Everybody knows that a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains is one of the keys to living a long and happy life.
We also know that climate change is a major threat to agriculture. The reasons why are about as straightforward as it gets: In any given place, normal, long-established climatic patterns dictate the types of food we can grow, as well as when, where, and how we grow them.
But as global temperatures rise, weather patterns shift, and precipitation becomes more unpredictable because of the climate crisis, farmers are struggling to keep up. And unless we take action now to fight back, it’s a struggle they could lose – to the detriment of every single person on the planet.
“The world population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050. With 3.4 billion more mouths to feed…global demand for food could increase by between 59 and 98 percent,” according to Columbia University. “This means that agriculture around the world needs to step up production and increase yields.
“But scientists say that the impacts of climate change—higher temperatures, extreme weather, drought, increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and sea level rise—threaten to decrease the quantity and jeopardize the quality of our food supplies.”
The stakes don’t get much higher than that. Put plainly, these changes could transform the planet in ways that undermine its capacity to support a large and thriving human population. Here’s how:
Shifting Bread Baskets
A “bread basket” is a region that produces a large amount of the cereal grains (think wheat, corn, rice, oats, etc.) that are critical to the daily survival of billions of people. Cereal grains are staple crops – eaten routinely, often daily, and in such quantities that they can make up a substantial portion of a person’s standard diet, supplying them with energy and nutrients.
Some well-known breadbaskets include the American and Canadian prairies, the Ukraine in Europe, vast swaths of Southeast Asia, and southern Brazil.
But “[as] temperatures rise, the best growing conditions for many crops are moving away from the tropics, and from lower lying land to cooler climbs,” Bloomberg reports. “The US corn belt stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas is edging toward the border with Canada.”
And while “shifting breadbaskets” don’t necessarily always mean “empty breadbaskets” (though, tell that to the farmers losing their livelihoods as crops migrate), the reasons crops are shifting away from the places they’ve long grown are part of a larger trend threatening the long-term sustainability of our food systems.
“You see guys now in Canada growing more corn, which was almost unheard of some time ago, growing soy beans,” agriculture journalist and author Chris Clayton told Climate Reality last year. “And when that year hits where food production in two or three bread baskets around the world is short a little bit – 10 percent here, 15 percent there – the risk of political instability becomes huge.”
Climate Facts: Climate Change and Food
Food for thought: Want to know how climate change affects you? Just take a look at your plate. #YEARSproject (via Years of Living Dangerously)Posted by Climate Reality on Monday, October 16, 2017
Lower Crop Yields, Rising Prices, and Unrest
In our warming world, the circumstances Clayton describes above are becoming increasingly more likely. Indeed, in some places, they are already in motion.
“Eighty percent of the world’s crops are rain-fed, so most farmers depend on the predictable weather agriculture has adapted to in order to produce their crops,” Columbia writes. “However, climate change is altering rainfall patterns around the world.”
The amount of water a plant needs to flourish varies from species to species – and plants that have thrived in one area for thousands of years can be imperiled by even seemingly minor decreases in rainfall. On the other end of the spectrum, more rainfall isn’t always good for plant life – even if water is not collecting on the surface, soil can become over-saturated, and plants will drown.
These concerns multiply when changes in precipitation are coupled with rising temperatures.
If we keep burning fossil fuels without making any real efforts to cut emissions, we could see average surface temperatures on Earth warm by more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This would devastate global agriculture.
Without effective climate mitigation, “each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6 percent, rice by 3.2 percent, maize by 7.4 percent, and soybean by 3.1 percent,” according to four independent estimates compiled and published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Approximately two-thirds of human caloric intake globally are provided by wheat, rice, maize, and soybeans. These crops are utterly central to the health and well-being of billions of people – and their futures are imperiled at a time of major global population growth.
These precipitous drops in staple crop yield are unlikely to happen suddenly or all at once, but as they escalate, it makes easy sense that they’ll translate into ever-higher prices at the supermarket – likely beginning sooner rather than later. It’s simple supply and demand: When something is needed or wanted by many, it often costs more – particularly if it’s in short supply.
Rising food prices are a burden – sometimes a very serious one – to families everywhere, but as Clayton mentions above, diminished food supplies and the resultant rising prices of staples like rice or wheat can also quickly lead to violent unrest.
“Food supply shocks and surging prices have the power to displace people and destabilize governments,” Bloomberg writes, “as riots in more than 70 countries during a crop crisis in 2007-2008 showed.”
You need look no further than Syria for an example of how agricultural issues related to the climate crisis can quickly spiral into a truly devastating conflict.
In Syria, a major climate-related long-term drought – said to be the Middle Eastern nation’s worst in 900 years – and related agricultural shortages were an “important driver of the initial unrest” that contributed to the destabilization of the country as it descended into a civil war that has claimed almost half a million lives, displaced nearly 7 million people, and created 4.8 million refugees.
Circumstances like these are unlikely to remain quarantined to only a handful of places for long, in large part because of how most of us get our hands on the food we eat.
“Because food is a globally traded commodity today, climate events in one region could raise prices and cause shortages across the globe,” Columbia University notes. “Starting in 2006, drought in major wheat producing countries was a key factor in a dramatic spike in food prices. Many countries experienced food riots and political unrest.”
And the same carbon pollution that is driving these trends all over the globe may itself also be having an impact we are only just now beginning to understand. Recent research points to a disturbing trend – increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may be making our food less nutritious, jeopardizing the wellness of people all over the world.
When grown under the CO2 levels expected by 2050, reductions of protein, iron, and zinc in common produce in some parts of the world could be anywhere from 3-17 percent. And if emissions continue at the current rate, in many countries, these nutrient declines could turn dire.
“The results [of the study], which cover 151 countries, reveal that it is countries in north Africa, south and south-east Asia, and the Middle East that are likely to be among the hardest hit – together with some nations in sub-Saharan Africa,” The Guardian reports. “In India, it is estimated that by 2050 about 50 million more people will be zinc deficient, and 38 million more protein deficient. With quality of diet linked to income, the researchers say the poorest in such countries are most likely to be at risk.”
Zinc deficiencies can dramatically impair immune system function, and cause hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, and eye and skin lesions. Meanwhile, an iron deficit can lead to muscle weakness, immune system and cognitive problems, and headaches and dizziness – and can result in anemia. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to complications related to iron deficiency.
As for protein deficiencies: “Few nutrients are as important as protein,” Healthline explains. “Protein is the building block of your muscles, skin, enzymes, and hormones, and it plays an essential role in all body tissues. … Protein deficiency can affect almost all aspects of body function.”
While this area of research is relatively new, scientists hypothesize that increased atmospheric CO2 speeds up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow faster, but in so doing they pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other essential nutrients human beings (and other animals, right down the food chain) depend on.
Some have gone so far as to call this the “junk-food effect.”
What You Can Do
It’s clear that the climate crisis poses a very real threat to food security across the globe. If no action is taken, millions – perhaps billions – of people are at risk of malnutrition as staple crops and other fruits and vegetables become harder to grow, more expensive, and less nutritious.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to get our leaders and people everywhere talking about this threat.
The impact of the climate crisis on human health is far-reaching, but solutions exist that can help us improve quality of life around the world right now and work toward a healthier, more sustainable future for all.
Learn more about the health risks of the climate crisis in our latest e-book, The Climate Crisis and Your Health: What You Need to Know.
In The Climate Crisis and Your Health, we break down the many ways climate change adversely affects respiratory and mental health, the danger it presents to food and water security, how it increases the risk of infectious disease, the many unique ways children are put at unique risk in our warming world, and much more.
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