As the immediate impacts of climate change are becoming more evident around the world, planning for its long-term effects on the future of humanity is a necessity. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July 2019 saw the hottest temperatures on record as well as the lowest levels of polar ice. The change in temperatures, accompanied by disasters such as drought, wildfires, and excessive heat, are impacting worldwide food production, leaving farmers rightly concerned about their livelihoods.
Additional concerns lie in the quality, safety, and prices that may irrevocably affect food production. Without prompt action, climate change will alter food production processes and volume, resulting in numerous societal and health consequences, including the collapse of food systems.
Climate Change and Food Production
By 2050, the world population will be almost 10 billion, and international food production needs to increase by 60% to match these numbers. Nearly 75% of the world’s food-insecure or needy depend upon agriculture, and any decline in food production will significantly impact vulnerable communities. Those effects will also reach food supply chains in modernized countries, leading to decreased food nutrition, quantity, and dietary diversity.
Rising CO2 levels and warmer temperatures
Food production is contributing to climate change and being affected by it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICPP) reports that agricultural and land uses create nearly one-fifth of global CO2 emissions. Those greenhouse gas emissions in return will cause a 35% decrease in vegetable yields by 2100. Some crops, like rice, wheat, and soybeans, will experience an increase due to these conditions; however, these foods are less nutritious than green, leafy vegetables.
Additionally, rising temperatures provide warmer environments in which toxins and pathogens, such as salmonella, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can grow and thrive on food sources. The formation of mycotoxins via fungal growth causes chronic health problems, such as cancer, in people and livestock. The spread of insect-borne and infectious diseases is likely to increase due to higher levels of CO2. Hotter temperatures may also make food less nutritious, threatening the well-being of all humanity. Zinc, protein, and iron deficiencies will harm already impaired digestive and immune systems and create cognitive deficiencies and anemia amongst other debilitating health conditions.
Farmers, and subsequently general populations, are dependent upon food production at certain times of the year. However, climate change has impacted the growing patterns upon which the world has long functioned. Growing seasons now involve earlier springs, warmer temperatures, and shorter winters, and while some crops will benefit from these changes, most agriculture will not. Shifting seasons impact life and growth cycles by encouraging more drought, frost damage and increased pests and diseases, all of which impact plant and crop life.
Changes in soil, water availability and nutrient levels will make some crops difficult to grow. In the United States, crop growth is critical not only to Americans but to the rest of the world; American farms supply 25% of all grains globally. Any impact on American crops will cause a ripple effect throughout the global community.
Fish and shellfish habitats are likely to shift as water temperatures continue to rise, upsetting ecosystems and impacting how and where people catch fish for food. Increased heat threatens the health of livestock from both the reduced quality of their food and heat stress. Both of these issues may result in livestock health problems such as compromised immune systems, reduced milk production, and decreased fertility.
Extreme weather events
Climate change has a direct effect on an increase in intense natural disasters and extreme weather events like tsunamis, heavy precipitation, and tropical cyclones. These weather events result in heightened food safety risks, especially in regards to cooking and food storage which can be limited or impossible depending on lack of fuel, facilities, and sanitation.
Eighty percent of world crops depend on rain to flourish; many farmers are dependent upon predictable weather and precipitation patterns to grow their crops. Rising temperatures lead to warmer air retaining more moisture and causing intense precipitation. Extreme precipitation events damage crops as soils become oversaturated and plants drown. Floods can cause pollutants from sewage and manure to mix with food sources, allowing more toxins to enter food production. This deadly combination can impact global water sources, and clean water is one of the necessities for a healthy human cardiovascular system.
Rising global temperatures have also lengthened the fire weather seasons over 25% of the planet’s vegetated surfaces. Farmers must contend with increased intense wildfire events that damage soil, destroy livestock and crops, and impact water and air quality due to smoke, ash, and chemical exposure. Recent widespread wildfires in the western United States, Portugal, Indonesia, and southwestern Australia are examples of the need for reduced greenhouse emissions to protect people and the land that provides humanity with its food sources.
Instability in food prices
While food availability is a casualty of climate change, the cost of food is as well. Reductions in food production due to any variant of climate change results in a change in food prices, especially extreme weather events. Higher priced food will be limited to those populations that can afford it, leaving a severe food inequality between socioeconomic classes.
Unstable weather patterns will inevitably lead to instability in both the supply and prices of food. Spikes in food prices may result from any “food shocks” that occur in countries simultaneously due to climate change. Global stability could be affected as it was during the 2007-2008 global food crisis where rising prices prompted worldwide riots and protests. Historical examples, such as the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, provide proof of the widespread hardships that citizens could face due to unstable food prices.
Climate change doesn’t appear to be giving up its place as one of the top public health threats in the world anytime soon. It continues to threaten weather patterns and air quality, which in turn lead to food scarcity. Improving soil health, reducing food waste, preventing no-till farming practices, and reducing meat consumption are viable means to stave off further dangers to the global food supply; dietary changes in food and drink are particularly important to healthier digestive and immune systems. With careful planning, awareness, and activism, we can ensure nutritious food is available and affordable for all human beings.