Disasters’ Toll on Agriculture and Food Security

Over the past 30 years, the world has witnessed a staggering loss of an estimated $3.8 trillion in crops and livestock production due to disasters. This equates to an average annual loss of $123 billion, amounting to a substantial 5 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). These alarming figures come from a recently released report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), titled “The Impact of Disasters on Agriculture and Food Security.”

This report is groundbreaking, offering the world’s first comprehensive global estimation of how disasters impact agricultural production, with a primary focus on crops and livestock. It is important to note that these losses could be even higher if we had systematic data on losses in the fisheries, aquaculture, and forestry subsectors. This revelation emphasizes the urgent need to enhance data collection and information regarding the effects of disasters on all facets of agriculture. Robust data systems are the cornerstone upon which effective action and informed decision-making can be built.

AGRICULTURE’S VULNERABILITY TO DISASTERS

“Agriculture is one of the most highly exposed and vulnerable sectors concerning disaster risk. Its profound reliance on natural resources and climate conditions leaves it susceptible to the whims of nature. Recurrent disasters pose a genuine threat to food security and the sustainability of agrifood systems,” underscores FAO Director-General QU Dongyu in the report’s foreword. He further emphasizes the critical role of the FAO in addressing these risks, showcasing opportunities to proactively manage disaster risk within agrifood systems and integrate this approach into agricultural practices and policies.

The report’s findings reveal a stark reality: disasters have had the most significant relative impact on lower and lower-middle-income countries, causing them to lose up to 15 percent of their total agricultural GDP. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) also suffered a substantial blow, losing nearly 7 percent of their agricultural GDP.

FOOD; LOSSES BY PRODUCT CATEGORIES

Disaster-related losses in major agricultural product categories show an alarming upward trend. Cereals, for instance, suffered an average annual loss of 69 million tonnes in the last three decades, equivalent to the entire cereal production of France in 2021. Fruits and vegetables, as well as sugar crops, experienced similar losses, nearing an average of 40 million tonnes per year. To put this in perspective, these losses match the entire production of fruits and vegetables in Japan and Viet Nam in 2021.

The meat, dairy, and egg sectors were not spared, collectively facing an average estimated annual loss of 16 million tonnes, equivalent to the entire production of these products in Mexico and India in 2021.

REGIONAL DISPARITIES

The impact of disasters on agriculture varies widely across regions and income groups. Asia took the brunt of the economic losses, albeit accounting for only 4 percent of agricultural added value. Africa, Europe, and the Americas were not far behind in terms of losses, with Africa’s losses accounting for nearly 8 percent of agricultural added value. Subregions displayed even greater disparities in losses.

High-income countries, lower-middle-income countries, and upper-middle-income countries incurred higher losses in absolute terms. However, it is the low-income countries, particularly SIDS, that bore the heaviest burden in terms of losses in agricultural added value.

CASCADING EFFECTS OF DISASTERS

The report underscores the ominous rise in the frequency, intensity, and complexity of disaster events, increasing from 100 per year in the 1970s to around 400 events per year worldwide in the past two decades. These events not only multiply but are also anticipated to worsen as climate-induced disasters compound existing social and ecological vulnerabilities.

Disasters can have cascading impacts across multiple systems and sectors, with underlying drivers including climate change, poverty, population growth, health emergencies (such as pandemics), unsustainable land use, armed conflicts, and environmental degradation.

TOWARD GREATER AGRIFOOD SYSTEM RESILIENCE

Farmers, especially smallholders relying on rain-fed agriculture, bear the brunt of disaster impacts. Encouraging the adoption of farm-level disaster risk reduction practices can help these small-scale farmers avoid losses and enhance their resilience. In fact, investments in such practices have shown to perform 2.2 times better than previously applied methods.

Proactive and timely interventions based on hazard forecasts are pivotal for building resilience and preventing risks in agriculture. Anticipatory action in various countries has demonstrated significant benefits, with every $1 invested resulting in rural families gaining up to $7 in benefits and avoiding agricultural losses.

FOOD; THREE PRIORITY AREAS FOR ACTION

  • Improving data and information on disaster impacts across all subsectors of agriculture.
  • Developing and integrating multisectoral and multi-hazard disaster risk reduction approaches into policy and programming at all levels.
  • Enhancing investments in resilience that reduce disaster risk in agriculture, improve agricultural production, and enhance livelihoods.

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