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How are environmental shocks related to food security?

Posted by Richard King Policy Researcher

12th Sep 2014

At home in Bosset Woreda, Ethiopia with Leake Borana preparing breakfast of roasted corn kernels with her daughter Korie Dechesa (11). Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Extreme weather events can increase the likelihood of household hunger and child stunting, but previous episodes of food insecurity may be even more important. Richard King, Policy Research Adviser, introduces University of Oxford research on food security from the 'Young Lives' study of childhood poverty in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.

How are environmental shocks related to food security? We've been working with researchers at the University of Oxford to look at data from the Young Lives programme to try to answer this question. It turns out it's fairly complex (the following is something of a simplification of the findings, so for the full nitty-gritty please refer to the report.

Young Lives

Young Lives is an ongoing international study of childhood poverty, lasting 15 years, involving 12,000 children in four countries - Ethiopia, Andra Pradesh in India, Peru, and Vietnam. We drew on the rich data provided by repeated visits to the same cohort of children and their households to answer three questions:

  1. Who experiences environmental shocks, are these one-off or recurrent events, and what factors predict who will report being affected?
  2. Who is food insecure, how severe is the insecurity, and is this reported just once or recurrently?
  3. What are the effects of environmental shocks on households' reported food insecurity and on children's physical development?

Let's briefly take these in turn.

First up, who experiences weather shocks?

Households experiencing recurrent shocks tend to be in rural areas... are commonly reported by Young Lives participants, with droughts common in Ethiopia and Andhra Pradesh, and flooding common in Peru and Vietnam. Looking just at the reports of these particular events in 2009, the research finds that living in a rural location and being engaged in agricultural work increases the likelihood of reporting a shock. The disparities in risks between households in any given location appear to be larger in urban areas (where inequalities are typically greater), whereas in rural locations there is more community-wide, covariate, reporting of shocks.

The pattern is similar for those who experience multiple shocks as opposed to just one-off events. Households experiencing recurrent shocks tend to be in rural areas, be more agricultural, and have lower wealth and maternal education levels than either those experiencing one-off shocks or those who never report a shock.

Who is food insecure?

Food insecurity is also widely reported across the pro-poor samples in all four countries. Less than a third of households in all countries, only one in ten in Ethiopia, were measured as being food secure in the 12 months leading up to the 2009 survey.

In three of the four countries those households that never report food insecurity are less likely to be dependent on agricultural incomes, and more likely to have higher wealth and higher levels of maternal education. The converse is true of chronically food insecure households.

How do shocks affect food security and nutritional outcomes?

Based on the interaction of environmental shocks in 2006-9 and reports of food insecurity in 2009 (and controlling for all other factors), droughts in Ethiopia and Andhra Pradesh seemed to have no noticeable effects on food security. But in both Peru and Vietnam, there is a significant relationship between experiencing floods and worsening food security. Nonetheless, in all four countries, a larger and more consistent predictor of food insecurity than experiencing a weather shock is having already experienced food insecurity in the past.

Whilst weather shocks don't universally have a negative impact on households' food security, they are an additional burden picture is similar in terms of how weather shocks relate to children's physical development (measured in terms of their height-for-age, or stunting). Although there's a relationship between droughts and stunting among 15-year-old Ethiopians, this is not the strongest association. Stronger and more significant in all four countries is that previous stunting scores are a strong predictor of subsequent low height-for-age among children. This suggests that children's circumstances in early life are critically important in determining their later development.

It appears then, from this partial analysis in a few countries, that whilst weather shocks don't universally have a negative impact on households' food security, they are an additional burden for people who have previously been hungry.

The research suggests that food security outcomes are mediated by many different socio, economic, political, and geographic inequalities. To the extent that we might expect climate change to make the situation worse, we need to be mindful of how it will exacerbate these existing asymmetries. Yes, climate change is going to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and yes, these events can be expected to have devastating impacts on the sufficiency of food production - witness the destruction of over five million hectares of crops from the drought and fires of the 2010 Russian heatwave - but these alone are unlikely to result in universal levels of food insecurity. Many of climate change's impacts will also be more insidious. They won't just affect how and where food is produced, but will also further tilt the table away from those already struggling to benefit from accessible, safe, and nutritious outputs of the food system.

Food system activities

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Photo: At home in Bosset Woreda, Ethiopia with Leake Borana preparing breakfast of roasted corn kernels with her daughter Korie Dechesa (11). Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Blog post written by Richard King

Policy Researcher

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