With temperatures spiking to 110 degrees once more, Jeetram Yadav sat in the shade on his farm outside New Delhi and cupped a handful of this season’s disappointing wheat between his calloused palms. The grains were brown and the size of cumin seeds, shriveled by heat.
Yadav’s shriveled grains are a small part of the dangerous feedback loop between climate-linked weather disasters and the war in Ukraine that have sent food prices soaring around the world and raising the risk of an epidemic of starvation.
When Russia invaded earlier this year, threatening Ukraine’s exports of grains, crop-rich India was seen as a global buffer, making up for the shortfall. But this spring’s erratic rains and scorching heat killed crops and made it dangerous for farmworkers to harvest, devastating India’s production. In response, India announced in May it would shut down all grain exports, staving off famine in the country but threatening starvation abroad.
It was yet another climate-driven shock to a global food system already in upheaval, and a sign of the hunger crisis that looms as the planet warms.
As of last week, about 750,000 people around the world were facing a food security “catastrophe” — at which “starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident" — according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. agency tasked with fighting global hunger.
About 49 million are at risk of falling into famine conditions in the months ahead, according to a Hunger Hotspots report published last week by the FAO and the World Food Program, the United Nations’ food assistance branch.
“These are millions of people who literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Brian Lander, deputy director of WFP’s emergencies division.
Climate change is not the only contributing factor, he noted. Supply chain issues and economic instability linked to the coronavirus pandemic have raised costs for fuel, fertilizer, shipping and other agricultural inputs.
The war between Russia and Ukraine has also disrupted exports from two of the world’s biggest wheat producers, increasing the price of the grain that supplies one-fifth of all calories consumed by humans.
With Black Sea shipping blocked and Ukrainian ports heavily mined, millions of tons of grains are trapped in the region. Russia has also seized wheat, bombed silos and blocked many railways, leading U.S. and European officials to accuse Moscow of “weaponizing” the world’s food supply to gain an upper hand in the war.
At talks in Turkey last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated support for a U.N. proposal that would create shipping corridors to ease the ports blockade and allow Russia to export grain and fertilizer. Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism that Russia would not exploit the corridors for an amphibious attack, and the prospect of a deal remains elusive.
But while the Ukraine war and the pandemic might fade with time, experts say, climate change has become a persistent threat to food security, making it more difficult to respond to unforeseen shocks.
Human greenhouse gas emissions have fueled increasingly unpredictable weather events that can wipe out harvests for an entire region, studies show. Waves of punishing heat can kill livestock and make it unsafe for farmworkers to do their jobs. Floods and other natural disasters can devastate the infrastructure needed to transport food to hungry communities.
A February report on climate impacts and adaptation from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that current warming levels of about one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) have already cut into yields of staples like wheat, sorghum and rice. If global temperatures rise an additional degree, the chance of simultaneous crop failures in different parts of the world rises to almost 1 in 10 for a given year. By the end of the century, the report projects, as much as 30 percent of current agricultural land could become unsuitable for farming.
“It does feel as though what we had in the report is just playing out in live stream when I read the news,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor of global development at Cornell University and coordinating lead author for the IPCC.
“We have consistent robust evidence of increased extreme events from climate change, which exacerbate some of these other non-climatic factors and can lead to real spikes,” she added.
Climate change impacts on food production are most felt in low-income countries that rely on a tenuous mix of locally grown and imported food, Kerr said. These communities are increasingly struggling to ensure their own harvests but cannot afford to pay ever-higher prices on the global market.
In few places is the situation more dire than in the Horn of Africa, where recent rainfall has been just half of average and a historic drought is stretching into its fourth consecutive season. Hunger mortality rates for the region have been ticking upward, and as many as 29 percent of Somali children younger than 5 are experiencing acute malnutrition. About 7 million livestock in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have died since last fall, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which analyzes food security for governments and humanitarian groups.
With just one-eighth the density of weather stations recommended by the World Meteorological Organization, African countries have a harder time forecasting climate disruptions and getting that information to farmers.
In this case, the alarm bells about the current drought have been blaring for a while, said Shannon Scribner, humanitarian director for Oxfam America, which works with local organizations to provide aid in the region. International alert systems had forecast failed rainy seasons and warned of food insecurity at least two years ago. Now, the interventions that could lessen the disaster — emergency funding, scaled-up humanitarian programs — are being hampered by the war in Ukraine.
Now, one person is probably dying of hunger every 48 seconds in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, according to a report released last month by Oxfam and Save the Children. That report points to the failures of international actors to take sufficient action to respond to early warning information.
Meanwhile, declining snow cover in the mountains of Afghanistan means there will be little water this summer to irrigate the nation’s crops. South Sudan is projected to experience another round of devastating floods that could inundate farmland and force thousands from their homes.
In India, brutal heat waves have killed dozens and cut food production by about 30 percent. These scorching temperatures were made at least 30 times as likely because of human-caused climate change, according to the World Weather Attribution initiative, an international collaboration that examines the link between extreme weather and human-caused warming.
Many of the hardest-hit communities are the ones that contributed least to planet-warming pollution. Combined, the countries on FAO and WFP’s Hunger Hotspots list account for less than 1 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
“They’re not countries where we have high industry. Not countries where we see mass production and degradation of the environment. It’s countries that are living on very basic terms,” Lander said.
“They’re not at fault,” he added. “They’re living the consequences of the West and the industry we’ve developed.”
Yet the world’s wealthiest and most productive breadbaskets are also suffering from an onslaught of weather extremes. Prolonged droughts and destructive wildfire seasons have dented harvests in the United States and Canada. In France, Europe’s biggest wheat exporter, farmers have faced a mix of frost, a record-hot May accompanied by spring drought, and intense hailstorms that brought heavy rain.
Christian Huyghe, scientific director at France’s National Institute of Agricultural Research, said the country has over the past few months experienced “all the events that were predicted to be possibly associated with climate change.”
Cereal production is projected to decrease this year, according to the FAO — the first such decline in four years — even as demand for maize, wheat, rice and other grains skyrockets. In May, the FAO’s price index for cereals hit a new high. With countries forced to draw on emergency supplies, global grain stocks fell to their lowest levels in almost a decade.
“What we see now is just the very beginning of the potential impact,” Huyghe said. “Food security is by far much more under threat because of climate change than because of war.”
Low-income developing nations are feeling the squeeze the most, said Rwandan agricultural scientist Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and U.N. special envoy to last year’s food systems summit. Many already had to borrow money to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, and are carrying debt equal to 70 percent of their GDP or more. Taking out further loans to afford food and fertilizer will make it more difficult to invest in climate change adaptation measures in the months and years ahead.
“Leadership is needed from developed countries to restructure debts to make sure that developing countries aren’t completely destroyed,” Kalibata said.
Similarly, she said, vulnerable families need immediate assistance to make it through this difficult period. Otherwise, they may be displaced or forced to give up the very things — livestock, vehicles, school fees — that could protect them in the future.
“The damage stays with us a very long time,” Kalibata said. It’s yet another way, she said, that “the future is biased” against those who are already suffering the most.
Without humanitarian interventions, experts project that even more people could fall into famine by the end of the year. The FAO and WFP report calls for the global community to provide food and financial support for hard-hit countries, as well as fertilizer, drought-tolerant seed and other support to bolster harvests in low-income regions.
That support can help avert a catastrophe until the current crisis eases. But ultimately, Kalibata said, humanity must act to curb global warming if we hope to prevent a future defined by hunger.
“Hopefully the war in Ukraine will end sooner than later, but I’m not sure climate change will end sooner than later,” she said. “Nobody knows when climate change will end."
Gerry Shih in New Delhi, Rick Noack in Paris and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.