SDGs Explained | Food insecurity and its relationship with climate change and migration

Yuxuan Liu


Target 2.1: By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round

Can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday? What kind of grains? What protein and veggies? How about breakfast, dinner or late-night snack? Sometimes it’s a hard answer, perhaps because you were offered a variety of foods and it’s almost impossible to recall every single ingredient in your meal. Maybe you had a lot of options and you don’t remember what you picked.

Honestly, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that you don’t remember your lunch. The fact that you had lunch and had options already makes your situation much better compared to the 155 million people who have experienced acute food insecurity in 2020, which is an increase of 20 million compared to 2019. According to the World Bank, 25.8% of people around the world are suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2018, and the number has increased quite significantly from the 22.3% in 2015. All these people are facing difficulties in obtaining food of sufficient quality and quantity.

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the population, world (%)

Source: World Bank

These numbers might be hard to believe because that’s a quarter of the world’s population having difficulties accessing basic food—something crucial and fundamental to humans’ survival. Unfortunately, this number is sure to increase in 2020 and 2021 due to the “perfect storm” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to pre-existing conflicts, climate shocks and the locust crisis. The Global Report on Food Crises – 2021 commented that “by the end of 2020, the global goal of achieving ‘zero hunger’ by 2030 seemed increasingly out of reach,” because “the magnitude and severity of food crises worsened in 2020 as protracted conflict, the economic fallout of COVID-19 and weather extremes exacerbated pre-existing fragilities. Forecasts point to a grim outlook for 2021, with the threat of Famine persisting in some of the world’s worst food crises.”


The increasing number of people experiencing food insecurity shows that despite possible technical advances we have in agriculture, other natural and social factors still play significant roles in limiting people’s access to food.

An ongoing outbreak of desert locust, the 2019-2021 locust infestation, is one key natural factor that threatens food production and supply across the regions of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent. This worst outbreak in decades leads to 20.2 million people facing severe acute food insecurity in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Despite the severity of this natural disaster, another natural factor leads to food insecurity on a larger scale.

Climate change is negatively impacting agriculture and access to food. Climate change will result directly in an increasing number and intensity of extreme weather disasters such as droughts, floods and megafires. These severe weather disasters are major culprits of agricultural production loss because in many countries where modern agricultural technologies are not applied, the populations still rely on nature to grow their crops and feed themselves. In addition to direct impact on production, these weather disasters can also impact the transportation and storage of food, influencing the livelihood of people and further exacerbating their access to fundamental needs, including other types of food, health care and basic products needed in their daily lives.

In some cases, the impact of climate on food production is so negative that people have to leave their homes in search of somewhere else to live. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over 19 million people had to leave their homes to live in another part of their countries in 2015. Climate migration poses threats to the living standards of the people who are forced to migrate for several reasons. Firstly, settling in new places is not easy. Many might face economic hardships because of limited job opportunities, making it hard for people to meet basic needs, including food. Secondly, if climate migrants are unable to integrate into their new communities, they might face stigma and limited access to opportunities such as education and health care, especially if they are living in camp settings. Thirdly, people who left their countries of origin due to climate reasons are not legally treated as refugees, making it almost impossible for them to get protection from their host countries. According to The 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee has to be outside of his/her country due to “well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” Leaving due to climate change does not qualify a person to be a refugee, thus limiting his or her chances to get protection and support that were regulated in the Convention.

In addition to migration caused by climate, other reasons that can cause migration also severely diminish people’s access to food. According to the Global Report on Food Crises – 2021, four conflict-affected countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Syrian Arab Republic—accounted for nearly 40% of the total population who are having food consumption gaps or worse degrees of food insecurity.

Source: Global Report on Food Crises – 2021

People originating from these countries, including other countries with political instability or war, are having trouble accessing food. If they are still in their countries of origin but are forced to leave their homes, they become internally displaced and might live in camp settings, hindering their access to essential resources. These populations rely highly on international aid to survive, but sometimes, even if aid agencies want to provide these populations with resources, they face huge challenges in aid delivery processes. For example, in South Sudan, food aid supposedly delivered to civilians could be “seized” by soldiers, where the military made up non-existing civilians just to trick international agencies and get food.

For the displaced, this situation is worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. A report published by the International Organization of Migration finds that 4 out of 5 displaced persons live in countries with high levels of acute food insecurity and malnutrition. With COVID-19 lockdowns and economic challenges, people are losing their jobs and ways to support their families, as most of them “work in the informal economy” and “they are often the first to be laid off and are usually excluded from social welfare systems.” In addition, we are seeing delays in international aid delivery due to border control and the fact that many sponsor countries have to cope with their own COVID-19 crises.

Food insecurity is deeply affecting many people in the world, and simply providing food or advancing technologies in agriculture is not enough to address this issue. To truly alleviate the threats of food insecurity, the world has to work together to resolve the adverse results of populations’ diminished capacities to produce and access food, both possibly caused by climate change and conflicts.

About the author

Yuxuan Liu is a journalist/columnist at the Writing and Interview Program of Social Responsibility Practitioners. She is a rising junior studying Global Health who loves mint and chocolate chips ice cream.

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