Portrait of Cindy Parker

One Hot Issue

How does climate change impact the global food system? Cindy Parker aims to find out.

By Jackie Powder • Photo by Chris Hartlove

The topic of climate change frequently conjures images of melting glaciers, thick smog and super El Niños.

Cindy Parker, MD, is more likely to think about how climate change can disrupt myriad aspects of the global food system. Potential scenarios include destroyed crops and fisheries, animal deaths and food transportation failures.

As co-director of the Bloomberg School’s Program on Global Sustainability and Health, she’s leading an ambitious research study to better understand the consequences of climate change on the food system—one of 23 projects to have received a Johns Hopkins Discovery Award to fund work across the University.

The multidisciplinary effort is “absolutely needed in order to solve these big global environmental problems,” says Parker.

How do current models looking at the impacts of climate change on the global food system fall short?

They are very limited in scope, mainly looking at temperature and precipitation.

There are some estimates of how much climate change will affect particular crops, but most of those predictions are based on lab studies or highly controlled field studies. The number bandied about is for every 1-degree Celsius increase in global average surface temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decrease in crop yield. 

Ten percent doesn’t sound devastating, but when you factor in 2 billion more people between now and 2050 and consider that we’re looking at a best-case scenario of at least a 2-degree Celsius increase in global average surface temperature, it becomes a lot more concerning.

There’s a need to look at the entire food system, and no one is putting it all together. Not a lot is known about food and climate change interrelationships—how food and water scarcity, for example, can contribute to political instability, migration and violent conflicts. 

What’s the backstory for taking on this monster of a topic?

I started talking to modelers at Homewood about two years ago and over time generated some interest [among them]. Modeling is their thing, and the complex relationship between climate change and the global food system is a really big, messy problem with potentially a bazillion different variables. They were intrigued and interested in contributing to this effort to illuminate and estimate these relationships.

Adequate planning and precautions for avoiding the most serious effects—malnutrition, hunger, famine—cannot occur without reliable and regionally detailed projections of how and by how much climate change could affect the global food system.

The project brings together faculty from across Hopkins—experts in migration and conflict, food and energy technology, earth sciences, the social sciences, engineering and many others.

"It will be really useful to take a range of climate projections and match those up with a range of food supply projections. ... It’s work that could possibly have shock value for policymakers to ... [limit] greenhouse gases."

In what type of scenario might a mathematical model be applied to accurately predict food system disruption?

It will be really useful to take a range of climate projections and match those up with a range of food supply projections and be able to tell policymakers, “If climate change follows this particular trajectory, it could result in an X-percent decrease in the global food supply, and some key areas will be hit much harder than others.” [Our projections] also might show that a region is excessively dependent for its food supply on a particular place that is vulnerable to climate change.

It’s work that could possibly have shock value for policymakers to get them to take steps to reduce harm by [limiting] greenhouse gases enough to get the climate stabilized, by helping local communities become more resilient or by managing precious resources such as forests and watersheds for long-term sustainability.

You’ve chosen Ethiopia as a proof-of-concept location to test a downscaled version of the model prototype. What do you hope to learn?

It’s a good place to look at the country’s experience with extreme weather and a lack of resources. For example, there’s another severe drought right now that’s displacing farmers and killing cattle in parts of Ethiopia.

Moreover, this is a place that relies on food aid brought into the country, but fossil fuels are a finite resource and susceptible to short-term price shocks and longer-term scarcity. When this is combined with more extreme weather disrupting food supplies around the world and transportation networks, just getting that food to places in need could become a lot more challenging. This is something we want to investigate in Ethiopia to illustrate the insights that can be gained from the methodology.

The School of Arts and Sciences’ Ben Zaitchik, a co-principal investigator on the study, has used remote sensing and other data to analyze the impact of downscaled climate scenarios in Ethiopia, so we have his data, and he has a lot of contacts and experience on the ground.

The Discovery Award is intended as a launching pad to secure future external funding. What are your next steps?

We’re putting together a workshop for the spring to bring in people from around the world who we think are key to helping us identify and better define food system and climate change relationships. We hope to establish relationships with other research centers to collaborate on building and implementing a full version of the modeling methodology.

The increased attention to climate change and the connections between climate change and food and water has made it more likely that a project like this could get funding. The National Science Foundation has a new initiative on the nexus of food, energy and water that could be a good fit for our project, and the Department of Defense could be interested in using this kind of information to help understand and prevent future conflict.