With Europe, the US and much of Africa and Asia in the grip of heatwaves and drought, we are witnessing a glimpse of how manmade change can impact upon our lives. Most notably the food we eat.
Food insecurity and the threat to our food system are only part of the challenge that humans will have to overcome in the coming decades. However, with education around climate change often too abstract or remote for the general population to digest, it often takes shortages in their favourite foods for the message to hit home.
Recently, when supplies of sriracha hot sauce became affected by the poor chilli harvest in northern Mexico, it gained global headlines. California’s almond and avocado crops are under threat, and US beef - particularly grass-fed beef - could become unaffordable for many in the near future.
Europe is currently experiencing record high temperatures, and wildfires are raging across France, Spain and Portugal. Italy’s north is in the midst of a drought that seriously threatens agricultural output. Italian wheat and corn harvests are predicted to be down, while the county’s Arborio and Carnaroli crops (risotto rice) have been devastated as the great Po River runs dry. You can expect your high-quality Italian tomato passata to be considerably more expensive in the future, since tomato crops had to be harvested early because of high temperatures, meaning yields are way down. Meanwhile, the European Commission downgraded its soft-wheat crop projections from 130 million tons to 125 million tons, adding to the food crisis brought on by Russia's ban on Ukrainian grain exports.
In the US, over 71 million crop acres are in severe drought - some 22% of the nation's crops, according to the American Farm Bureau. Food prices are climbing across the country, up 9.4% from a year ago, and with additional pressures caused by the war in Ukraine, the scarcity of labour, and higher seed and fertiliser costs, it is going to get worse. The soaring price of food due to drought and high temperatures across the world has been called ‘healflation’.
UN secretary-general António Guterres outlined the danger our food system is facing in a message just a few weeks ago. “According to the World Food Programme (WFP), in the past two years, the number of severely food‑insecure people around the world has more than doubled to 276 million,” he said. There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022.
“And 2023 could be even worse,” he continued. “The main costs to farmers are fertilisers and energy. Fertiliser prices have risen by more than half in the past year, and energy prices by more than two-thirds. All harvests will be hit, including rice and corn — affecting billions of people across Asia, Africa and the Americas. This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage. No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”
The data is clear. In the US, agricultural areas are affected more by drought and rising temperatures. The Google data commons project allows us to see mapped water withdrawal for irrigation against projected temperature rises across the country. We can see that climate change is affecting the real time collapse of the agricultural system that is built like a ‘house of cards’. Soil degradation is a major concern, yields will be lower and food will be less nutritious because of it.
It’s a grim outlook indeed, and the scale of the problem only underlines our powerlessness to do anything about it - or so we might think. There are adaptive behaviours that can mitigate some of the damage to crops and agricultural outputs. The key is knowing about severe temperatures and droughts in advance, so farmers can make the right decisions ahead of the growing season.
John Furlow is the Director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.at Columbia University
John Furlow is the director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. Set up about 25 years ago, the organisation focuses on climate information and how society takes in that data. If used correctly, it can be highly valuable for farmers and policy makers alike.
“In 2013, we worked to create a forecasting infrastructure - including field schools educating farmers about what to do with weather data, how they could adapt their behaviours - that farmers could sign up to, to receive text messages on a daily basis informing them of weather forescasts and seasonal forecasts,” says Furlow.
“In 2014, El Niño started. In Jamaica, in the Caribbean, the typical signal for El Niño is that there is a drought. There was a record drought, the worst in 30 or 40 years. The field schools had taken place, the farmers were getting the texts. Productivity fell by I think 50% between 2013 and 2014, and economic output in agriculture fell by 30%, and it wasn’t as bad as total production. Because people started switching to higher value crops, prices went up as supply went down, so that mitigated some of the damage."
“They changed what they planted, they changed when the planted and they changed how they planted, and some took land out of production. One woman told us that as soon as she heard it was going to be dry, she went to a nearby pond or river and filled up barrels. Eventually the river went dry but she had water in reserve. Some people took a year off and worked in tourism on the coast. They avoided making an investment that would whither.”
While the average consumer can’t be blamed for a broken system, consumer choices can be meaningful and drive change. It is only in the last 30 years that people have become used to such a vast choice of products. That has to change and change quickly.
“My mother used to complain about the availability of everything all the time,” says Furlow. “She grew up in Georgia, in the south, and she loved the change of seasons. Peaches came in the early summer, corn came later, and she would time the year by what was available. As she got older, everything became available all the time, we had no idea where anything came from. That cushions the wealthy from what’s going on. If we have a bad orange year in Florida, we get oranges from somewhere else."
“Consumer choice is what’s driven the problem, particularly in the US and in Europe, but in China too, the choice to drive has contributed a lot to emissions. But if we think about if there is support for farm-to-table type restaurants, if we think about local food and what’s available within a couple of hours' drive, that not only supports local farmer communities, but also reduces emissions associated with transport. I think it can be quite interesting to eat what’s available, just like my grandmother did.”
This is where chefs can play a crucial role. They have the creativity, knowledge and skills to ensure that reduced availability of produce may not necessarily mean a less varied and enjoyable diet. Think of a painter who limits their colour palette in order to become more creative. Food waste too can be curtailed, and greens, roots and berries can be foraged. And chefs have been banging this drum for years already. What has changed is the timeline.
“Twenty years ago, when people first started talking a lot about climate change, the US did a national climate assessment, focusing on impacts late in the century, because the thinking was that we still had a lot of time,” says Furlow.
This summer, as the mercury rises, keeping cool may be the least of our worries.