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Connecting climate change and food security science

July 15, 2014 By: C. Terwisscha van Scheltinga Image: World Bank (by: Thomas Sennett)

Climate change is real and it affects food security in all its dimensions. This is a brief overview of climate change and food security research at the international level and how this relates to the local circumstances in Bangladesh.

What is done internationally and locally and what should be done was discussed at the Third Global Conference on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security and Climate Change, held in Johannesburg in December 2013.1 In order to stimulate and keep the discussion alive after the conference, the Dutch embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, connects the international academic debate on the international level with the situation and needs in tackling food security and climate change in an integrated way in Bangladesh.

Research on climate change and food security

A review article of Wheeler and von Braun in August 2013 in Science describes what research has been done sofar on climate change and food security at global level.2 It advices policy makers to invest in adaptation and mitigation actions to enhance food security, while meanwhile further research should study climate change in all its complexity and resulting food security risks.

Wheeler and von Braun indicate that assessment of the global food security is extremely challenging. Overall, the big picture is that about 2 billion people out of the global population of over 7 billion people are food insecure as they fall short on one or more of the dimensions of food security. Most alarming areas are sub-saharan Africa and South Asia. Numbers appear difficult to give, and the writers indicate that there is a need to revise and combine data-gathering methods for, among others, food deficiencies at household level as well as for nutritional status.

In the analysis of research on food security and climate change at international level, Wheeler and von Braun note that research on this topic started in the mid-1990s, after which it got less attention, which increased again from 2008 onwards. The analysis is structured using the food security definition of FAO, where food security is defined having four aspects, i.e. availability, access, utilization and stability. Most of the research on climate change and food security is done on the availability dimension (70%) while access, utilization and stability only represented 11.9%, 13.9% and 4.2%. They indicate several possibilities why this happened, like for instance the focus on direct effects of climate change on crop growth and the incidence of pests and diseases. They note that studies have focussed on ‘easy to investigate’ areas, and avoided complex and multi-layered features of food security which would require the integration of bio-physical, economic and social factors.

Climate change and food security in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is at the forefront with regard to climate change adaptation. As a vulnerable and densily populated delta country, it is exposed to natural hazards like cyclones, floods and sea level rise, which are expected to increase due to climate change. In 2005 the National Action Plan on Adaptation was prepared, followed by the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (2008, revised 2009). However, quantification of the expected climate change and its impacts on food security was not yet included. It is a daunting task. What has been done on climate change and food security is summarized below, following the four aspects of availability, access, utilization and stability.

Availability: An overview of climate change risks and food security in Bangladesh was published in 2010, made by a World Bank team lead by Winston Yu.3 Acknowledging that climate change is a key sustainable development issue in Bangladesh, Dr Yu and his team have analysed the impacts of climate change. These estimated impacts where then used in crop modelling, and the impact on economic growth was calculated under climate change scenarios, popularly known as A1 and B1, as well as under a ‘variability scenario’, indicating a scenario based on the ‘normal’ differences between climate from year to year, the so-called climate variability. The already high climate variability will be increased by climate change, and climate change is expected to result in agricultural losses of about 4% each year in the period 2005-2050, especially affecting the boro (winter rice) crop, as the phenomena are expected to surpass the historical records.

Access: Access is created in Bangladesh through programmes enhancing the purchasing power or social safety nets. Climate change impacts will threaten this access, and continuing these mechanisms is necessary. However, enhancing rural enterprise development and agro-business, basically supporting development, will enhance access.4 The Dutch funded sustainable agriculture, food security and livelihood project (SAFAL) is an example of such a project, supporting market linkages for 50.000 farm households. Another is an insurance pilot currently running at ADB. For agricultural projects, there is a need for tailor-made information at local level, on expected climate change impacts (e.g. rainfall, temperature).

Utilization: The current attention for nutrition is relevant, both for richer and poorer segments of the society. In Bangladesh, diabetics and obesity (overweight) are increasing while in particular children of more wealthy households do not seem to benefit from more access to food. The limited intake of vegetables due to unawareness is just one example in this case, thus indicating an important nutrition aspect.

Stability: Wheeler and von Braun indicated that the stability of whole food systems may be at risk under climate change. Such a risk also applies for the situation in Bangladesh, where the risk due to climate change is compounded by development challenges (like for instance distribution and pricing in crisis situations). However, though the international 2008 food crisis was also felt in Bangladesh – the effect was relatively less than expected. This requires studying the complex set of measures that the government currently has in place to manage food prices, and how these will incorporate climate change as an additional risk factor. Studies on complexity and uncertainty of transitional and longer term processes, especially trying to ‘map’ these using spatial planning tools, will be relevant.


Already before climate change got into the picture, climate variability was considered large in Bangladesh, thus making agriculture vulnerable to droughts, floods, etc. Combined with the high population pressure, where the rural population would benefit from higher food prices while a growing urban population from lower food prices, for the past 5 decades this has made food security an important, difficult and complex target to achieve in Bangladesh.

Climate change, though often discussed in isolation, in fact is closely related to development in all aspects in Bangladesh. The above may explain in some way the fact that in Dr Yu’s analysis the ‘variability scenario’ and the ‘climate change scenario’ do not result in widely different growth figures. It seems to indicate that ‘climate change’ is not the only parameter to consider. Therefore, further research on food security in Bangladesh should always take both development as well as climate change aspects into account.

Further, it is important to enhance a solid knowledge base on climate change and food security. This means that there is a need to test the simulations (on climate change, crop water use as well as on food production under climate change) with observations. Application of spatial planning tools and scenario development can assist to ‘map’ the impacts and think through future strategies.

However, at field level farmers can’t wait for research results to be published. Some action research is ongoing through the CGIAR system, giving direct input to implementation programmes, but more would be welcome. For policy makers, ‘no regret’ measures, such as enhancing farming organizations, diversification of agriculture, creating income opportunities in the rural areas are immediate options, besides investment in research to connect local level adaptation with national level adaptation, longer term planning based on assessments and the like. Scenarios and adaptation pathways, as possible ways for development taking into account climate change, need to be studied side by side by implementation of ‘no regret measures’.


  1. 1. The Third Global Conference on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security and Climate Change was held in Johannesburg, with the title ‘Grow Smart, 2gether, 2day’ (http://afcconference.agric.za/), from 3 to 5 December 2013
  2. 2. Tim Wheeler and Joachim von Braun, Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security, Science, Volume 341, pp 508-513, August 2013
  3. 3. Winston Yu; Alam, Mozaharul; Hassan, Ahmadul; Khan, Abu Saleh; Ruane, Alex C.; Rosenzweig, Cynthia; Major, David C.; Thurlow, James. 2010. Bangladesh – Climate change risks and food security in Bangladesh. Washington, DC: World Bank. (last accessed 20 Jan 2014)
  4. 4. M.A. Awal, M. Harun-Ar Rashid, A.F.M. Tariqul Islam, M. Farouq Imam (2013), Adapting social safety-net programs to climate change shocks: issues and options for Bangladesh, National Food Policy Capacity Strengthening Programme, Dhaka, Bangladesh. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014)

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