As news reports bring increasingly frequent stories of climate-change-related natural disasters, the Alliance for a Healthier World recently co-hosted a seminar with the SAIS Energy, Resources and Environment and International Development Programs called “Food and Water Security: A Balancing Act in the Era of Climate Change.”
"This was an important event because it brought together experts from a variety of areas to look at how climate change is impacting food and water security – and specifically how that will affect the world's most vulnerable populations," said organizer Jessica Fanzo, the Food & Nutrition Security theme leader for the Alliance and a Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor.
Ben Zatichik, Johns Hopkins Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, gave the opening keynote on water security, explaining that it is a multi-scale, multifaceted problem.
“Water is both friend and foe, and the water security definition therefore has two almost independent parts: securing water when you need it, and protecting yourself from water when you don’t want it,” he said.
Zaitchik discussed reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predict not only more extreme precipitation in many parts of the world, but also more variability and uncertainty in terms of total precipitation. He stressed the importance of robust, interdisciplinary solutions to water security-related problems.
“You aren’t necessarily be going to be trying to optimize your outcome,” he said. “You’re going to try to understand points of failure and design away from them.” (View Zaitchik’s presentation here.)
Janet Ranganathan, Vice President for Science and Research at the World Resources Institute, outlined major upcoming global challenges – such as the need to for a 56 percent increase in food calorie production by 2050, when the world population is expected to reach 10 billion – as well as recommended solutions.
She specifically discussed how inequities in the agricultural sector contribute to food insecurity. For example, agriculture supports 28 percent of the world’s employed people, but contributes only 3 percent of global GDP.
“You’ve got a lot of quite poorly paid people in this sector,” Ranganathan said. “It’s sort of ironic that the majority of the people that go to bed hungry are, in fact, the people that actually produce food.”
Ranganathan emphasized that solutions must focus on addressing both food production and consumption, such as shifting dietary habits away from beef and reducing competition from bioenergy. (View Ranganathan’s presentation here.)
Zaitchik and Ranganathan were joined by David Reidmiller, Director of the National Climate Assessment, U.S. Global Change Research Program; Mark Rosegrant, Director of the Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute; and Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch for a panel discussion moderated by Johannes Urpelainen, Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy.
The panelists discussed specific areas where climate change has impacted food and water availability. Zaitchik pointed to Syria, where drought combined with other factors has contributed to water scarcity, as well as Australia and the Horn of Africa. Rosegrant noted that staple crops such as maize and rice have suffered a 10-15 percent loss in production due to climate change.
Despite these challenges, panelists brought forth a number of solutions. Rosegrant called for farmers to have stronger rights over their water, and Reidmiller stressed the need for conservation and the reduction of wasteful practices such as sidewalk hosing and desalination.
Lovera highlighted the importance of including all stakeholders when considering solutions. She noted that many agriculture workers understand that climate change is a major issue, but they often are not included in conversations about mitigation.
“There is a pool of people in the food system who do want to be part of the solution and they are increasingly not seeing themselves in some of these discussions,” she said. “These are big picture conversations, and right now some people are kind of intrigued by that and excited about it, but a lot of people are afraid because they don’t see a place for their business in that conversation.”
Ranganathan pointed out that organizations such as the World Resources Institute had formulated a number of solutions to global food and water insecurity, and it is now up to politicians to enact those solutions.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of solutions that’s a problem. All of us have got our solutions,” Ranganathan said. “The problem is that there isn’t the political will to do what’s necessary to implement them.”
Reflecting on the event, Fanzo discussed next steps that she hoped audience members would take away from the speakers’ presentations.
“Water and food security will be two major challenges in the era of climate change,” she said. “Presenting the constraints on both water and food, both Professor Zaitchik and Dr. Ranganathan gave us a menu of options that we can work on now to ensure that everyone has access to these two precious commodities now and in the future.”
The entire seminar is available on YouTube.
Article by AHW Global Health Scholar Alyssa Wooden. Alyssa is majoring in Public Health Studies and minoring in Environmental Studies. Since 2017 she has served as the editor for the Johns Hopkins News-Letter and has worked with a local organization to prepare policy briefs for environmental impacts on child health.