Nadine Gbossa: The Environmental Cost of Food Systems Transformation on Developing Countries

sliced fruit and vegetables

Awareness is rising that the environmental footprint of food systems threatens human health and the planet across borders. Nadine Gbossa –  director of Food Systems Coordination at the International Fund for Agricultural Development – recently came across the latest data from UNCTAD and the IPCC, which shows the disproportionate impact of the environmental shortcomings of the world’s food systems on developing countries.

It is another wake-up call that we must demand food systems transformation now.

According to UNCTAD, over the last 50 years, 69% of worldwide deaths caused by climate-related disasters occurred in LDCs (least developed countries).  The share of people living in LDCs out of the total people in the world affected by climate disasters is rising, reaching 28.6% in 2019 (compared to 6.8% in 2006).

This disproportionate burden is extended to food systems-related incomes and livelihoods.


According to the IPCC, 55–62% of the sub-Saharan workforce is employed in agriculture and 95% of cropland is rainfed. Climate change is reducing crop yields and productivity: agricultural productivity growth in Africa has already been reduced by 34% since 1961 due to climate change, more than any other region.

Modeling scenarios conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) together with CGIAR indicate that rising temperatures will negatively impact agricultural yields, driving up prices and resulting in increased hunger, especially in Africa.  Multiple African countries are projected to face compounding risks from reduced food production across crops, livestock, and fisheries, increased heat-related mortality, heat-related loss of labor productivity, and flooding from sea-level rise, especially in West Africa.

The IPCC also notes that climate change has reduced economic growth across Africa, increasing income inequality between African countries and those in temperate northern hemisphere climates. According to the IPCC, estimates suggest that GDP per capita for 1991–2010 in Africa was on average 13.6% lower than if climate change had not occurred. Impacts manifest largely through losses in agriculture, as well as tourism, manufacturing, and infrastructure.


According to the IPCC, increased floods and droughts coupled with heat stress will have an adverse impact on both food availability and prices, resulting in increased undernourishment in South and Southeast Asia.

The IPCC notes that climate variability and the increase in extreme weather events are already driving migration. For example, Bangladesh, China, India, and the Philippines each recorded more than 4 million disaster displacements in 2019.

In Southeast and East Asia, cyclones, floods, and typhoons were responsible for the internal displacement of 9.6 million, accounting for close to 30% of total global displacements.

Central and South America

Central and South America are strongly impacted by climate change and highly vulnerable to its impacts. According to the IPCC, extreme events that are already impacting the region are projected to intensify, including warming temperatures and dryness, sea level rise, coastal erosion, ocean and lake acidification, and an increasing frequency and severity of droughts in some regions, impacting agricultural production, traditional fishing, food security, and human health.

The IPCC projects that the impacts on rural livelihoods and food security will worsen, including the overall reduction of agricultural production, suitable farming areas, and availability of water, affecting in particular small and medium-sized farmers and Indigenous peoples in the mountains.

Fixing Our Broken Food Systems: The Cost

Available estimates – from the cost of ending hunger to the cost of transitioning to high-performing food systems globally – range as wide as between US$33 billion and US$350 billion per year. In 2023, UNCTAD released a new report on the cost of achieving the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), which analyzed data for 48 developing economies; achieving their food systems pathway is projected to cost $6.1 trillion annually from 2023 to 2030, representing about 20% of their combined GDP.

In relation to their national economy, the LDCs bear the heaviest burden: food systems transformation would require 40% of their GDP.  No matter which estimate is taken, we are nowhere close to delivering the additional funding needed for a transition to healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems.

In sum, while developing economies are most affected by the shortcomings of our broken food systems, in a global economy facing recurrent crises, tight fiscal conditions, increasing interest rates, and gloomy global growth prospects, they are most challenged in mobilizing finance to meet the incremental costs of their food systems transformation. For developing countries, access to concessional financing for food systems transformation to complement domestic resource mobilization efforts must be elevated at the top of the international development agenda.