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Study Reinforces Climate Change's Risk to Food Security

FILE: Illustration of maize damaged by adverse climate. Taken April 5, 2012.

PARIS — The risks of harvest failures in multiple global breadbaskets have been underestimated, according to a newly released study that researchers said should be a "wake up call" about the threat climate change poses to our food systems.

In the new research published in Nature Communications, researchers in the United States and Germany looked at the likelihood that several major food producing regions could simultaneously suffer low yields.

Lead study author Kai Kornhuber, a researcher at Columbia University and the German Council on Foreign Relations, said these events can lead to price spikes, food insecurity and even civil unrest.

By "increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, we are entering this uncharted water where we are struggling to really have an accurate idea of what type of extremes we're going to face," he told AFP.

"We show that these types of concurring events are really largely underestimated."

Researchers first looked at the impact of the jet stream - the air currents that drive weather patterns in many of the world's most important crop producing regions.

They found that a "strong meandering" of the jet stream, flowing in big wave shapes, has particularly significant impacts on key agricultural regions in North America, Eastern Europe and East Asia, with a reduction in harvests of up to seven percent.

The researchers also found that this had been linked to simultaneous crop failures in the past.

One example was in 2010, when the fluctuations of the jet stream were linked to both extreme heat in parts of Russia and devastating floods in Pakistan, which both hurt crops, Kornhuber said.

Kornhuber said the study should be a "a wake up call in terms of our uncertainties" of the impacts of climate change on the food sector, with more frequent and intense weather extremes and increasingly complicated combinations of extremes.

"We need to be prepared for these types of complex climate risks in the future and the models at the moment seem to not capture this," he said.

On July 3, United Nations' human rights chief Volker Turk warned of a "truly terrifying" dystopian future of hunger and suffering as climate change-driven extremes hit crops, livestock and crucial ecosystems.

He told a U.N. debate on the right to food that more than 828 million people faced hunger in 2021 and climate change could increase that by 80 million by mid-century, and slammed world leaders for what he termed "short term thinking."