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The Future of Farming: How Global Warming Is Changing The Way We Eat

News & Features | November 17, 2014

Extreme weather caused by climate change is generating natural disasters, melting polar icecaps, and driving a new wave of extinction, but before long it might also change what we put on our plates. According to a report released on November 4th by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rising temperatures caused by climate change are driving an uptick in intense weather events, such as droughts, heat waves, and floods. All of these con- sequences of climate change have the po- tential to wipe out a large amount of crop yields and limit our access to the staples we currently take for granted.

The report uses the strongest language published to date to convey that human activity has resulted in increasing green- house gas emissions into the atmosphere and oceans, consequently driving up temperatures around the globe. According to the report, global climate change threatens to have “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

As an intergovernmental, scientific body that combines the work of thousands of scientists, the IPCC has found with increasing certainty that the climate has warmed considerably over the past several decades, demonstrated through five reports since 1990. The IPCC’s most recent Synthesis Report also states that unless countries agree to limit carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures will continue to rise. If governments continue to fail to curb global warming, farms around the world will find themselves imperiled.

The agricultural sector in the US won’t be spared the effects of climate change. Skeptics of climate change claim the economic costs of reducing emissions are too high to justify action. However, the short-term economic risks of mitigating emissions are much smaller than the risks posed by continuing business as usual. In the long run, the EPA’s website states that, “If the global temperature rises an additional 2° Celsius, US corn production is expected to decrease by 10-30 percent.” In order to avoid this 2° increase, the IPCC report says emissions must be reduced substantially over the next few decades.

Outside the US, however, the risks posed by climate change could be even more drastic. The report states that the con- sequences of global warming will dispro- portionately affect developing countries, where farmers have far fewer resources to deal with unpredictable weather. For in- stance, the reliance on rainwater for grow- ing crops in many developing countries, in contrast with the prevalence of irrigation systems in the US, means these farmers’ products are more dependent on stable weather conditions. Their crop yields will likely be the first to suffer if actions aren’t taken to curb climate change.

Because food insecurity is closely linked to poverty, the two factors of- ten exacerbate each other, creating a cycle that climate change will most likely intensify. Especially in rural areas, the welfare of low-income populations stands to be reduced as an effect of climate change due to their limited access to resources and the challenges of adapting to unpredicted weather changes. For example, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines over a year ago, but over 100,000 people are still living in coastal areas that have been officially declared unsafe because the region lacks the funding to perform necessary repairs. Climate change-fueled disas- ters like this are bound to keep wreaking havoc on populations without sufficient resources to respond, creating a cycle that will threaten countless lives. Although the agricultural sector has been relatively successful in providing stable food supplies globally, the effects of climate change could also reverse this trend. As crop demands rise with the growing global population, dwindling crop supplies could pose an increasingly serious problem.

An IPCC assessment report released earlier this year on food security and food production systems showed that both Asia and Africa were found to be at an especially high risk of suffering future food shortage. IPCC scientists predict that malnutrition will increase in Asia and livelihoods will be negatively affected in Africa—both as a result of global climate change. The report also projects that food prices will spike due to changes in temperature and precipita- tion. While the infrastructure of food systems in North America, Europe, and Australia faces risks as well, responsibility for the problem is not shared equally—the current dangers to global agriculture are primarily the result of the disproportionately high emissions of developed countries in the Global North.

Farmers aren’t defenseless, but the odds are stacked against them. While methods of adapting to climate change are already being put into use, it is unlikely they will be able to combat temperatures increases over 3° Celsius, particularly in regions close to the equator. Farmers currently keep their yields stable through diversifying crop varieties by planting crops that flourish with higher levels of carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures. Adaptions to irrigation techniques are also necessary. Because more than 70 percent of agriculture is rain-fed, many adaptive techniques dealing with the potential for water shortages are needed. Technological advances can also assist farmers in adapting to change by developing pest-resistant crop varieties in preparation for the increase of pests. Still, none of these preventative measures are capable of sufficiently addressing the underlying issue: rapidly increasing global temperatures.

Many adaptation options for higher levels of the agricultural sector have not yet been fully researched because research has focused on techniques relevant to growing food, but not all other aspects of the food consumption process. Adapting methods of trade, for example, could increase access to food for rural communities, but more research into this area is needed. Perhaps mostimportantisthatgovernmentspursue proactive policy change. Quoted in the press report released by the IPCC, Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, stressed, “What is lacking are appropriate policies and institutions. The longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost to adapt and mitigate climate change.”

Without mitigation, climate change will negatively affect all aspects of food security from food access to price stabil- ity. Mitigating rising temperatures on a global scale requires significant emissions reductions. Since the agricultural industry produces 10 percent of these emissions an- nually, we must find sustainable methods of supplying markets with staples.

Although these risks may seem fairly insignificant to a country that has an overwhelming amount of food choices, the US will not be exempt from the effects of global food insecurity, especially because of our significant reliance on agriculture imports. Higher food prices and fewer produce options will change how Americans eat and the culture that surrounds food; American society will be forced to reevaluate its rampant over- consumption and excessive food waste. Small-scale farms, already rapidly dwindling, will go completely extinct as a result of the threats to agriculture posed by climate change.

In a conference held on November 4th, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon insisted that, “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” Although international delegates hope to come to an agreement in the meeting in Lima, Peru next month on limiting emissions, global food security will continue to be at risk until serious policies are put in place to limit global warming.