Unless climate change can be greatly minimized, rising temperatures will disrupt food production around the world and potentially alter the way we eat, a new study finds.
The continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could imperil "nearly one-third of global food crop production and over one-third of livestock production" by 2081-2100, the peer-reviewed study, published in May by researchers at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, concludes.
The findings put a fine point on what climate scientists have warned for decades: that climate change will render certain parts of the globe incapable of producing food for the people who live there.
The study notes that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, the most vulnerable areas will be South and Southeast Asia, as well as Africa's Sudano-Sahelian zone. But the vast majority of land on earth will be affected.
There is hope, however: If the world's nations are successful in their goal of limiting global mean temperatures to warming between 1.5° and 2°C, the impacts on food production will be lessened.
Numerous other studies have looked at how climate change will affect individual crops or growing areas, and some have concluded that global warming is already wreaking havoc on food production. Others make the case that dietary changes are imperative to prevent temperatures from rising even further.
The following is a sample of the growing body of research on how climate change will affect the world's diet. As certain food industries feel the impact, their products won't go away, but prices could rise and change behaviors.
In early April of this year, following an unusually warm March, France experienced several days of severe frost that devastated grape crops, resulting in an estimated $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion in losses. A study released by the research consortium World Weather Attribution concluded that climate change had made the "false spring" event 60 percent more likely.
Previous studies have concluded that rising temperatures will shrink the area in California's Napa Valley and other vaunted wine-growing regions in the U.S. that will be able to continue producing premium grapes.
"Over the next century, the area suitable for premium wine grape production is likely to shrink and shift," a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded. "According to the higher emissions projections, premium wine grapes could only be grown in a thin strip of land along the coast of California, with premium wine-producing regions shifting northward to coastal Oregon and Washington."
A 2018 study published in the journal Nature found that weather disruptions spurred by climate change will also affect the production of beer, thanks to the impact on barley crops.
"Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world by volume consumed, and yields of its main ingredient, barley, decline sharply in periods of extreme drought and heat," the study's authors wrote.
Depending on the severity of drought and rising temperatures, barley yields are forecast to decline anywhere from 3 to 17 percent annually. As a result, the Chinese and American researchers concluded, beer prices could double in some parts of the world by the end of the century.
Coffee and chocolate
Alarm bells went off in Europe, which accounts for one-third of global coffee consumption, when research released this month found that 35 percent of the regions where the EU imports crops, including coffee beans, will be threatened by severe drought brought on by climate change that will likely disrupt food production.
An April study found that coffee production in Ethiopia will be especially vulnerable. "We conclude that depending on drivers of suitability and projected impacts, climate change will significantly affect the Ethiopian speciality coffee sector and area-specific adaptation measures are required to build resilience," wrote the authors of the study, published in Nature.
Cocoa beans, which are used to make chocolate, face a similar threat due to rising temperatures and drought. A 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One concluded that "drought effects on cocoa agroforestry could be a ‘canary in the coal mine’ warning of problems to come both in agriculture and in semi-natural and natural vegetation due to increased intensity and frequency."
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Citing deforestation that is carried out to create grazing land for livestock, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included a section in its landmark 2019 special report that declared that the prospect of eating less meat could "present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health."
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, told Nature. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
Beef is, by far, one of the worst food sources in terms of its impact on climate change, in part because of the methane gas that cows produce. Beef production generates 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat, more than double that of lamb, which ranks second, Forbes reported.
Wheat and corn
A staple of the global diet that accounts for 20 percent of all calories consumed by people, wheat is one crop that humans need to ensure survives in the coming decades. While wheat yields have, in some countries, increased in the short term as the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen in the atmosphere, a major concern is the prevalence of drought in parts of the world where it is grown.
A 2019 study published in Science Advances found that unless global mean temperatures can be kept from rising, major droughts will affect 60 percent of areas where wheat is grown. That is dramatically higher than the current 15 percent of wheat-growing areas affected by drought conditions. The backdrop to the rise in the prevalence of drought, the study noted, is that demand for wheat was projected to increase 43 percent from 2006 to 2050.
A similar dynamic is at play with corn, 30 percent of the world's supply of which is grown in the U.S. Weather patterns resulting in drought or widespread flooding that can overlap with the growing season for corn are projected to reduce yields by 20 to 40 percent over the decade spanning 2046-2055, a study released in April concluded.
"That poor weather can take the form of extremes in temperature such as cold snaps or heat waves during the growing season," the authors wrote. "It can also be expressed as excessive variation in rainfall resulting in drought or flood, including floods before a crop’s growing season that prevent the planting of that crop in the first place."
California, which is currently in the grip of a mega-drought, is the world's leading producer of almonds, growing roughly 80 percent of the global supply. Thanks to rising temperatures and the drought, which has depleted groundwater and deprived the state of a robust snowpack, the future of the water-intensive crop has been made more precarious.
Yet, as with many other crops, climate change may present the opportunity for almonds to be grown in latitudes currently too cold to support them.
Researcher Lauren Parker of the University of California, Davis, is studying whether, as temperatures continue to rise, almond trees could thrive in states like Oregon and Washington.
"Under climate change, what we anticipate is seeing a reduction in the frost risk even for almonds, which bloom pretty early in the year," Parker told Yale Climate Connections.
What people feed their pets, it turns out, also has a big impact on climate change. A 2020 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that the annual production of pet food worldwide resulted in average greenhouse gas emissions of 106 million metric tons of CO2. In terms of emissions, that is the equivalent of a country the size of the Philippines, the study noted.
In part, that's due to the rise in "premium" pet food, according to the study, which more closely mirrors a meat-heavy human diet. At present, pets consume roughly 20 percent of the meat and fish in a given country. But what if humans changed what they fed their pets, substituting insect protein for meat? While that idea may sound lifted from a dystopian science fiction film, it's already happening in many countries.
In fact, a 2017 study recommended that insect protein replace that of meat for humans, too, as a way to fight climate change, though with some caveats attached.
"Insect production has great potential with respect to sustainably providing food for the growing population," the study authors wrote. "However, further technological development of this sector and monitoring of the effects of these developments on the environmental impact of insect production are needed."
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