The focus of the great majority of climate change impact studies is on changes in mean climate. In terms of climate model output, these changes are more robust than changes in climate variability. By concentrating on changes in climate means, the full impacts of climate change on biological and human systems are probably being seriously underestimated. Here we briefly review the possible impacts of changes in climate variability and the frequency of extreme events on biological and food systems, with a focus on the developing world. We present new analysis that tentatively links increases in climate variability with increasing food insecurity in the future. We consider the ways in which people deal with climate variability and extremes and how they may adapt in the future. Key knowledge and data gaps are highlighted. These include the timing and interactions of different climatic stresses on plant growth and development, particularly at higher temperatures, and the impacts on crops, livestock and farming systems of changes in climate variability and extreme events on pest-weed-disease complexes. We highlight the need to reframe research questions in such a way that they can provide decision makers throughout the food system with actionable answers, and the need for investment in climate and environmental monitoring. Improved understanding of the full range of impacts of climate change on biological and food systems is a critical step in being able to address effectively the effects of climate variability and extreme events on human vulnerability and food security, particularly in agriculturally-based developing countries facing the challenge of having to feed rapidly growing populations in the coming decades.