greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate change from pushing millions into hunger and poverty, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said.

Small farmers who produce the bulk of food in developing countries are some of the most vulnerable to climate change and need help adapting to a warming planet, the FAO said in a report released yesterday.

"Unless action is taken now to make agriculture more sustainable, productive and resilient, climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure," FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva said in the report.

The United Nations agency estimates that with climate change, an additional 42 million people will be vulnerable to hunger in 2050.

This figure does not include the growing numbers affected by extreme weather events.

The number of weather and climate-related disasters more than doubled in the last two decades compared with the preceding two, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said last week.


  • Livestock alone produces nearly two-thirds of agricultural emissions - mainly from animal burping, manure and feed production. Synthetic fertilisers are the next major contributor, producing 12 per cent, and rice cultivation, 10 per cent.

    Carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture are mainly caused by changes in land use, such as converting forests to pasture or cropland, and land degradation from overgrazing.

    Most direct emissions of methane and nitrous oxide are caused by livestock flatulence, rice production in flooded fields, and the use of nitrogen fertilisers and manure.

    More than a third of food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. Rotting food produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

    Deforestation and forest degradation account for about 11 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than the world's entire transport sector.

    Reducing agriculture emissions depends partly on cutting food waste and loss, modifying people's diets - including consuming less animal products - and changing farming practices.


"Climate change is already happening. There is an increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events," said Dr Kostas Stamoulis, head of FAO's Social and Economic Development Department.

These climate shifts are reinforced by the recurring El Nino weather pattern, which happens when water in the Pacific Ocean becomes abnormally warm, altering global weather patterns.

More than 60 million people - two-thirds of them in eastern and southern Africa - faced food shortages this year because of droughts linked to El Nino.

Climate change is also expected to affect the nutrient content of food. The higher the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the lower the nutritional content of crops like wheat, Dr Stamoulis said.

Agriculture, forestry and changes in land use together produce 21 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making them the second-largest emitter after the energy sector.

Raising livestock alone produces nearly two-thirds of agricultural emissions, the FAO said yesterday.

Dr Stamoulis said: "Those emissions come from the way we plough our soil, fertilise our crops, the way we use chemicals and manure, the way we raise our livestock and the way we... deforest."

He added that if we do not "change the way we do business", every target to stabilise the climate will be missed.

A global agreement to tackle climate change, reached in Paris last year, will take effect on Nov 4. Work is due to start at UN climate talks in Morocco next month to hammer out the rules for putting the accord into practice.

The need for more sustainable agricultural practices will be an important part of that discussion, Dr Stamoulis said.

These include growing crops which use less nitrogen and are more tolerant to drought, restoring forests, changing livestock feed and ploughing land less.

Soil stores carbon, so the more it is ploughed, and the deeper, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Millions will go hungry without urgent action: UN'. Print Edition | Subscribe