A farmer carrying a hoe walks past a dried-up pond in Shilin Yi Autonomous County of Kunming, Yunnan province February 28, 2013.  (Reuters/Stringer)

Climate change has already begun to affect the world’s food production, a new report from the United Nations warns — and unless significant action is taken, it could put millions more people at risk of hunger and poverty in the next few decades.  

It’s a message that’s been emphasized over and over by climate scientists and has informed many of the UN’s sustainable development goals and positions on global food security. But this is the first time it’s been the primary focus of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual State of Food and Agriculture report, its flagship publication, which centers on a different topic each year. Recent subjects have included social protection and anti-poverty measures, innovation in family farming and designing food systems for better nutrition.

The new 194-page report, just released Monday, is a testament to growing alarm among scientists and policymakers over the dire threat climate change poses to future food security. It describes a vicious cycle in which unsustainable farming practices contribute hefty greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and drive more warming, which can then continue to hurt global crop production.

Under a severe climate change scenario, the report points out, research suggests that 122 million more people could be living in extreme poverty by the year 2030 compared to a future with no climate change. Even under a low-impact climate scenario, this number could be as high as 35 million more people.

“Hunger, poverty and climate change need to be tackled together,” said Food and Agriculture Organization director-general José Graziano da Silva, in a foreword to the new report. “This is, not least, a moral imperative as those who are now suffering most have contributed least to the changing climate.”

Indeed, while the impact of climate change on agriculture is expected to become increasingly severe in all parts of the world post-2030, the report notes that the most vulnerable populations include producers in developing countries whose livelihoods depend on farming. Global declines in production may also radiate throughout the world in the form of higher food prices, placing a greater strain on already vulnerable low-income communities.

According to the report, “meeting the goals of eradicating hunger and poverty by 2030, while addressing the threat of climate change, will require a profound transformation of food and agriculture systems worldwide.” The report describes a variety of adaptation and mitigation techniques that can help move this transformation forward.  

Agriculture, forestry and land use changes, taken as a whole, are responsible for about one fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions, the report points out. So adopting more sustainable farming practices and preventing deforestation, which often takes place to clear land for agriculture, can help mitigate climate change from the ground up. And given the huge contributions of the meat industry alone — from the methane produced by cattle to the sheer amount of land and resources required to raise livestock — a push toward a more plant-based diet worldwide could also save substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Preparation for the impact of climate change could include diversifying the types of crops farmers raise, researching and adopting more heat-resistant plant varieties and investing in better soil conservation techniques, which may help prevent some of the production losses expected in a warming world.

All of these strategies will require greater investments from the international community, the report points out. It suggests that more of the funds intended for climate mitigation should be directed into the agriculture sector.  

Making these investments may be critical if the world is to meet the global climate goals set forward in the Paris Agreement — namely, keeping warming within at least a 2-degree temperature threshold. One recent study has suggested that greenhouse gas emissions from farming must fall by a billion tons per year by the year 2030 if the world is to stay on track.

And, as the report points out, meeting climate goals will likely drastically reduce the food-related risks associated with future warming. In these ways, climate change, sustainable agriculture and global food security are inextricably bound up with one another, and efforts to tackle one have profound consequences for the others.

The new report drives this point home just one day after World Food Day, celebrated on Sunday. It also comes at the start of the 43rd Committee on World Food Security meetings, convening in Rome this week. And in a Friday address to world leaders, Graziano da Silva reaffirmed the risk climate change poses to the global food supply.

“We cannot allow the impacts of climate change to overshadow our vision of a world free of hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poorest,” he said. “No one can be left behind.”