Climate change is disrupting our food system, which makes it vulnerable to new crises
In Kansas, more than 2,000 cattle died in a record heat wave. In Tunisia, fires razed fields of grain to the ground. In southern China, historic flooding damaged almost 100,000 hectares of crops. In northern Italy, a farm lobby warned that drought could claim half the region’s agricultural output.
That was just June.
The global food supply is taking a hit from pandemic-driven labor shortages, supply-chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine. Underlying it all is the climate crisis.
“Without a doubt, it’s always there. And it’s now always going to be there,” said Ed Carr, the director of the International Development, Community, and Environment Department at Clark University.
Rising temperatures have been changing weather conditions and ecosystems across the planet for decades, before the pandemic or the war began. That’s chipping away at the security of our food system and priming it for new crises.
It’s not all bad news, but the future of food hangs in the balance. Here’s what experts, scientific studies, and international climate reports tell us.
Remind me: What is climate change? What’s the big deal?
When humans burn coal and oil for fuel, that releases carbon dioxide. The gas’s concentration in the atmosphere has increased 50% since 1850, and the rate of increase has tripled since the 1960s. All that carbon dioxide (plus other emissions, such as methane, from our agriculture, garbage dumps, and land destruction) is trapping more and more of the sun’s heat, raising global temperatures.
Since 1850, humans’ fossil-fuel dependence has caused global average temperatures to rise about 1.1 degrees Celsius, and scientists warn that we may face a catastrophic 1.5 degrees of warming in 20 years. That may not sound like much, but it’s altering the planet’s weather and ecosystems, to the detriment of global food supplies.
So how exactly are climate change and the food crisis connected?
Climate change is making droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat waves more severe and more frequent, according to the sixth assessment of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in installments over the past year.
Scientists can’t link every individual event to climate change, but research shows that rising temperatures affect the overall occurrence of extreme weather. Such events can devastate crops and kill livestock, as they did in Kansas, Tunisia, China, and Italy in June.
Climate change also does long-term, chronic damage to our food systems.
As baseline temperatures steadily rise, scientists fear some regions of the world will become inhospitable to the foods economies rely on. Several studies have shown that rising temperatures can cut yields for the staple crops that account for two-thirds of all the calories humans eat: wheat, rice, maize, and soybean. Last year, a NASA study projected that the climate crisis would drive a 24% decline in yields of maize — a crop that factors into countless food products and feeds livestock across the globe.
“Most of the large grain-producing regions in the world are seeing some kind of climate signal, some kind of climate stress,” said Carr, who is also a coauthor on the IPCC report.
In 2021, Cornell University researchers calculated that global farming productivity was already 21% lower than it would be without climate change. Other research suggested that rising carbon-dioxide levels deplete nutrients in some crops.
“We see slightly less protein, less iron, less zinc in the grains at higher CO2 levels,” said Toshihiro Hasegawa, who studies rice and co-led the IPCC report’s chapter on food. “That’s really concerning, alarming for people who depend mostly on the diet of the main staple foods.”
The oceans, too, are heating up. That’s forcing the migration of fish populations — a critical source of protein for billions of people. Iceland, for example, is losing key fish, such as capelin and cod, as they swim north for cooler waters. Rivers are warming as well, driving a decline in salmon populations in the northwest US.
The oceans have also become 30% more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide that human activities have added to the atmosphere. Shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, can’t escape warming and acidifying waters, so they’re more prone to die-offs.
The IPCC report said the effects of climate change on particular fish populations were understudied, but it concluded that ocean warming and acidification were depleting fish stocks.
Overall, the IPCC has already documented declines in food quality or yield on every continent because of climate change, as shown in the map below.
That sounds bad. Is that the worst of it?
No. If we don’t reel in emissions, up to 10% of the planet’s current crop and livestock areas could become unsuitable for agriculture by 2050, the IPCC projected.
Especially in Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean, scientists expect that heat and water scarcity will strain agriculture. If global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial standard — which is well within our current trajectory — the IPCC expects increased malnutrition, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, and on small islands. Many of these places already struggle with hunger, and it could get much worse.
“Unless we, as a global community, make very significant cuts to our greenhouse-gas emissions, we can anticipate having many more crises and incidents of acute food insecurity, as well as impacts in terms of food prices,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, the other coleader of the IPCC report’s chapter on food.
Climate change also means increasing risks to food safety. This year in the US, an avian flu outbreak drove an almost 300% increase in the price of eggs. The IPCC warns that there will likely be more infectious-disease outbreaks as rising temperatures allow new pests and pathogens to overlap with livestock and crops.
Will my favorite foods get more expensive or hard to find?
It’s unclear. Many factors influence food prices, including labor supply, international relations, efficiency of food production, and consumer demand for particular foods.
For now, major foods aren’t in imminent danger of disappearing, but a few consumer favorites, such as coffee, chocolate, and wine, are especially vulnerable to climate change.
“It really will come down to: How much are you willing to pay? Or I guess, maybe given inequality within our country: How much are you able to pay for your favorite food?” Carr said.
Coffee-growing areas in Central and South America, Vietnam, and Indonesia are likely to see average temperature increases that make the crop harder to grow. A January study in the journal PLOS One projected a “drastic,” about 50%, decrease in areas suitable for coffee cultivation by 2050. Already, between 2020 and 2021, extreme weather in Brazil drove the cost of coffee up 70%, The New York Times reported, citing data from the International Monetary Fund.
Coffee may become “more of a specialty drink, or a treat that you have occasionally,” Bezner Kerr said.
Chocolate could undergo a similar decline. Most of the world’s cocoa — 70% of it — grows in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the World Economic Forum said, where drier conditions might make cocoa farms unsuitable for the plants.
Climate disruptions are leading to shortages worldwide. Wildfires and droughts are besieging wine-grape vineyards in California and the Mediterranean. Severe drought in Mexico is cutting chili-pepper yields and driving a Sriracha shortage. Apples suffered from last year’s extreme heat and late-spring frosts in the US. In France and Canada, mustard-seed growers reported a changing climate had cut production in half in 2021.
The climate crisis isn’t new. How did things get so bad this year?
Damages from climate change and disruptive events, such as the war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic, compound one another. The war, for example, is exacerbating a preexisting fertilizer shortage and cutting off a crucial global supply of wheat.
Even places that don’t rely on Ukraine’s wheat or fertilizer suffered from the rise in global food prices. For instance, in Malawi farmers were already reeling from a late start to the rainy season, which brought extreme flooding. The country turned to imports to replace its lost crops, but now global price hikes could make imported food too expensive for many Malawians, leading to food shortages.
“Climate by itself, right now, generally doesn’t lead to terrible” food-access outcomes, Carr said, adding, “But it’s intersecting with a lot of other stressors that are out there.”
The coronavirus pandemic dealt a major blow to supply chains and is still driving labor shortages. That weakened the food-supply chain from farm to plate and drove costs higher.
“You get these worsening impacts from the interaction between a non-climatic factor, such as a conflict, and a climatic factor, such as drought, in a particular region, leading to really severe food crises,” Bezner Kerr said.
Can we fix this?
We can’t stop the globe from warming in the years ahead since the greenhouse gases we’ve already added to the atmosphere will continue to trap heat. But we can reduce the greenhouse gases we’re emitting and adapt our food systems to the changes that are already happening.
Those adaptations look different depending on the region and the climate problems it faces. Some farms have already seen success with new water-management tactics, the diversification of crops, and the integration of crops with livestock and forests to improve soil quality. Research institutions are also developing more drought-resistant varieties of staple crops, such as corn.
Researchers need to study those solutions more to know if they’ll work at scale.
To stop the crisis from accelerating even more, we must stop adding carbon to the atmosphere and transition away from fossil fuels to more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
We need to make those changes now, or “the future looks grim,” Bezner Kerr said. “I think it’s an opportunity, a hopeful opportunity, and it’s a closing window.”
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