Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Combatting Malnutrition in the Era of Climate Change
Gabe Bienczycki/PATH

Combatting Malnutrition in the Era of Climate Change

In our efforts to combat malnutrition, we can’t afford to ignore the environment. Promising climate-smart interventions like biofortification have an important role to play in sustainably improving global nutrition in the era of climate change.

Food is an essential human need—a critical foundation of not only survival, but also of good health and wellbeing. Yet, global food production, distribution, and consumption currently have detrimental effects on the environment and are not meeting the nutritional needs of populations around the world. At the same time, climate change is shaping our agricultural systems and impacting both the yields and nutritional quality of the foods we eat. In the face of such challenges, food system innovations with the potential for multiple co-benefits have an important role to play in combatting malnutrition in the context of climate change.

Nutrition, Climate Change, and the Global Food System

The global burden of malnutrition is unacceptably high, impacting the health, development, and productivity of both individuals and nations. Despite decades of progress, billions of people around the world still suffer from “hidden hunger,” deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals. About 2 billion people globally experience moderate or severe food insecurity. Ensuring access to affordable, sustainable, and nutritious diets will be central to tackling these challenges.

However, unsustainable food systems are one of the greatest barriers to ending malnutrition. As temperatures rise, increases in pests and diseases and water scarcity threaten agricultural productivity, while climate shocks and natural disasters become more common. Rising surface temperatures are predicted to reduce staple cereal crop yields as much as 20 to 40 percent by 2100. These changes are felt most strongly by low-income populations, smallholder farmers, and other vulnerable populations with limited resilience to climate variability.

Climate change is not only impacting the quantity of food that we can grow—it also affects its nutritional quality. Research has shown that rising levels of carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional value of crops and impact human nutrition (see here, here, here, and here, to name a few). Many of these crops are staples that are the mainstay of diets around the world—particularly among the poor.

 “As global mega-trends such as climate change, urbanization, increased incomes and a growing population put pressure on food systems, we must consider new agricultural technologies to better meet the needs of both people and the planet.”

–Katharine Kreis, Director, Strategic Initiatives; Lead, Nutrition Innovation, PATH

Sounding complex? We’ve only just scratched the surface. These are only a few of the many interdependencies shaping the global food system and its impact on our planet.

It’s Time for Bigger Change Faster

In fall 2019, the Bridge Collaborative and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a new report that asks people to think, act, and fund differently to solve the major challenges facing people and the planet. This report, entitled “Bigger Change Faster: Integrated Development, Health, and Environment Actions for a Sustainable Future” outlined a set of three global challenges for sustainable development that won’t be solved through single-sector approaches. For example, one of the report’s three challenge areas addressed the need to transform the global food system for better health and sustainability.

The Future of Food

In view of this complexity, combatting malnutrition in the context of climate change will require an array of climate-smart solutions with multiple co-benefits for both nutrition and planetary health.

Although there will be no “silver bullet” solutions, biofortification is one great example. Biofortification, the process of increasing the micronutrient content of staple crops through plant breeding and other agronomic practices, specifically targets populations with limited access to healthier food options. Underpinned by decades of research and programmatic evidence, biofortification provides essential micronutrients to populations without requiring changes in behavior.

Biofortified crops are also designed to be resilient to the effects of climate change. They can be bred to be drought and heat tolerant, as well as resistant to diseases and pests—helping to increase yields. Biofortified crops can also be incorporated into existing agricultural systems at no additional cost to the farmer, offering a cost-effective intervention with co-benefits for both people and the planet. According to Howarth Bouis, the founder of HarvestPlus and global expert in biofortification, “In low- and middle-income countries, prices of nutritionally-rich foods (such as vegetables, fruits and meat) have been rising for decades, while prices of energy-rich staples have fallen. The underlying cause of hidden hunger is that many people cannot afford sufficient non-staples. Climate change makes things even more difficult for consumers by putting upward pressure on all food prices. Biofortification provides added minerals and vitamins to diets at no extra cost to consumers. It is proven to work and is ready to scale in sixty countries.”

Moving the Needle

This fall, HarvestPlus, a global leader in biofortification, joined forces with PATH and the Bridge Collaborative to host a half-day convening to link knowledge to action and amplify the delivery of evidence-based interventions like biofortification with the potential for impacts across the environment, agriculture, nutrition, and human health. Together, a group of experts and leaders from across sectors worked together to identify evidence gaps, policies, and upcoming opportunities to create healthier and more sustainable food systems.

What did we learn? As the effects of climate change continue to touch communities around the world and shape the ways in which we produce and consume food, multisectoral solutions like biofortification will play a critical role in driving toward a more sustainable global food system. Given the urgency of the challenges we face, the time is ripe for advancing climate-smart food system interventions. But, without a multisector view of both the problem and the menu of solutions, we risk leaving behind opportunities for greater impact or improving one dimension at the expense of others. The value of problem solving with strangers should never be underestimated!


Photo credits: © HarvestPlus