For the past two years, the world
has been experiencing what has
been termed a “food crisis” as a
combination of factors have converged
to create dramatic increases in food
price and, for some, dire food scarcities. The results have been various:
The causes for the crisis are multiple; many of them have almost nothing to do with climate change, including high oil prices, a weak dollar, speculative investment, population growth, and changing diets.
However, some factors are related to climate change, most notably a series of weather events (including a six year drought in Australia, a typhoon in Burma and flooding in America’s Midwest) that diminished grain stocks and led to greater price uncertainty.
While no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, each one of these occurrences is indicative of the types of meteorological adversity that should be expected to happen with increased frequency in a global warming scenario.
Climate change has also played another, less direct role in the food crisis by fueling apprehensions about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, has helped to drive the push for the production of more biofuels. As energy crops compete with
foodcrops they inevitably cut into food inventories and drive up prices. Corn ethanol, with its especially high input requirements, has done the most to diminish foodstocks: one gas
tank’s worth of ethanol fuel requires an amount of corn that could feed one person for an entire year. Many question the morality of using food for fuel when other technologies are available to satisfy the demand for energy without contributing to global hunger.
These trends show no signs of abating, and it seems very likely that in the future, climate change will increasingly diminish food security and widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Preventing a deepening food crisis and lessening the potential for wider social
and geopolitical unrest will require swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, policies to protect the millions of people facing poverty and hunger, and changes to agricultural practices worldwide.
This task will be complicated by
the fact that food production is not
only a victim of climate change, but
also a culprit in its emergence. While
agriculture will be forced to adapt to
challenges involving new soil conditions, weather patterns and water availability scenarios, there is pressure to find ways to mitigate its extensive contribution to greenhouse warming.
Currently, agriculture contributes 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this figure does not include greenhouse gases from deforestation or nitrogen fertilizer production, which are counted under ‘industry.’ Greenhouse gas emissions from all facets of agriculture may total closer to 25-30% of all emissions, and this percentage is likely to rise with an increasing demand for food.
In order to guarantee food security, agriculture must adapt to yield reductions from floods, droughts and rising temperatures, while at the same time addressing its contributions to global climate change.
Current agricultural practices require
large amounts of oil to produce the
chemical fertilizers necessary to grow
crops, run the factories to process grain
into packaged foods, and fuel the trucks
and airplanes to transport food across
the world. Even before adding the fuelnecessary to ship food from factory to
consumer, “the food-processing industry
in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie
of food energy it produces.” Global nitrogen fertilizer consumption in 2005 was 90.86 million tons, the production of which required as many tons of fossil fuel. As oil prices increase, the cost of maintaining industrial agriculture rises, thereby driving food prices upward.
The consequences of agriculture’s contribution to climate change, and of climate change’s negative impact on agriculture, are severe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports with high confidence that climate change is increasing the number of people at risk of hunger and predicts that between 40 million and 170 million more people will soon be undernourished.
Climate models predict that the impacts of climate change on agriculture will vary by region, adding to global inequality. Those living in high and mid-latitudes may find that a degree or two of warming actually improves crop yields. Latin America’s crop and
livestock productivity will decrease, Asia’s food security will be threatened by alternating floods and droughts, and sub-Saharan Africa could experience cereal production losses of 33% by 2060. Moreover, the IPCC states that “climate change is likely to further shift
the regional focus of food insecurity to sub-Saharan Africa. By 2080, about 75% of all people at risk of hunger are estimated to live in this region.”
The result is a situation in which low income regions are suffering as a result of high-income, industrialized standards of living that contribute to global climate change, over which they have no control and from which they do not benefit. Policy makers, farmers, and consumers alike need to consider the impact that their decisions and diets have on the environment. Eating locally grown produce and less meat further reduces the demand for resource-heavy industrialized agriculture and livestock production, easing the burden on food prices and on those who devote the majority of their paycheck to dinner. With greater access to information about food and its effect on climate change, we can hope to make educated choices and prevent future food crises.
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