Global pandemic previews climate impacts on food system

By Joan Conrow

April 22, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the planet, it has exposed fragilities in the global food system that are likely to worsen with climate change.

This is a story told in vivid images of dairy farmers dumping milk, empty supermarket shelves, piles of vegetables rotting in the sun, long lines at food distribution centers and water buffalo feasting on strawberries that cannot reach market. It’s a very human story of loss, suffering and uncertainty, as farmers face the specter of ruined crops and livelihoods and the poor fear starvation and hunger as lockdowns and unemployment make it challenging to buy food.

For those who have been following the escalation of climate change impacts as the global temperature creeps steadily upward, it’s also a prescient tale, offering a poignant preview of the “untold suffering” we can expect if we fail to reduce the fossil fuel-driven carbon emissions that are heating the planet to levels unknown in human history.

Experts agree that the disruptions currently before us are due not to food shortages, but panic buying and distribution problems — rigid supply chains that are unable to quickly adapt as air, ship and trucking constraints stymie shipments, borders tighten, produce markets shutter, processing facilities shut down, COVID outbreaks force the closure of massive meat packing plants and consumers shift from dining in restaurants and schools to almost exclusively at home.

But a longer-term food crisis is looming as border closures prevent millions of migrant workers from reaching fields and food production facilities, farmers struggle to secure fertilizer and seeds,  trade restrictions increase the fragility of supply chains, China scoops up foreign agricultural supplies as it emerges from lockdown and seeks to rebuild its economy and consumers — especially those in import-dependent nations — feel the pinch of rising prices.

The world’s poorest people are likely to bear the brunt. As the Global Network Against Food Crises noted in a new report released yesterday, some 135 million people across 55 countries experienced acute food insecurity in 2019, including 75 million children who were stunted and another 17 million who suffered from wasting. The pandemic is perpetuating the downward cycle for millions, the report noted, although the precise magnitude of the deterioration is not yet known.

It’s not unlike the bleak scenario that many scientists foresee in the not-too-distant future as climate change wreaks havoc on agriculture and the increasingly intertwined world food system.

Climate events are ‘key drivers’ in hunger rise

Already researchers have found that “climate change has affected yields in many places.” Though crop yields have increased in some locations, overall there’s been a reduction in the global production of staples such as rice and wheat, with climate change “shrinking food supplies, particularly in food-insecure developing countries.”

Similarly, a 2018 report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that Earth’s changing climate and an increase in extreme climate events, such as droughts, floods, intense storms and unpredictable rain patterns, are “key drivers behind the rise in hunger” due to deleterious effects on staple crops such as wheat, rice and maize.

A woman winnows wheat at Sirsa, India, grain market. Image: Joan Conrow

Another new study modeled the impact of a modern day Dust Bowl, assessing what might happen if the pattern of droughts and poor farming practices that devastated the United States’ cereal producing regions in the 1930s were repeated today. The world’s food supply has become much more interconnected in the intervening 90 years, with the US Great Plains region exporting cereal crops around the globe and some 80 percent of the world’s population residing in countries “that import more food calories than they export.” The results of the computer simulation were not pretty, predicting “cascading shocks” that would reverberate around the world.

But drought and floods aren’t the only factors poised to destroy grain crops. A study published in the journal Science predicted that these same staples will be greatly impacted by the intensified insect pest pressure expected to accompany climate change. The warmer temperatures will deliver a double whammy by helping insect populations to thrive and also accelerating insect pests’ metabolic rate, prompting them to consume more food during their lifespan.

As a result, the study projects a 50 to 100 percent increase in pest-induced crop losses in European wheat and 30 to 40 percent increases in losses of North American maize (corn). Eleven European countries are predicted to see 75 percent or higher increases in insect-induced wheat losses, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland.

That translates into insect-induced losses of above 16 million tons annually in Europe’s breadbasket — currently the most productive wheat producing region in the world. Farmers in the United States, who grow most of the world’s maize crop, are projected to experience losses of more than 20 million tons annually. And China, which grows one-third of the global rice crop, could suffer insect-induced losses topping 27 million tons annually.

Another paper, published in Nature, found that climate change also will affect global markets by reshaping agricultural trading patterns. “Some regions may not be able to battle climate impacts on agriculture, in which case production of key commodities will decline or shift to new regions,” the study’s authors reported.

And in a classic vicious circle, climate change could accelerate if carbon-storing forests and other wildlands are cleared for farms and pasture to replace lost cropland elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the human population continues to grow, which means agriculture must become even more efficient and productive to ensure that everyone is fed — without placing an even greater burden on natural resources and ecosystems.

Finding solutions

The challenge before us is daunting, but not insurmountable. In conjunction with reducing carbon emissions, we can use the tools of genetic engineering to breed climate smart crops and the science of synthetic biology to unlock new food options. Those in the Global North can reduce their carbon footprint by limiting consumption of animal products, while an international focus on adaptive practices can help build more resilient communities.

“People everywhere are experiencing the devasting impacts of climate change,” Bill Gates, co-chair of Global Commission on Adaptation, said in a press release. “Those most impacted are the millions of smallholder farmers and their families in developing countries, who are struggling with poverty and hunger due to low crop yields caused by extreme changes in temperature and rainfall. With greater support for innovation, we can unlock new opportunities and spur change across the global ecosystem. Adaptation is an urgent issue that needs support from governments and businesses to ensure those most at risk have the opportunity to thrive.” (The Cornell Alliance for Science receives some funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Without adaptation, climate change may depress growth in global agriculture yields up to 30 percent by 2050, which would affect 500 million small farms around the world, the Commission posited.

The dramatic changes in lifestyles, consumer habits and economies needed to address climate change and its expected impacts on our food supply may have seemed overwhelmingly impossible just a few months ago.

But as we hunker down in our homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we’ve come to reflect on what’s truly important and understand that we can adapt — albeit painfully at times — to dramatic upheavals in our daily lives.

Equally important, COVID-19 has helped us understand that a lack of foresight, preparation and planning results in greater uncertainty and heightened danger. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as we soldier through a viral pandemic amid the growing threats of climate change, it should be apparent that it’s far better to take action while we still can than to sit and wait helplessly for the worst to happen.