Our Future May Hold Less Food, Thanks To Climate Change

Farm worker Manuel Soto holds his knife before beginning work in the lettuce fields in Imperial Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Farm worker Manuel Soto holds his knife before beginning work in the lettuce fields in Imperial Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

September was the warmest on record for the Imperial Valley, with temperatures climbing over 90 degrees. That meant trouble for farmer Alex Jack.  “It got so hot that we had a lot of problems with seeds not germinating,” said Jack, who grows lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, and other crops in a California desert region known for producing more than two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the United States during the winter. To make matters worse, after dealing with unusual heat and a 60 percent germination rate, Jack’s farming operation is now facing unusually cool weather.

“We have problems getting our field in [the] conditions we want, and the yields are suffering,” he told ThinkProgress. “Everything is off, probably 10 [to] 15 percent in production.”

It got so hot that we had a lot of problems with seeds not germinating

Food security, a fundamental human need that’s been improving globally, is at risk as climate change triggers more extreme weather, a new study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. The study found that climate change is “very likely” to upset global, regional, and local food security, noting that at least two out of the world’s seven billion people already suffers insufficient nutrition.  These effects, the study noted, follow climate’s influence on food processing, packaging, transportation, storage, waste, and consumption. Global warming, which the study — along with the majority of climate scientists — attributes to human activities like burning fossil fuels and deforestation, is projected to result in more frequent disruption of food production in many regions and increase food prices. The study, which was published this week, represents a consensus of authors and contributors from 19 federal, academic, nongovernmental, and intergovernmental organizations in four countries. And while policy recommendations are outside the report’s scope, it comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Paris to carve a climate deal that puts the world on track to limit global warming to no more than 2°C, a threshold many in the scientific community say will prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Impacts are already being felt

Multiple experts interviewed praised the report and the clear message of action it sends, yet some noted many of the effects the study described are happening already.


“In the U.S., we have seen a warmer Corn Belt in the last 15 years in the winter and the summer months,” said Otto Doering, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “Among other things, this has allowed pests, weeds, and insects that like warmer weather to move up. This is something that we talked about 20 years ago and in fact is happening now.” If man-made climate change goes unchecked, the report finds that the United States is likely to face a change in cost and availability for imported products, and is also likely to see an increasing demand for agricultural exports from regions that experience production difficulties. The U.S. is likely to be able to meet the demands, according to the report, in part because widespread warming could increase the length of the growing season by a month or more and lead to fewer frost days per year in most areas. While this could mean more business for domestic farmers in the short term, the report noted that “results reviewed in this assessment show that climate-change effects on overall global food production are likely to be detrimental, particularly later in the century.” That’s because yields are expected to decline and current projections underestimate potential declines. By evaluating various models of severity of climate change, the 145-page report also noted the much-publicized notion that in general, global warming means wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier. “For both temperature and precipitation, the differences between scenarios become larger as time progresses,” reads the report. explaining that poorer regions lacking resources for research and technology are less likely to successfully adapt.

Tropics more at risk

Experts said Africa, Asia and South America in particular are already dealing with issues affecting trade and growers’ livelihoods. Indeed, this is a global trend as the tropics are reaching so-called biophysical thresholds and are closer to their limitations, according to the study.

A warming climate will also affect farm animals, which provide a livelihood for a billion people. Heat stress diminishes food intake and physical activity in livestock, upsetting growth, survival, and reproductive rates, according to the report, causing a lower production of meat, milk, and eggs.

If human-caused global warming goes unchecked and food insecurity ramps up as the study foretells, that would be a major setback to all the progress achieved since the Green Revolution boosted agricultural production worldwide. In fact, not long ago improvements were still being recorded.

In the U.S., we have seen a warmer Corn Belt in the last 15 years in the winter and the summer months

In the early 1990s, some 19 percent of the global population were food insecure. That has dropped to 11 percent, according to figures listed in the report. This happened as yield increases in recent years appear to be diminished by up to 2.5 percent per decade, globally, due to climate change.


None of the experts contacted found the report’s main findings surprising. That’s because literature with dire projections of climate change’s impact has mounted in recent times. In 2013, for instance, a study in the journal Climatic Change noted that staple foods like cereal grains, sugar cane, and wheat are expected to be around 40 percent more expensive, while fruit and vegetables could be 30 percent more expensive by 2050.

This year, moreover, research supported by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office and insurer Lloyd’s of London reported that humanity risks a collapse in its ability to feed itself by mid-century, in part because human-caused climate change.

Still, most researchers said that the newest and much more measured USDA study could inspire more action in a country that has been divided on how aggressively should climate change be addressed in the national and international arena. The study “underscores that even a fairly middle of the road to somewhat conservative branch of the government is looking ahead,” said Ronald Amundson, professor of soil science at the University of California, Berkeley, while referring to the 153 year-old USDA.

Indeed, the USDA report marks yet another benchmark for the federal agency whose leader, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, evaded questions about climate change just a few years ago; only to become forthcoming about the issue in published reports this year.

Frank Mitloehner, one of the USDA report’s reviewers and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, hopes the study will further ascertain climate change as a reality to face. Man-made climate change isn’t “established in the public’s opinion, and particularly not necessarily in the legislatures’ opinion,” said Mitloehner. “I am encouraged to see reports such as this one … because they inform public policy in this country and they also send signals to other international quadrants.”

Some still unconvinced

However, so far the evidence for human-caused climate change is still unconvincing to many, including farmers. Some studies suggest that although most farmers believe that climate change is occurring, not many of them attribute it to human activity. Research finds this potentially hinders climate action in general and in the case of agriculture, an industry that reports say may produce as much as one-third of all human greenhouse gas emissions.


For stakeholders like Jack, the California farmer, warming doesn’t seem to be happening or it’s too minor to be worrisome.  “When everyone is in the same boat then prices are better, so right now the prices on vegetables are very good,” said Jack, who although he invests heavily in solar panels and water conservation, expressed profound skepticism when asked about the threats a warming world could bring. “I can’t tell you how many times the weather man has been wrong,” he said, adding that even if it warms up, “scientists will give the farmer the tools they need to adapt to whatever climate we happen to be having.”