"We all need to eat": building climate-resilient food systems in the Pacific

ANU researchers say that production - or 'availability' - of food is only one small piece of a complex puzzle to ensure nutrition. Photo: Shutterstock
21 March 2023

A systems approach to building food resilience provides critical insights for policy makers, researchers, and practitioners facing food security impacts of a changing climate.

With the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Synthesis Report this week, the arguments to mitigate and adapt to climate change have never been clearer or more urgent. The assessment has shown that food production is of particular concern, in many places impacted by changes in warming temperature and rainfall seasonality, increasing storm intensities and sea level rise. We all need to eat, so finding the means to continue feeding our populations is paramount. In island countries and territories of the Pacific this is even more pronounced, as communities already face existential threats from climate change and other creeping food insecurity issues.

Food is often treated in a siloed manner or focused primarily on ensuring supplies are maintained or increased, but we need to consider all the stages between farm and plate to respond to the myriad of channels through which climate change can have impacts.

Researchers from the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions (ICEDS) set out with this systems perspective, inventorying what we know about climate change impacts on the whole of food systems in Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs). The recently-published paper reviews over 100 studies from the last decade, serving as a first step to diagnose risks and identify adaptation priorities. While we understand enough to start adapting these systems in response to the challenges of climate change, there are still many knowledge gaps that limit the effectiveness and scalability of adaptation activities.

According to the review, vulnerability of food production to climate change has been the most heavily studied topic over the last decade. Extreme weather events and sea level rise result in major impacts, such as reduced crop yields or fish harvests, loss of arable land and reefs, marine species range shifts, crop destructure, saltwater incursion, and water management issues.

While agriculture and fisheries present clear investments for research and adaptive measures, food security experts stress that production—or ‘availability’— of food is only one small piece of a complex puzzle to ensure people obtain sufficient calories and nutrition (Barrett, 2010).

People must be able to access and utilise food as well, which rests not only on production constraints, but also supply chain stages, income and prices, culture and taste, among many other factors. Each of these in its turn may be affected directly or indirectly by climate change.

In the review, we found about one-third of studies showed an interest in nutritional outcomes, but only a few looked at the “off-farm” supply chain components. In the Pacific, COVID-19 has illuminated the web of interconnections between seemingly unrelated variables or sectors for delivering food security (Davila, et al. 2021), highlighting how vulnerability to climate change could emerge from multiple points along this chain. 

As decision-makers and leaders take on board the projections and adaptation recommendations from the IPCC, our review emphasised that multi-sector and systems-oriented adaptation strategies would be a desirable, and perhaps necessary, path forward. Bringing in the supply chain, a Fijian case study showed how climate adaptation strategies that failed to account for the capacity to build and adaptability of infrastructure for food production and transportation had limited success (Currenti, et al. 2019). One study in the review (Conn, et al. 2020) drew links between food security, nutrition, non-communicable diseases, and climate change in Pacific Islands. Adaptation strategies that target diverse pressure points across sectors are therefore recommended to ensure healthy dietary outcomes. 

Finally, PICTs are often approached as a region of small island nations, which experience similar stressors and constraints. There are similarities across islands, such as a heavy reliance on fisheries and small-scale coastal agriculture, as well as a growing dependence on imported goods. However, the islands are also culturally, historically, and geomorphologically diverse. Our review found only a handful of studies that honed in on sub-regional scales, and those were primarily situated in Melanesia. Smaller atolls were conspicuously under-represented in the empirical literature, yet they face particularly acute challenges from climate change. It’s clear that opportunities exist for more national and sub-national studies to complement the handful of local case studies, whilst ensuring that these studies are scalable.

Making links across food systems components, and grounded in specific contexts, can be critical for developing effective and sustainable adaptation strategies. Projections can help us, but consideration of the whole food system is required if we are to realise the food-secure future society needs in the face of climate change.

Author: Dr Rachel Friedman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster solutions.