Jul 18, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: U.S. global food security envoy “very concerned” about El Niño

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security Cary Fowler told Axios he is "very concerned" about what El Niño could mean for crop production and resulting impacts on global food security.

Why it matters: A new UN report reveals that the number of food-insecure people worldwide has surged in recent years, while developing El Niño conditions are poised to exacerbate hunger in at-risk regions.

What he's saying: "The possibility that this is going to be not just a normal El Niño, which would be a problem, but a historically strong El Niño, means that it increases the odds, or true problems, with food production, and therefore the onset of more challenges for food insecurity," Fowler said in an interview with Axios.

The big picture: The natural climate cycle is already boosting global average surface temperatures and contributing to unprecedented extreme weather events, writes Axios' Andrew Freedman.

  • Never before has an El Niño developed when surrounding ocean temperatures were so warm, raising the possibility of unprecedented outcomes on sea and land, per Andrew.

Zoom in: Fowler noted he's worried about El Niño's possible impact on crop production in parts of the world where it has historically had a negative impact — and not just on major staple crops, which he says is where most of our understanding of the effects of El Niño have been focused.

  • Estimates suggest El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, events — one of the biggest sources of natural variability in global climate — affect yields on over a quarter of global croplands.

Between the lines: El Niño's volatile impacts on food supply will be outsized for populations relying on subsistence agriculture, an added concern for already climate-embattled regions of the Global South.

  • "I'm personally concerned about its possible effect in Southeast Asia, in Central America, and certainly in southern Africa," said Fowler. "And part of my concern has to do with the issue of poverty and food insecurity in those areas."
  • Peru — where fish populations have historically been decimated by El Niño's warmer-than-usual waters — recently announced the suspension of the first fishing season for anchovy.

Zoom out: A new UN report finds that between 691 and 783 million people faced hunger last year — an increase of 122 million people since 2019. Natural disasters exacerbated by climate change were flagged as one of the driving contributors.

  • Plus, Russia's suspension of the Black Sea grain deal announced Monday is likely to only further complicate efforts to mitigate the global hunger crisis.
  • Other influences fueling the global food crisis include the impact of the war on Ukrainian agricultural production, COVID disruptions, relatively low grain stockpiles, fertilizer supply issues and pricing pressures, said Fowler.

Meanwhile: The Biden administration announced $100 million in funding Thursday aimed at developing climate-resilient crops and agricultural processes through the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, a federal program launched in February.

  • According to Fowler, around $70 million of the investment will go to the initiative's soil work, with the other $30 million focused on crop adaptation.

The intrigue: So far, the program has identified some traditional indigenous crops for which they have some improved varieties that are "at or near the end of the pipeline development."

  • He expects they'll be making a "major investment" soon in getting improved varieties of pigeonpea — a drought-tolerant legume — out to farmers in Africa.

Yes, but: Ongoing funding shortfalls in humanitarian aid are another challenge for the global hunger response — leading organizations like the World Food Program to report vast cuts to food assistance in some of its largest operations.

The bottom line: "We have just a lot of different factors that, I would say, work against any quick or easy solution [to the global food crisis], but we're trying," Fowler told Axios. "And now we have El Niño.”

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