Hunger and Climate Change

Hunger Definition

Nearly one in nine people, 821 million worldwide, suffer from hunger [1]. Most hungry people live in lower-middle-income regions, which saw a reduction in the prevalence of undernutrition from 14.7 percent in 2000 to 10.8 percent in 2013 [2].  However, this reduction in world hunger slowed between 2013-2015 and hunger has risen since 2016. As of 2017, Asia has the highest absolute number (count) of undernourished people (515.1 million), while Africa has the largest proportion (as a percentage of the total population) of hunger, estimated at 20.4 [2, 3].

Causes of Hunger

Hunger is primarily caused by poverty, although other causes include conflict, political instability, population growth, and food and agricultural policies and practices, among other causes. [4]


Source: FAO/UNICEF/WHO/WFP/IFAD, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2018, p. 3.


Over the millennium, climate variability has also contributed to the rise in hunger. Over the last 5 years there has been an up-ward trend in the rise in hunger, in part due to climate change, in part due to conflict, [2, 4]. Weather events can affect the prevalence of hunger by altering agricultural productivity, food availability, food pricing, and food access [2]. Additionally, there are more people in the world living in urban areas and along the coasts, which increases the risk of flooding and extent of damage due to weather-related events. Taken together, these factors can result in loss of assets, increased poverty, and other drivers of hunger.


Source: FAO/UNICEF/WHO/WFP/IFAD, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2018, p. 39.


The Impact of Climate Change on Hunger

Climate change or variability affects agriculture and crop production, which ultimately affects food security. Reports from Senegal, Mali, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, and Sudan identify drought and rising temperatures as two driving factors of climate change affecting crop yields  [5-12]. Historically, drought causes more than 80 percent of the losses in agriculture, especially for the livestock and crop production subsectors [2]. For low-latitude countries, crop production is predicted to be “consistently and negatively affected by climate change” whereby in northern latitude countries, the impacts of climate change on crop production is unclear [13]. Results from multiple studies show that global crop yields of maize, soybeans, wheat and rice were significantly reduced over time due to drought [4, 14]. However, these results were different based on income and environment. Low and middle-income countries in tropical areas faced more negative impacts from climate change due to reductions in water availability and increased heat spells which reduce crop productivity. For high-income countries in temperate zones, climate change may increase crop production by causing longer growing seasons and increased acreage for crop production [4].


Source: FAO, The Future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges, 2017, p.42.


In some cases, climate change may reduce the quality and diversity of diets via income reductions and higher food prices. There is some evidence that affected households engage in coping strategies such as skipping meals, eating less per meal, or eating less nutrient-dense foods, all of which can lead to compromised dietary diversity and quality [2].


Vulnerable Populations

A large proportion of the world’s 821 million hungry people live in developing countries with fragile environments prone to climate hazards, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America [3]. Extreme climate events can affect and disrupt resources and services, such as irrigation systems, trade routes, and food assistance programs, sometimes beyond replacement or repair. Poverty can negatively affect someone’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, leaving them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate extremes, and less able to recover from climate-related events, which exacerbates conditions of poverty and inequality [13]. Thus there is a cyclical effect: climate-related disasters create and sustain poverty, which contribute to increased food insecurity and malnutrition as well as current and future vulnerability to climate extremes [2].


National Security & Conflict

Many areas that are affected by climate change are also affected by conflict; however, how climate change contributes to conflict is not well understood [12]. Increased conflict can result in population displacement, disruption to typical livelihood activities, and loss of access to food and income. Issues of national security including political conflict and civil unrest can exacerbate hunger, as seen in multiple countries across Africa such as South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria [15-17]. Mali is one example of how climate change can affect conflict: in 2012, a region-wide drought killed livestock and devastated the livelihoods of pastoralists, causing an increase in rebel factions, as well as looting and stealing [18].


Actions to Reduce the Impact of Climate Change

Agriculture is affected by climate change, but also contributes to its effect. Between 2001 and 2011, global emissions of greenhouse gas emissions from crop and livestock production grew by 14 percent [19]. Agriculture is also a major contributor to deforestation and soil degradation. Adopting climate-smart agricultural practices can help to reduce the effect of climate change on hunger. One method includes increasing crop diversity [2]. Crop and farm animal biodiversity is an important driver for enhancing the resilience and productivity of small-scale family farmers facing climate change, drought, and pest and disease outbreaks, thus improving food access [2]. One example of crop diversification is in Malawi, where diversifying maize mono-cropping with legumes has significantly reduced crop income variability [2]. Another strategy involves using more efficient water management systems, including new water sources, irrigation, drainage, water harvesting and saving technologies, desalination and storm- and wastewater management [2].

Another method to reduce the impact of climate change on hunger is to adopt vulnerability reducing measures. This includes helping people diversify their sources of income and livelihood [3], especially empowering women and other vulnerable groups. Gender-responsive programs in Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal and Zambia have helped women become less vulnerable to climate risks and more empowered to increase the food security and nutrition of their families [20]. For example, in Senegal, women have improved soil quality and crop productivity by acquiring new techniques and learning how to combat land degradation.

Finally, national governments adopting resilience policies and practices such as risk monitoring and early warning systems for extreme weather, emergency response, and preparedness helps reduce the impact of climate change on hunger.


Primary Author: Autumn G. Hullings, MPH, George Washington University, Milken Institute School of Public Health



  1. 2018 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics, in Hunger Notes. 2018, World Hunger Education Service: Washington, DC.
  2. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018. Building climate resilience for food security and nutrition. 2018, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
  3. Two Minutes on Climate Change and Hunger – A Zero Hunger World Needs Climate Resilience. 2018, World Food Programme.
  4. The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges. 2017, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
  5. A Climate Trend Analysis of Burkina Faso, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  6. A Climate Trend Analysis of Chad, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  7. A Climate Trend Analysis of Ethiopia, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  8. A Climate Trend Analysis of Mali, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  9. A Climate Trend Analysis of Niger, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  10. A Climate Trend Analysis of Senegal, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  11. A Climate Trend Analysis of Sudan, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  12. A Climate Trend Analysis of Uganda, in Informing Climate Change Adaptation Series. 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  13. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, in Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, B.V. Field CB, Dokken DJ, Mach KJ, Mastrandrea MD, Bilir TE,, E.K. Chatterjee M, Estrada YO, Genova RC, Girma B, Kissel ES, Levy AN,, and M.P. MacCracken S, White LL, Editors. 2014: Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. p. 1132.
  14. Matiu M, A.D., Menzel A, Interactions between temperature and drought in global and regional crop yield variability during 1961-2014. PLoS One, 2017. 12(5): p. e0178339.
  15. Trends in acute food insecurity, 2013-2018, in South Sudan Special Report. 2018, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  16. Continued conflict expected to prolong Famine risk in Yemen in 2019, in YEMEN Food Security Outlook. 2019, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  17. Persisting conflict in the northeast continues to drive severe food insecurity, in West Africa Nigeria. 2017, Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
  18. Breisinger C, E.O., Trinh Tan, JF, Conflict and food insecurity: How do we break the links?, in 2014-2015 Global food policy report., I.F.P.R.I. (IFPRI), Editor. 2015: Washington, D.C. p. 51-59.
  19. Agriculture and Climate Change. 2016, European Environmental Agency: Copenhagen, Denmark.
  20. Impact Evaluation of the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative in Senegal, Final evaluation. 2016, World Food Programme and Oxfam: Rome, Italy.



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