When we hear the words ‘Climate Change’, our minds tend to jump to images of blazing forest fires, devastating storms and flash floods. But what we often disregard are the closer to home, yet equally terrifying, factors that will impact our lives more than we realise.
Our food supply.
“For most of us, this still feels like an abstract problem,” Vanderbilt University Professor Amanda Little says. “The industrialised world on the whole is enjoying a more abundant, diverse and accessible food supply than ever before in human history. But disruptions in supply are already evident almost everywhere food is grown.”
It’s almost impossible to fathom food shortages are a threat when we walk into stores with aisles of food at our disposal. But the truth is, the risk of running out of food is very much a reality. And it’s already started.
How exactly does climate change impact food supply?
With the world’s population due to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, the demand for food has never been higher. However, it is expected that by this point, the world will reach a ‘threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilisations.’
Increasing droughts, heatwaves, flooding, superstorms, shifting seasons, weather volatility and insect infestations are wreaking havoc to farming and slashing food output.
Chaos in food supply is already evident, and is only expected to get worse. Extensive spring flooding in the U.S. Midwest this year led to late planting of corn and soy crops, reducing yields. Drought wilted rice fields in Thailand and Indonesia, and scorched sugar cane plantations and oilseed crops in India. Even whisky-makers in Scotland had to halt production because they ran out of water due to heatwaves.
The irony is that it is our current food production systems, the ones built to provide access to food, that are contributing to the DEMISE of our food supply. The entire food production system accounts for 37% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is only worsened by food waste, with more than a third of all food grown globally left to rot in fields, lost in transit, or thrown out.
Soil degradation has also lead to the overuse of synthetic fertilisers that evaporate into the air to form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. Our soils and air have been further poisoned by pesticides, which are also destroying precious insect populations we desperately need for pollination.
“If we continue to degrade ecosystems, if we continue to convert natural ecosystems, we continue to deforest and we continued to destroy our soils, we’re going to lose this natural subsidy that we’re getting that’s protecting us in part from ourselves and from the damage that we’re creating as we pump these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” states Louis Verchot, a research leader who contributed to the IPCC’s recent report on Climate Change.
So what can be done to save our supplies?
To put it simply, we need to radically reform food production and reassess our consumption to ensure there’s enough food for all in the future. This can greatly be achieved through better land use, the reduction of food waste, and a dietary shift away from mass produced (particularly animal-based) foods as immediate priorities.
Scientists are already working closely with farmers, activists and engineers to create systems that adapt to our changing world. This includes developing ‘transformative agricultural technology areas’ which include innovations such as alternative proteins and nutrigenetics, to those that can make food systems more resource-efficient and climate-resilient such as precision agriculture and gene-editing.
As a consumer, you too can make an impact by paying closer attention to how your food is produced and where it comes from. Buying locally sourced, seasonal produce and ‘less and best’ sustainably sourced meat with low food miles, and becoming more mindful of food waste in your own home, can help make a significant difference for the future.