Coffee, Avocados, Chocolate and Other Foods Climate Change Could Take Off The Menu

Pat Thomas December 20, 2019

This photo shows a farm north of Dalhart, Texas in 1938 during the Dust Bowl―one of the most devastating environmental disasters in the history of American agriculture. Now, climate change threatens even more dramatic effects on world agriculture and, as a consequence, our diets.

What will we eat in the future?

What was once a rhetor­i­cal mus­ing has now become the crit­i­cal ques­tion of our time as sci­en­tists grap­ple with tricky ques­tions about life — and larders — in a cli­mate-chang­ing world.

Agri­cul­ture is both a key con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change and one of the sec­tors most vul­ner­a­ble to those changes. That fact alone should send an urgent mes­sage that the way we farm has to change. Instead, we see a stub­born cadre of pol­i­cy­mak­ers, tech com­pa­nies and big agribusi­ness­es that believe busi­ness as usu­al can be main­tained with only a few tweaks to the system.

The sci­ence, how­ev­er, tells a dif­fer­ent story.

Ear­li­er this year a report from the Unit­ed Nations Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) warned that the world’s land and water resources are being exploit­ed at unprece­dent­ed rates,” and that top­soil is dis­ap­pear­ing between 10 and 100 times faster than we can replen­ish it.

As cli­mate change begins to bite and we expe­ri­ence floods, drought, storms and oth­er types of extreme weath­er that deeply dis­rupt the glob­al food sup­ply, feed­ing our­selves is going to get harder.

Some of the world‘s most vul­ner­a­ble places are already bear­ing wit­ness to these effects. After decades of decline, world hunger and mal­nu­tri­tion has, since 2014, begun to climb steadi­ly again. A 2016 study found that by 2050 the effects of cli­mate change on diet will be respon­si­ble for 529,000 addi­tion­al and avoid­able deaths.

If you ever doubt­ed that farm­ing and food is a cli­mate change issue, the rapid­ly mount­ing sci­ence is beg­ging you not to doubt it any­more. Con­sid­er the stud­ies pub­lished just this year:

• A Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta-led study not­ed that, while some places may be (tem­porar­i­ly) bet­ter off as the cli­mate shifts, the long-term pic­ture is grim. The world’s top 10 crops — bar­ley, cas­sa­va, maize, oil palm, grape­seed, rice, sorghum, soy­bean, sug­ar­cane and wheat — sup­ply a com­bined 83 per­cent of all the calo­ries pro­duced on crop­land. Cli­mate change has already affect­ed pro­duc­tion of these key ener­gy sources and some regions — notably Europe, South­ern Africa and Aus­tralia — are far­ing far worse than others.

In the Unit­ed States the study found that in east­ern Iowa, Illi­nois and Indi­ana, cli­mate change has been reduc­ing corn yields even as it mar­gin­al­ly boosts them to the north­west in Min­neso­ta and North Dako­ta. There was a sim­i­lar pat­tern for soy­beans with reduc­tions mov­ing up from the south and east parts of the coun­try, where slight­ly more warm­ing has occurred than in states far­ther north. The chang­ing cli­mate is also reduc­ing over­all yields of oth­er impor­tant crops, such as wheat and barley.

• A com­pre­hen­sive syn­the­sis of cli­mate change impacts on the nutri­tion­al qual­i­ty of our food found that, over the next 30 years, cli­mate change and high­er CO2 could sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the avail­abil­i­ty of crit­i­cal nutri­ents, such as pro­tein, iron and zinc by 19.5 per­cent, 14.4 per­cent and 14.6 per­cent, respectively.

• A Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty study found that cli­mate change may reduce the abil­i­ty of soils to absorb water in many parts of the world. That could have seri­ous impli­ca­tions for ground­wa­ter sup­plies, food pro­duc­tion and secu­ri­ty, stormwa­ter runoff, bio­di­ver­si­ty and ecosys­tem stability.

• The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Sci­ence-Pol­i­cy Plat­form on Bio­di­ver­si­ty and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices (IPBES) is a pan­el study­ing the ben­e­fits of nature to humans. It reports that while there is three times more car­bon in the soil than in the atmos­phere, that car­bon is rapid­ly being released by defor­esta­tion and poor farm­ing prac­tices. This, in turn, is fuel­ing cli­mate change — and com­pro­mis­ing our attempts to feed a grow­ing world population.

• Aus­tralian sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tas­ma­nia combed through Unit­ed Nations data from the past half cen­tu­ry, con­clud­ing that glob­al­ly an increase in extreme weath­er events is large­ly to blame for a rise in major food shocks.” Over­all, extreme weath­er was respon­si­ble for over half the times when crop growth ground to a halt, pos­ing a major threat to glob­al food security.

Food not crops

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta-led study, cit­ed above, found that cli­mate change is reduc­ing con­sum­able food calo­ries by around 1 per­cent year­ly for the top 10 glob­al crops. This may sound small, but it actu­al­ly rep­re­sents some 35 tril­lion calo­ries each year — enough to pro­vide more than 50 mil­lion peo­ple with a dai­ly diet of over 1,800 calo­ries — the lev­el that the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion says is essen­tial to avoid food depri­va­tion or under­nour­ish­ment.

These fig­ures are so stag­ger­ing it’s hard to wrap our heads around just what they mean for the foods our fam­i­lies con­sume every day. Most of us under­stand the world in terms of food not crop yields. So apart from those top 10 sta­ple crops — which are often incor­po­rat­ed as ingre­di­ents in a vari­ety of every­day foods such as ready meals, bak­ery items and snacks — what oth­er food favorites are start­ing to feel the cli­mate squeeze? The list may sur­prise you. 

• Cof­fee: At least 60 per­cent of cur­rent cof­fee species face extinc­tion, accord­ing to a 2019 study. Cof­fee trees don’t thrive in extremes of tem­per­a­ture. They pre­fer the rel­a­tive­ly cool moun­tain­side regions of the trop­ics. In coun­tries like Brazil, warmer tem­per­a­tures and more preva­lent weath­er extremes are begin­ning to affect yields. Cli­mate change is also threat­en­ing native cof­fee trees that grow in the wild in Ethiopia. These are a valu­able source of genet­ic diver­si­ty, which grow­ers need to breed new strains of the plant that can thrive as the plan­et heats up.

• Tea: Most of the world’s tea is grown in Chi­na and India — both large regions with diverse cli­mates. Changes in cli­mate influ­ence the taste and qual­i­ty of tea. But they also, accord­ing to a 2019 report in the jour­nal Nature, affect the quan­ti­ty of tea that farm­ers can grow. In the rich tea-pro­duc­ing regions of south­ern Chi­na, over­all rain­fall is increas­ing and instances of heavy rain that can dam­age tea crops are becom­ing more fre­quent. In Assam in India, intense rains cause water­log­ging and soil ero­sion that dam­ages root devel­op­ment and reduces yield. At the oth­er extreme, heat is also caus­ing prob­lems. Warmer tem­per­a­tures mean insects that attack tea plants can sur­vive the win­ter and repro­duce in greater num­bers. Plan­ta­tion man­agers in Assam are already report­ing pest man­age­ment prob­lems with their tea plants.

• Orchard fruits: For U.S. apple crops, hot­ter spring weath­er is caus­ing an increase in dis­eases like fire blight (par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic for organ­ic farm­ers who don’t use antibi­otics). Intense sun­light can cause burn marks on the skin, which often means the apples can be sold only at a reduced price for the farmer, for juic­ing or pulp. Japan­ese sci­en­tists have found that cli­mate change is mak­ing pop­u­lar apples like the Fuji less crisp and less sweet. Oth­er orchard fruits like cher­ries, plums, pears, and apri­cots and peach­es) ben­e­fit from expo­sure to tem­per­a­tures below 45° F (7° C) each win­ter. Skip the required cold, and fruit and nut trees strug­gle to break dor­man­cy and flower in the spring. This can mean a drop in both the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of fruit that’s produced.

• Avo­ca­dos: This leath­ery look­ing fruit may look tough on the out­side, but to reach its peak of yum­mi­ness it needs tem­per­a­tures that are nei­ther too hot nor too cold. Avo­ca­do crops in Cal­i­for­nia have already suf­fered from heat waves and drought. One 2017 study led by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Merced, esti­mates that cli­mate change will cut Cal­i­for­nia avo­ca­do pro­duc­tion in half by 2050. Mex­i­co, which pro­vides the U.S. with 80 per­cent of its avo­ca­dos, is cur­rent­ly caught in a vicious down­ward spi­ral. Cli­mate change is affect­ing its crops, but farm­ers are under pres­sure to grow more to keep up with surg­ing glob­al demand. Expand­ing their crop­land through defor­esta­tion is con­tribut­ing to the cli­mate changes that are already threat­en­ing them.

• Bananas: As with oth­er crops, some coun­tries — includ­ing Ecuador, Hon­duras, and a num­ber of African coun­tries — may see a tem­po­rary boost in banana crop pro­duc­tion as glob­al tem­per­a­tures rise. But a recent report sug­gest­ed that 10 coun­tries, includ­ing the world’s largest pro­duc­er and con­sumer of bananas, India, and the fourth largest pro­duc­er, Brazil, will see a sig­nif­i­cant decline in crop yields.

• Choco­late: Some observers claim that cli­mate change has pushed us to the brink of peak choco­late.’ Most of the world’s choco­late is grown by small­hold­er farm­ers in Africa. But the com­bi­na­tion of chang­ing weath­er and crip­pling pover­ty means Africa’s cocoa farm­ers have had to switch to oth­er crops to sur­vive. In four decades, the amount of land avail­able for grow­ing cocoa has dropped 40 per­cent. In the next 40 years, the tem­per­a­ture in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, where 70 per­cent of cocoa is grown, is set to rise by 2°C, which would make it too hot and dry for cocoa trees. The world will like­ly start feel­ing the short­fall by 2020 when, accord­ing to a report by the Earth Secu­ri­ty Group, world cocoa demand is set to out­strip sup­ply by more than a mil­lion tons. 

• Hon­ey: Our hon­ey­bees are already under threat from Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der, and cli­mate change is pil­ing on the pres­sure. Accord­ing to a study by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, ris­ing car­bon diox­ide lev­els are decreas­ing the pro­tein lev­els in pollen. This means the bees aren’t get­ting enough nutri­tion, which threat­ens their abil­i­ty to repro­duce and can cause ear­ly death. Warmer tem­per­a­tures and the ear­li­er arrival of spring means trees and plants are flow­er­ing before bees have grown out of their lar­val state. This means few­er work­er bees to pol­li­nate our fruits and veg­etable crops, to col­lect pollen for the hive and to make honey.

• Maple syrup: Unpre­dictable, yo-yoing weath­er is short­en­ing the sug­ar­ing sea­son —the peri­od just before bud­ding when the tem­per­a­tures are mild enough to trig­ger a process where the trees turn stored-up starch­es into sug­ar sap. Too-hot tem­per­a­tures pro­duce a stress reac­tion in the trees that caus­es them to put more ener­gy into pro­duc­ing seeds than into pro­duc­ing sap — and the sap that is pro­duced under these con­di­tions is not as sweet. This means it can take twice as many gal­lons of sap to pro­duce a gal­lon of syrup.

• Peanuts: When it comes to grow­ing con­di­tions peanut plants can be fussy. They grow best if they have up to five months of con­sis­tent warmth, com­bined with about 20 to 40 inch­es of rain. But the rain has to taper off by the har­vest sea­son or farm­ers can find it hard to pull the peanut pods out of the ground. Too hot, too cold or too wet and crops can fail. Peanuts of course are legumes. Accord­ing to a recent study of glob­al legume and non-sta­ple veg­etable pro­duc­tion, if green­house gas emis­sions con­tin­ue on their cur­rent tra­jec­to­ry, peanut yields could fall by 35 per­cent by 2100 due to water scarci­ty and increased salin­i­ty and ozone.

• Seafood: It’s not just land-based har­vests that will fail as cli­mate change bites. As air tem­per­a­tures rise, oceans and water­ways also heat up and crea­tures who thrive in the cold, such as lob­sters and salmon, can begin to decline. Warm­ing seas also raise the risk of tox­ic marine bac­te­ria, like vib­rio, in raw seafood, like oys­ters or sashi­mi. Add these prob­lems to that of obscene over-fish­ing and it might not be long before seafood is off the menu.

Meet­ing the challenges

Today, dis­rup­tions in the food sup­ply chain can be found almost every­where food is grown. The sheer scale of it is almost too much to take in, and some find it paralyzing.

But regen­er­a­tive farm­ers and ranch­ers are tak­ing action. They are rebuild­ing soil organ­ic mat­ter, restor­ing degrad­ed soil bio­di­ver­si­ty, improv­ing the car­bon-stor­age capac­i­ty of the land, diver­si­fy­ing their crops, plant­i­ng vari­eties that are hardy and resilient.

Regen­er­a­tive farm­ers and ranch­ers are reduc­ing the use of ener­gy-inten­sive chem­i­cal add-ons, includ­ing fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides, mak­ing use of cov­er crops, crop rota­tions, com­post and ani­mal manures. They’re graz­ing and pas­tur­ing ani­mals on grass and rais­ing them in more nat­u­ral­is­tic conditions.

Regen­er­a­tive farm­ers and ranch­ers are think­ing sys­tem­i­cal­ly. They’re mov­ing beyond head­line-grab­bing tech­no-fix­es like GMOs and syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy to solu­tions that acknowl­edge the deeply inter­con­nect­ed nature of farm­ing and the need to think and act systemically. 

The choic­es we make now will decide what we can eat in the future. If we stay on our cur­rent path, dou­bling down on inten­sive, waste­ful, pol­lut­ing indus­tri­al farm­ing, we may have no choice but to accept a world where farm­ers don’t mat­ter and where we sur­vive on a grim diet of tech­no-burg­ers, ultra­processed GMO snacks and fake foods grown in indus­tri­al vats.

But change the rules of the game and our choic­es begin to mul­ti­ply. It may not be pos­si­ble to stop all the effects of cli­mate change — we’ve let it go on for too long with­out address­ing its biggest core caus­es: ener­gy gen­er­a­tion, indus­try and trans­port. But by act­ing on a new vision for food and farm­ing, in line with the goals of the Green New Deal, we can begin to mit­i­gate the worst of it and work with the rest to ensure a more sta­ble future for everyone.

The farm­ers who are under­tak­ing this task, includ­ing those who are mem­bers of the U.S. Farm­ers & Ranch­ers for a Green New Deal, are real cli­mate heroes. We should be doing every­thing we can to sup­port them.

Edi­tor’s Note: This is a light­ly edit­ed ver­sion of an arti­cle that was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on the blog of the Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion. You can read the orig­i­nal arti­cle here.

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