Expert Interview with Tetra Tech's Richard Choularton, Food Security Expert

Assessing food security, famine, and early warning systems in the face of a changing climate
Aug 7, 2017 8:00 AM ET

Richard Choularton is a senior associate focused on food security and climate resilience with Tetra Tech International Development Services. As the former Chief of the World Food Programme’s Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Unit, he is a recognized, world-renowned expert in climate change adaptation and risk mitigation, resilience, food security, emergency preparedness, and early warning systems. Richard previously served as director of the Office of Humanitarian Assistance at CHF International. He was also the decision and planning support advisor for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a leading provider of early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity that was created by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1985.

Can you explain the difference between food insecurity and famine?

People are “food insecure” when they do not have consistent access to enough food to live healthy productive lives. Causes of food insecurity include low agricultural productivity and poor markets. Even if food is available, people often lack enough money to buy food or are not healthy enough to adequately absorb the nutrients in the food they have.

Famine is the most severe type of food crisis and is declared when human suffering reaches catastrophic levels. During a famine, people experience starvation, acute malnutrition, distress migration, excess mortality, and destitution on a large scale. In 2011, drought, coupled with armed conflict, caused a famine in Somalia that affected more than 3 million people and cost 260,000 their lives. Famines and food crises tend to occur in areas where people are already vulnerable, and their capacities, assets, and resilience have been eroded. Over the last few years, famine has reemerged as a threat in more countries than we have seen in decades. While in the past there have been multiple definitions of famine, today most international actors agree to the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) for food insecurity, which sets the criteria for different levels of food crisis and famine.

How do you alert governments, farmers, and the international community that climate disasters or potential famines could be approaching?

An alert of a potential famine is a very serious thing and has to be based on solid evidence and consensus among the major stakeholders involved. A number of organizations around the world monitor potential food crises including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), FEWS NET, and others. These organizations use a range of tools including satellite remote sensing analysis of agricultural production, market prices, livelihoods assessments, national surveys, nutritional surveillance, and national networks of government and non-governmental partners to assess and monitor conditions.

Early warning organizations carefully monitor the severity of these crises, and they issue warnings when there is evidence of a deterioration of conditions towards famine. Analysts provide decision makers with an increasingly detailed and robust set of analyses that enables them to make better and earlier decisions to respond to an emerging crisis.

How does the tool you helped develop to analyze the impact of a changing climate on food security help us prepare for future food crises?

When the World Food Programme started exploring the impact of climate change on food security, we wanted to know which areas of the world were most vulnerable to climate disasters and climate change, and therefore, at risk of food crises. We developed an index that shows where changing climate is driving food insecurity, and furthermore predicts where the risks will be highest under climate change.

What we found was striking. Africa, South East Asia, and Central America all have high risks of climate-related food insecurity over the next 30 to 50 years. While we need to make investments today that will help these regions prepare for and adapt to the changing climate, our efforts will not be effective if we don’t also significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. The Sahel of Africa—a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change—epitomizes these conclusions. If we reduce global greenhouse emissions while also supporting this region with climate adaptation programming, we could see an improvement by 2080. On the other hand, if we do not address both of these challenges concurrently, the Sahel will be increasingly vulnerable to food crises over the next 50 years.

What are the most innovative approaches being used today to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate on hunger?

Food security and humanitarian practitioners are developing a range of tools to build community resilience to disasters and enable earlier, faster, and more efficient responses to food crises. These innovations are improving our understanding of food security issues, fostering a more effective and predictable humanitarian response, and helping vulnerable people better prepare for disasters and manage their own risk.

We are seeing massive innovation in the areas of data collection and analysis. Mobile and remote data collection technology is revolutionizing the way we can collect, process, and analyze information. Other innovative tools, such as risk financing, are being tested, scaled, and—in some cases—institutionalized. Weather index insurance provides safeguards to vulnerable people who previously had no insurance. Forecast-based financing uses climate forecasts 3 to 6 months before a drought or 2 weeks before a flood to trigger financing that helps vulnerable communities mitigate the impact of climate disasters.

Finally, critical advancements are enabling vulnerable people to manage their own risk. Broader access to communications technology means that people can access the information they need to make better decisions. Climate services and market information systems help farmers determine when to avoid or take risks, depending on climate conditions, ensuring agricultural investments are not only protected but pay off.

Some of the biggest gains made in recent years have come through the expansion of national safety net and social protection programs that provide predictable income and other support to vulnerable people who are severely impacted by climate and market shocks. Ultimately, these types of programs need to be complemented by broader economic opportunities, especially in rural areas, that provide more options to food insecure households. In other words, the problem has to be tackled at multiple levels in ways that are mutually reinforcing.