A Brief Guide to the Impacts of Climate Change on Food Production
By Daisy Simmons
Food may be a universal language — but in these record-breaking hot days, so too is climate change. With July clocking in as the hottest month on Earth in recorded history and extreme weather ramping up globally, farmers are facing the brunt of climate change in croplands and pastures around the world.
Here in the U.S., for instance, climate impacts like more downpours make it harder to avert flooding and erosion on farms across the Midwest. California farmers, on the other hand, must find ways to stay productive despite increasing drought and wildfire risks.
It all amounts to far more than anecdotal inconvenience: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth National Climate Assessment report projects that warming temperatures, severe heat, drought, wildfire, and major storms will "increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity," threatening not only farmers' livelihoods but also food security, quality, and price stability.
If these anticipated effects sound extreme, so too are the causes.
Five Climate Impacts Affecting Food Production Now
Climate change poses not just one but a whole slew of challenges to farmers – and to the larger communities that depend on them for food. From erratic precipitation to changing seasons, consider just these five key climatic changes and how they stand to affect food availability now and in the future:
1) More extreme weather can harm livestock and crops. Major storms have always devastated farms, whether from damaging winds during a storm, or erosion and landslides that can rear up even as the storm subsides. But now they're becoming even more common. In spring 2018, for example, unusually heavy rain and snow storms caused massive flooding across the U.S. Midwest, leaving some areas 10 feet deep in sand. In Nebraska alone, farmers lost an estimated $440 million of cattle. As a result of these flooding conditions, many farmers had to delay spring planting. Delays in commodity crops like corn and soybeans aren't just stressful for farmers, either – they could lead to food price volatility and even potential food insecurity.
2) Water scarcity across the U.S. Southwest makes it more expensive and difficult to sustain crops and livestock. Drought is in the long-term outlook across the U.S. West, with declining snowpack making it more challenging to keep reservoirs full through summer. Lack of adequate water can easily damage or destroy crops, dry up soil, and threaten livelihoods. Between 2014-2016, for example, California endured an estimated $3.8 billion of direct statewide economic losses to agriculture as a result of drought.
3) Seasons aren't what they used to be. Growing seasons are starting earlier and getting hotter in a warming climate. A longer growing season, over time, could theoretically have some advantages, but it also presents more obstacles in the short term, such as an uptick in pest populations is possible, with more generations possible per year. Early spring onset can also cause crops to grow before the soil holds enough water and nutrients, or to ruin fruit crops that bud early and then experience later spring frost. Plus, warmer winters can affect other farming practices like grain storage.
4) Wildfire can devastate farms – even when the flames don't actually reach them. Ranchers across the West have recently seen major losses as a result of worsening fire seasons, from outright loss of life to charred grazing lands and decimated hay stocks. What's more, "secondary impacts" abound, from a smoky taint that can ruin wine, to the ordeal of keeping a farm operational when fires are raging nearby and evacuation orders seem just around the corner. All this also causes costs to mount given that the respiratory dangers of laboring in smoky, excessively hot conditions can force farms to send workers home in the height of harvest season.
5) Warmer weather and rising CO2 levels adversely affect food supply, safety and quality. According to a 2019 IPCC land use report, between 25 and 30 percent of the food produced worldwide is wasted, not all of it for the same reasons. In developed countries, for instance, consumers, sometimes seemingly with abandon, simply discard what they see as "excess" or "surplus" food. In developing countries, much of the waste is brought about by a lack of refrigeration as products go bad between producers and consumers. The IPCC report estimates that food waste costs about $1 trillion per year and accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food systems. Meanwhile, some two-billion humans worldwide are overweight or obese even as nearly one billion are undernourished, highlighting the inefficiencies and inequities in food distribution.
In addition, rising temperatures can alter exposures to some pathogens and toxins. Consider: Salmonella, Campylobacter, Vibrio parahaemolyticus in raw oysters, and mycotoxigenic fungi, which can all potentially thrive in warmer environments. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also can decrease dietary iron, zinc, protein, and other macro- and micronutrients in certain crops.
Now for the elephant still in the room: Food production isn't just being affected by climate change – it's actively contributing to climate change, too. According to IPCC's land use report, agriculture and other land uses comprise more than one-fifth of global CO2 emissions, creating a vicious cycle.
Parched and fire-damaged ag fields pose mounting challenges to farmers and consumers.
Yale Climate Connections
Growing Solutions to the Climate Crisis
The July IPCC report cited above lists various adaptation and mitigation measures that could help reduce the adverse impacts of food and dietary preferences on climate change. The suggestions address more sustainable food production and diets (more plant-based, less meat-based); improved forestry management (including reducing deforestation and increasing reforestation); agricultural carbon sequestration, including no-till farming practices; and reducing food waste.
And it warns that delaying action will be costly:
Deferral of [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions from all sectors implies trade-offs including irreversible loss in land ecosystem functions and services required for food, health, habitable settlements and production, leading to increasingly significant economic impacts on many countries in many regions of the world.
So, what can individuals do to help avert some of the worsening impacts of climate on food supply? There in fact are a number of ways to help support climate-friendlier food production.
Improving soil health, on a large-scale, is one key way forward. Nutrient-rich soil stores carbon better than degraded, overworked soil. Plus, healthy soil helps farms stay productive – a win-win. Consumers can boost these efforts, by supporting farmers and ranchers who engage in sustainable practices like cover cropping and composting.
Reducing meat consumption is another way to reduce the climate impact of food production, given that a livestock farm is like a methane factory, contributing an estimated 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meatless Mondays, "flexitarian" diets, and the rise of faux-meat brands are all testimony to the growing efforts aimed at reducing meat consumption.
In addition to consumer actions, there are interesting new ways forward on the industry side. Manure digesters, for one, can convert methane from manure into electricity. And seaweed is gaining scientific interest for its potential in making cattle burp less often. (Yes, you read that right.)
The challenges ahead are steep. But so too are the opportunities to adapt to new realities and reduce assorted diverse impacts. According to Project Drawdown, three of the top 10 best climate solutions have something to do with food, from reducing food waste (3) and choosing a plant-rich diet (4) to silvopasturing (9), which integrates trees and pasture into a single ecosystem.
It isn't always easy to make such changes. What is getting easier, though, is to see that the world's collective appetite for fossil fuels is having a negative impact on real food and on dietary options.
And the option of inaction on something so fundamental? Through their food-purchasing and dietary preferences, Americans increasingly, albeit perhaps only gradually, are showing that they are increasingly wary about swallowing that one.
This story originally appeared in Yale Climate Connections. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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By Zulfikar Abbany
"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."