Is global warming making all of us hungrier?

Bjørn Lomborg
According to the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, hunger affected 815 million people in 2016, 38 million more than 2015.
Bjørn Lomborg

FOR more than a decade, annual data showed global hunger to be on the decline. But that has changed: According to the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, hunger affected 815 million people in 2016, 38 million more than 2015, and malnutrition is threatening millions.

The FAO blames the rise in hunger on a proliferation of violent conflicts and “climate-related shocks,” which means specific, extreme events like floods and droughts.

But in the FAO’s press release, “climate-related shocks” becomes “climate change.” It may seem like a tiny step to go from blaming “climate-related shocks” to blaming “climate change.” But that little difference means a lot, especially when it comes to the most important question: How do we help feed the world better?

According to the United Nations’ climate change panel, the IPCC, there has been no overall increase in droughts. While some parts of the world are experiencing more and worse droughts, others are experiencing fewer and lighter droughts.

Relying on climate policies to fight hunger is doomed. Any realistic carbon cuts will be expensive and have virtually no impact on climate by the end of the century. In fact, some policies to combat global warming could very well be exacerbating hunger. Rich countries have embraced biofuels — energy derived from plants — to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. But the climate benefit is negligible: According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, deforestation, fertilizer, and fossil fuels used in producing biofuels offset about 90 percent of the “saved” carbon dioxide.

Bad policies

In 2013, European biofuels used enough land to feed 100 million people, and the United States’ program even more. Biofuel subsidies contributed to rising food prices, and their swift growth was reined in only when models showed that up to another 135 million people could starve by 2020. But that means the hunger of around 30 million people today can likely be attributed to these bad policies.

There are effective ways to produce more food. One of the best, as Copenhagen Consensus research has shown, is to get serious about investing in research and development to boost agricultural productivity. Through irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and plant breeding, the Green Revolution increased world grain production by an astonishing 250 percent between 1950 and 1984, raising the calorie intake of the world’s poorest people and averting severe famines. We need to build on this progress.

Investing an extra US$88 billion in agricultural R&D over the next 32 years would increase yields by an additional 0.4 percentage points every year, which could save 79 million people from hunger and prevent five million cases of child malnourishment. This would be worth nearly US$3 trillion in social good, implying an enormous return of US$34 for every dollar spent.

By the end of the century, the extra increase in agricultural productivity would be far greater than the damage to agricultural productivity suggested by even the worst-case scenarios of the effects of global warming. And there would be additional benefits: the World Bank has found that productivity growth in agriculture can be up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than productivity growth in other sectors.

We are at a turning point. After achieving dramatic gains against hunger and famine, we run the risk of backsliding, owing to poorly considered choices. The stakes are far too high for us to pick the wrong policies.

Bjørn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.