Climate change is fuelling a global hunger crisis — innovation could be the answer

The world is facing a food crisis, and nowhere is this more clear than in East Africa.

In Somalia alone, 6.7 million people — nearly half the country’s population — face acute food insecurity as a result of drought. 2.2 million are in an emergency situation and 300,000 face outright famine. After recovering from the devastating famine of 2011, the country is yet again on the brink of a mass-scale food crisis.

And for the wider Greater Horn of Africa region, the situation is only marginally better. Tens of millions of people now face acute hunger, and millions of children under the age of five are acutely malnourished.

Spurred by drought but turbocharged by global food and energy price inflation, the region is in desperate need of assistance — but it is not the only place in the world facing this existential challenge.

East Africa’s food crisis

Vulnerable people in developing countries everywhere, hit by rising food prices, are struggling to make ends meet. Rising food prices may mean disaster for them. The World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) forecasted the largest food crisis in modern history in its new Hunger Hotspots Report.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity worldwide has more than doubled — from 135 million to 345 million — since 2019, meaning 345 million people are marching towards starvation.

While economic challenges persist, climate change is also contributing to this worldwide spike in hunger.

East Africa is facing its longest drought in over 40 years and now another rainy season is forecasted to fail. Across Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, this is likely worsening an unprecedented food crisis, pushing 26 million people into acute hunger or worse. Recent harvests have been way below average yields and at least 8 million livestock have died. The drought is exacerbating other shocks such as conflict and the socio-economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Leveraging tech against climate change and the hunger crisis

While there is an immediate need to increase investments into climate adaptation, innovation and technology can deliver a step change in climate action. New innovations and new technology can play a role across all areas of climate action.

Take, for example, software that can anticipate climate hazards before they turn into disasters using early-warning systems to trigger action. Leveraging new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) can make early warning systems more accessible across the globe in near real-time or even predictive.

WFP’s HungerMap Live is already doing this. It combines data from surveys with AI models where limited or no data is available covering over 90 countries across the globe.

Another lever is using technology to restore degraded ecosystems that serve as natural shields against climate impact. The World Economic Forum’s Food Innovation Hub initiative in Colombia works to test and scale innovations towards regenerative agriculture. The FarmToMarketAlliance, an alliance of multiple private sector actors, international organizations and NGOs, encourages crop diversification and the planting of indigenous foods to optimise land and water use.

Protecting the most vulnerable with insurance against climate extremes is another area where innovative business models and technologies can make a difference. To this end, Oxfam and WFP launched the R4 Rural Resilience initiative, combining insurance, credit, savings and disaster risk reduction. Insurance models reduce the individual risk to a drastic event, where the overall risk pool can absorb the individual cases. R4 enables the poorest farmers to access crop insurance by using improved agricultural practices.

Simple, low-tech innovations can also deliver positive impact for some of the world’s most vulnerable, for example by minimising food waste, particularly in post-harvest losses. Smallholder farmers may not have access to proper post-harvest handling, which may lead to up to 40% losses before food ever enters the wider food system. With hermetically sealed bags or silos, these losses can be reduced to up to just 2%, avoiding waste and increasing farmers’ income. Using a market-based approach together with the private sector and NGOs, Post Harvest Loss Venture is aiming to scale further.

WFP’s HungerMap Live combines data from surveys with AI models to map the areas worldwide most vulnerable to hunger or potential famine due to climate change. Image: WFP

Making an impact, fast

Innovation and technology often take significant time for the first pilots to reach scale across multiple countries. Silicon Valley’s start-ups and the innovation models they use may, however, have an answer to this.

Several organisations have already proven that scaling innovations is possible. The WFP’s Innovation Accelerator positively impacted nine million people in 2021. XPRIZE has launched successful incentive competitions like the Elon Musk-funded Global Learning and Carbon XPRIZE and the Feeding the Next Billion XPRIZE. The World Economic Forum’s Food Innovation Hubs Initiative is garnering multi-stakeholder action for more sustainable food systems and the Green Tech Festival has brought together change makers for a more sustainable world.

These efforts, combined, are making a real difference when it comes to catalysing and scaling innovations, and ultimately easing the global hunger crisis.

Public support for climate innovation

Whether it’s by making their voices heard, changing individual consumer behavior or donating to charity — for as little as $0.80 at WFP’s ShareTheMeal on a smartphone — everybody can play a role in climate action.

While large-scale projects and eye-catching fundraising is essential to fighting the climate crisis, so too is the buy-in from regular people that want to see a fairer, more just world — a world fit for their grandchildren and where nobody goes hungry.

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