The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Climate of Food

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This is a re-post from the original Climate Emergency Institute blog, but I have edited and rewritten it significantly.

Most of us know, intellectually, that food depends on climate.

And yet, the convenience of the grocery store makes it easy to forget the connection between food and Earth. The fact is that even well-off people in affluent countries are vulnerable to climate change through food. How many people will go hungry, and which people go hungry, depends on the decisions we make, both individually and collectively, now.

Predicting food availability

Predicting food security is not simple. Climate is, after all, only one of a whole group of interacting factors, from land management to economic policy, that together dictate how much food there is to go around.

Generally, more carbon dioxide means faster plant growth, and longer growing seasons in temperate areas should also increase yield–except that increased droughts and floods, plus more weeds and pests, will decrease yields. Livestock populations are also hit hard by extreme weather, and warming water plus ocean acidification will generally decrease seafood catches. Whether the net effect is an increase or decrease in food production will vary by region. Globally, there will likely be a net decrease in yield–the size will depend on whether we actually start reducing our emissions in a meaningful way soon. At the same time, the human population will likely continue to grow for several more decades at least, meaning we will need more food than we do now. To what extent new farming practices and other issues will influence the food supply is impossible to say.

But food security is about more than food supply.

Food does no good unless the eater receives it. For many of us, even many farmers, that means buying it. The price of food is complex, depending as it does on a complex global economic system and on lots of intersecting national and international policy. Drought in the United States can cause spikes in food prices (and therefore famine among the very poor) in the Middle East. Unstable food prices can cause political stress and even violence in poor areas–whether humans will respond to food stress by starting wars that cause further food insecurity is anybody’s guess.

The United States will likely do fairly well, at least initially. Our food production is not likely to suffer much, except in the worst scenarios, for a very long time, because our climate is temperate and much of what we grow is currently either exported or fed to livestock. More importantly, our collective wealth is likely to protect us as global food prices rise. But food prices will rise, since the food distribution system is global–drought in Africa, for example, could reverberate across the economies of the entire planet. And there are plenty of poor people in the United States for whom higher food prices will mean they cannot pay rent.

When the future gets here

Sometimes it sounds as though we face some impending, sudden apocalypse–like we’re going to wake up one day and find global warming has arrived.

Actually, we have been causing climate change for decades already, and it is already affecting our food supply. That we don’t notice is, in part, good-old-fashioned denial. But weather is variable, and that variability makes the underlying shift in climate harder to perceive–and more dangerous. It is not, after all, the average days that cause problems but the occasional extreme. If only one day in a year is hot enough to kill cattle, those animals are dead. The entire rest of the year is a bust.

What we’re looking at is not a sudden, dramatic collapse but rather an increasing incidence of local or regional disasters, all of which are connected through the global economic and political networks.

Not all of those disasters involve food production directly; for example, without certain key bridges, food does not move into or out of New England. As we have seen in recent years, New England’s bridges are vulnerable to the extreme weather of climate change. A major hurricane could absolutely endanger food security, even if not a single crop were lost. Similarly, a war over water rights in the Mideast could trigger spikes in oil prices, which would in turn raise food prices in the United States.

How we eat climate

If our vulnerability comes as a surprise it is not because the information isn’t available. Major newspapers, magazines, and websites report on the direct and indirect implications of climate change fairly often. And yet climate is still not at the center of our national agenda.

As a culture, we’ve lost the habit of thinking about the links between ourselves and the planet. We have not lost the links themselves. We say we no longer live off the land as our ancestors did, but that’s just not true. Where else could we live? What else could we eat except food that grows on the land or in the sea? What else could we drink except water that once fell from the sky?  The truth is we will never live anywhere but on the land, and we can’t get far away from nature; the laws of ecology have world-wide jurisdiction just like the laws of physics do. We drink nature, we breathe nature, and we eat nature. If something goes seriously wrong with nature, we will no longer be able to eat.

It is possible we will not run into catastrophe in this country; plausible scenarios are not prophesy. But it is also possible that we will be in real trouble. Our country can adapt to global climate change, and as a major industrial power, we can do a great deal to make sure that the climate does not change much more to begin with. We can do neither on a dime. If we do nothing until the food supply starts to break down, then Americans will get hungrier. And hungry Americans will have a reason to be very angry.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “The Climate of Food

  1. Pingback: If Heaven Can Spare You | News From Caroline

  2. Pingback: Climate Change and Food: Red Meat | The Climate in Emergency

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