The Monitor's View

Act now to prevent future world hunger

Climate change will drastically reduce wheat and rice production if nations don't take steps now to prepare. Solving this problem is doable, if the world has the will to tackle it.

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The food shortages – and even food riots – seen around the world in recent years could become a more common occurrence by 2050 if steps aren't taken now.

Population growth alone will present a significant challenge for farmers. World population is expected to grow by about 50 percent, to more than 9 billion people in the next four decades.

Growing food, of course, depends on weather and climate. A report released Tuesday puts an exclamation point on the problem by factoring in expected changes in regional climate. The bottom line: An estimated 25 million more children will be malnourished because of predicted climate change than would be if the change didn't occur – a tragic setback in progress to reduce child hunger. So reports the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a think tank funded by governments and private organizations.

Without climate change, wheat prices would be expected to rise about 40 percent by mid-century. Factoring in climate change, prices are projected to rise as much as 194 percent. Prices for corn would rise 60 percent without climate change, but more than 150 percent with it.

The new estimates are based on changes in temperature and rainfall amounts expected around the world. They don't take into account all the possible ill effects of a warming climate, such as rising sea levels and increases in crop pests and diseases. Low-lying Bangladesh and Vietnam's Mekong River Delta, for example, could lose much of their prime rice-growing areas if seas rise only three feet, a figure well within possible projections for this century.

The report calls for an additional $7 billion annually in adaptation aid to farmers until 2050, especially to small-scale farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which are expected to be hardest hit.

Roads into rural areas would help farmers get crops to markets more easily. Irrigation projects could compensate for less rainfall. New varieties of crops using biotechnology could be more drought resistant. New farming techniques could help, too. Improvements in general health and education, including safe drinking water and better education for women and girls, would ease the problem.

Parts of China, Canada, and northern Russia may prove rare exceptions and actually see small increases in crop production as their cold climates moderate. But they won't begin to compensate for poorer growing conditions elsewhere, concludes the IFPRI report, the most comprehensive look at the effects of global warming on agriculture ever undertaken.

The good news is that the suffering caused by climate change can be avoided if nations take action now. They can afford an extra $7 billion per year. But the problem could easily slip to the bottom of the priority list given the far-off nature of the threat. Political will, above all, is required.

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