Student Literature Review Newsletter

Issue 8:Food Security and Climate Change

Food Insecurity and Policies to Catalyze Change

Food security refers to all people, at all times, having physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. There are four dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability. Food insecurity results when any of these elements are missing or insufficient and ranges from mild to severe, which can be measured by the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) adapted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 2020, nearly 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food (that’s 320 million more people than in 2019). In the U.S., 13.8 million households were food insecure at some point during 2020. Globally, unsustainable food systems contribute to sub-optimal diets and food insecurity, with the greatest effect on low- and middle-income countries. Climate change is exacerbating this situation through changes in precipitation patterns, increasing temperatures, and higher frequency of extreme weather events. Specifically, these extreme weather events lead to decreases in crop yields (maize and wheat), especially in lower-latitude regions, animal deaths, and migration of fish. Further, increased CO2 is projected to lower the nutritional quality of crops like wheat and rice. Sub-optimal diets are now responsible for 20% of premature (disease-mediated) mortality worldwide, as well as 20% of all disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). Increases in non-communicable, diet-related diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke) are increasingly burdening healthcare systems globally, and one study found that in the U.S., these diet-linked diseases account for more than $50 billion in healthcare costs. 

Figure: Food Insecurity Based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale 

(Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

Shifts in policy can help change the landscape of food insecurity by facilitating sustainable and healthy diets for everyone. Key policy priorities include: shifting public sector subsidies away from meat and dairy products and to a variety of nutrient-rich foods; supporting small-scale producers; increasing public research around food production technology and sustainable practices; and encouraging the development of a food-systems mindset, which means thinking holistically about food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste in the context of broader economic, societal, and environmental systems. This is in contrast to the more market-driven commodities approach that relies on industrial agriculture to produce large quantities of food staples (wheat, sugar, corn, soybeans). 

In addition to causing a decline in food production, climate change may also reduce the nutritional quality of food. Climate change, therefore, presents multiple threats to food production and quality. These threats worsen food insecurity and its impact on nutritional, mental, and behavioral aspects of human health.


Swift mitigation and adaptation to changing environmental conditions are therefore necessary to not only maintain food productivity but meet rising global food demands. The need for solutions is more acute in places that face food insecurity even in times of adequate global food production. Specific food access challenges will be different among developing nations, rural communities, and urban food deserts. For example, innovations in water distribution and policy are essential to preserving food production in developing nations in the MENA region that face water scarcity, while urban centers with inequitable access to food must prioritize urban planning and policy that ensures food is physically accessible and affordable for all residents. Reduced agricultural production due to climate change, however, poses a common threat. Adaptive strategies including technological solutions to production challenges, sustainable farming techniques, federal and local policy changes, and sustainable diet changes are essential for meeting the global food demand in the era of anthropogenic climate change. 

Figure: Priority Policy to Make Food Systems More Sustainable and Healthier

(Source: Future Food Systems: For People, Our Planet, and Prosperity (Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, 2020)

Agricultural Adaptations and Inclusion of Indigenous Food Systems are Part of the Solution 

Certain cropping techniques can be leveraged to reduce agricultural waste and increase food production. Such techniques include rotating crops, integrating livestock with crop production, improving irrigation efficiency, and utilizing cover crops to decrease soil erosion and water loss via evaporation. New agricultural technologies, such as micro-irrigation systems, precision agriculture, robotic systems, and drones are also available to increase food production efficiency and nutritional value.

However, regenerative farming practices may hold the key to the future of sustainable agriculture. Soil stores an enormous amount of CO2, but modern plowing techniques release large amounts CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to increased greenhouse gasses that are fueling climate change. Regenerative agriculture prioritizes soil health and actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere by limiting mechanical soil disturbances and focusing holistically on the dynamic relationships between people, land, and farm ecosystems. This holistic view of agricultural practices and food is also important in Indigenous communities.

Due to the holistic nature and multifunctionality of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, they have a lot to teach about sustainability and our connection to surrounding environments. For example, multiple Indigenous American tribes grow corn, beans, and squash together due to their symbiotic relationship – a triad of crops referred to as the Three Sisters. The beans are nitrogen fixers, so they fertilize the squash and corn. The corn stalks provide structural support as the bean vines grow, and the prickly leaves of the squash thwart pests and uninvited animals. This means less reliance on fertilizers that contain fossil fuels and pesticide treatments, both of which pollute water sources and are harmful to health, among other things. Indigenous food practices thus provide an important framework that should be scaled up more worldwide to achieve sustainable agricultural practices and prevent further environmental degradation. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (which leads international efforts against hunger and malnutrition) recognizes Indigenous Peoples as key allies, not only as technical assistance recipients but primarily as equal partners, and as fundamental stakeholders to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” Their inclusion is also critical to reverse the negative impacts on their health, livelihoods and social structures due to centuries of land grabbing and colonization, forced displacement, loss of biodiversity, and lack of access to natural resources, among many injustices. North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to reverse the damage colonialism and forced assimilation has done to Indigenous communities by reclaiming ancestral education and re-establishing Indigenous foodways

 Improving Access to Fresh Produce in Urban Areas is Vital

Beyond food production, access to nutritious food is vital for health. However, in many low-income urban neighborhoods, food deserts and decreased access to fresh produce exacerbate diabetes, hypertension, and obesity disparities (among other chronic diseases).

Vertical farms and food prescription programs are solutions aimed at eliminating barriers to fresh produce in urban areas. For example, in San Francisco, the Food as Medicine Collaborative is a multi-sector coalition of over 20 organizations, including community clinics, food nonprofits and businesses, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, that links patients to fresh and nutritious food. This Collaborative serves over 450 patients and their families per week, increasing their access to health-promoting food and reducing health disparities among low-income, Black/African American patients. Further, this program is working to integrate more nutrition into healthcare, which will help patients prevent and manage non-communicable chronic diseases.

Vertical farming is a way to increase fresh produce production in urban settings while using less land, water, and soil. This technique allows produce to be grown indoors year-round by controlling lighting, temperature, water, and nutrients. Freight Farms is one company forging the path towards greater utilization of vertical farming in the United States. They use shipping containers to house vertical farms, with one container able to produce 2.5 acres of produce annually. Vertical farming is a way to decentralize the food system, reduce food transport, and increase access to fresh produce. Vertical farms can also have multiple levels, be wall-mounted, or be scaled to utilize the space of an entire warehouse. With such versatility, these farms could be considered in new building designs and have the potential to feed employees and building inhabitants. Additionally, ocean farming is another option to increase sustainable food production and carbon sequestration. This polyculture farming grows seaweed and shellfish together, without the need for watering, fertilizer, or artificial light, and it can even help rebuild reef bionetworks. Companies like GreenWave are pioneering this unique approach to agriculture and habitat regeneration.

Inequities in Agricultural Practices and Food Security Must be Addressed 

High-income countries have greater access to adaptive agricultural technologies relative to low-income countries that lack the resources to set up complex field monitoring systems. Further, many precision agriculture technologies require internet connection and data security, further limiting their use to areas that have these technological resources. While larger farms typically have the resources for Internet connectivity, globally only 24-37% of smaller farms have 3G and 4G service, and less than 40% of farms in African countries have Internet access. Improved access to digital tools and data-driven agriculture in low-income countries and on smaller farms is an important step to increase food production efficiency.

Additionally, in the U.S., food insecurity is highest among single mother households and those below the poverty line. There are also significant racial/ethnic disparities in food insecurity due to systemic inequities (in housing, employment, income, criminal justice, etc.) among people of color, leading to wealth gaps, as a result of structural racism.

Figure: Food Insecurity Demographics in the U.S. 

Source: USDA, 2020

Case Study: Community-Based Food Security Solutions

In the Inland Empire region of Southern California, fifty miles east of UCLA, 400,000 people are unable to rely on a nutritious meal tomorrow. Poverty rates are higher in the Inland Empire than the U.S. and California averages. Rather than look to large-scale federal programs alone, regional or local food systems can offer solutions.


Huerta del Valle is a grassroots urban farming group that envisions “one garden every mile” in the Inland Empire and seeks to rely less on global food systems that require long transport distances with associated greenhouse gas emissions. Since their founding in 2010, Huerta del Valle has fostered a culture of community support that helped fund its expansion to six total locations, including three community farms, a ten-acre composting facility, and two ranches that practice and teach sustainable agriculture practices such as no-till farming.

Similar sustainable community farms are contributing to the food justice movement at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, City Slicker Farms in Oakland, and at Valley Verde in San Jose, where UCSF researchers documented the program’s health benefits. PODER’s Urban Campesinxs program also offers urban farming leadership programs for young adults in San Francisco. Additionally, the Farming is Medicine project combines Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge and sustainable agriculture practices in order to produce organic food to address the hunger crisis in occupied, unceded Ohlone territories. Supporting and expanding regional food systems like these throughout the world may offer a powerful pathway to food security as we navigate the climate crisis.  

Figure: Farming is Medicine Model

(Source: Deep Medicine Circle)

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This newsletter was created by Briana Kulisch, Matthew White, and Alia Badawi and edited by Karly Hampshire for the UC Center for Climate, Health, and Equity.