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Climate Change and the Future of Food

Paul Kando

Agriculture is a key contributor to climate change. It is also very vulnerable to those changes. Modern farming is unsustainable, yet agribusinesses and their political allies are hellbent on maintaining business as usual. The science, however, counsels otherwise. Last year the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates.” Topsoil is disappearing up to 100 times faster than humans can replenish it.

Failing grain crops in Austrailia
photo credit: Anthony Farrell

As the climate changes, feeding ourselves is getting harder. Floods, drought, storms and other types of extreme weather disrupt the global food supply. After decades of decline, world hunger and malnutrition has begun to climb again. According to a 2016 study, by 2050 the diet-effects of climate change will have been responsible for 529,000 avoidable deaths.

According to a 2019 University of Minnesota study, long-term production of the world's top 10 crops—barley, cassava, corn, oil palm, grapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane and wheat — a combined 83% of all the calories produced on cropland — has been already affected, and global food production and crop yields are projected to decrease further under future climate conditions.

Climate change has negatively impacted yields for corn, soybeans, wheat and barley in several Midwestern states. A comprehensive survey of climate change impacts on the nutritional quality of food in the US found that, over the next 30 years, climate change and higher CO2 levels could significantly reduce the availability of critical nutrients, such as protein, iron and zinc. Favorite foods affected by the changing climate include coffee, tea, orchard fruits, avocados, bananas, chocolate, honey, maple syrup, peanuts and seafood.

According to a Rutgers University study, climate change may reduce the ability of soils to absorb water in many parts of the world, with serious implications for groundwater supplies, food production, stormwater runoff, biodiversity and ecosystem stability. Soil hydraulic properties influence whether rainfall soaks in or runs off, determine plant-available water, and constrain evapotranspiration. Although rapid changes in those properties caused by direct human disturbance are well documented, climate change may also induce such shifts. Given that precipitation patterns are expected to change at accelerating rates globally, shifts in soil structure could occur over broad regions more rapidly than expected, altering water movement and storage.

There is three times more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere. But that carbon is rapidly being released by poor farming practices and deforestation. This, in turn, fuels climate change — and compromises attempts to feed a growing world population.

Climate change reduces consumable food calories from the top 10 global crops by around 1% annually. This represents some 35 trillion calories each year—enough to provide more than 50 million people with a daily diet of over 1,800 calories — the level essential to avoid undernourishment.

What to do?

Regenerative farming and ranching rebuilds soil organic matter, restores degraded soil biodiversity, improves the carbon-storage capacity of the land, diversifies crops, and plants hardy and resilient varieties. It reduces the use of energy-intensive chemical add-ons, including fertilizers and pesticides, makes use of cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manures. It pastures animals on grass and raises them under more naturalistic conditions. Regenerative farmers and ranchers think systemically, moving beyond techno-fixes like GMOs and synthetic biology to solutions that acknowledge the deep interconnectedness of nature of farming.

'Agrivoltaics' combines agriculture and solar power. Not only do crops and solar panels share land and sunlight, they also help each other function more efficiently.

The choices we make now will determine what we can eat in the future. If we stay on our current path, doubling down on intensive, wasteful, polluting industrial farming, we may have no choice but to accept a world where farmers don’t matter and we try to survive on a grim diet of techno-burgers, ultraprocessed GMO snacks and fake foods concocted in industrial vats.

It may not be possible to stop all the effects of climate change — we’ve let it go on too long without addressing its biggest core causes in energy generation, industry and transportation. But by acting on a new vision for food and farming, in line with the goals of the Green New Deal, we can begin to mitigate the worst effects and work with the rest to ensure a more stable future for everyone. Farmers who get with this vision are real climate heroes. We should be doing everything we can to support them.