Is Climate Change Threatening the Global Food Supply?
Food and water experts recently warned that if action is not taken on climate change, food prices could more than double alongside the number of malnourished children around the world during the recent United Nations climate negations at Doha.
According to the UN's Committee on World Food Security, the world will need a 75-90 percent increase in food production to feed the 2 billion people expected to populate the globe by 2050. But the affects of climate change on crop production could reduce yields worldwide by 5-25 percent during this same period.
Global warming not only presents a challenge of adapting to erratic weather conditions, but also that of feeding more people with less food. Researchers at Oxfam found that it’s not just a rising population that matters when it comes to demand, but also that millions of people in developing nations are eating richer diets.
The drought that scorched nearly half of North America this summer and left major crop fields barren in the Midwest demonstrates how increasing extreme weather events linked to climate change can seriously impact crops. The USDA projected increases in retail food prices for 2013, but also found prices on some foods are already showing increases for the last quarter of 2012.
While many in the food industry ignore warnings from food and water experts as well as climate scientists about the threat to their supply chains, some companies are beginning to confront the problem head on.
Starbucks, for instance, tried to push the Obama administration to take action on climate change because extreme weather events are jeopardizing their coffee bean supply.
The volatility of food prices could also aggravate instability in countries with social strife. Even when you take the food factor out of the equation, a study in the journal Nature found that the percentage of civil conflicts doubles during El Niño, a regular climate event that warms up the Pacific Ocean and surrounding tropics about every five years. The connection between El Niño and civil wars, as well as a link between the cooling period of La Niña and times of relative peace, is so strong that researchers believe it can be considered partly as a cause of civil strife.
Now add in the price and supply of food.
More recently, evidence is coming to light that the newer forms of fossil fuel extraction are directly, and indirectly, threatening the food supply. Ranchers residing in the Marcellus Shale have reported their cattle dropping dead after hydraulic fracturing rigs moved in to drill for natural gas. And animals that survive the exposure to chemicals used in the fracking process may find their way into the food system.
According to a report in The Nation:
In Louisiana, seventeen cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid. (Most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.) In north central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately seventy cows died; the remainder produced eleven calves, of which only three survived. In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing waste pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: half their calves were born dead. The following year’s animal births were sexually skewed, with ten females and two males, instead of the usual 50-50 or 60-40 split.
No matter how you slice it, fossil fuels are affecting our foods, either through direct contamination or by compounding global climate change and causation of extreme weather events. In fact, scientists estimate that food production and distribution systems produce between a third and a fifth of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans.
Is it time to start including greenhouse gas emissions on food labels?
Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.