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Foodpocalypse Now: how climate change will affect food production

Global temperatures are rising, and they’re bringing global food prices along with them. The last year has seen massive flooding in Pakistan and Australia, alongside devastating drought in China and the Horn of Africa. Particularly in the Global South, localized food crises have accompanied these meteorological calamities. These “extreme” events are consistent with the reality of a warming planet. As the balance of Earth’s thermal energy increases, so does the range of meteorological possibilities. The news wires serve as a reminder that not all of these possibilities end well.  What, then, is the future of agriculture and food security in a world of rapid climatic change and heightened meteorological extremes?

The first step to imagining the future of agriculture is to admit that the current industrial paradigm is part of the problem. The latter half of the twentieth century saw a massive consolidation of agricultural concerns, not just in terms of bank accounts, but also in farm fields. We are growing few crops on fewer farms than at any time in modern history. As fields have become larger, the ruthless, fossil-fueled efficiency of the Green Revolution has become standard. In many parts of the world, governments have encouraged growing crops in locations, densities, and varieties not supported by local water supplies, leading to declining water tables and soil salinization.

Under this industrial model, rapid shifts in climate coupled with increasingly frequent extreme weather will create plenty of opportunities for widely dispersing, environmentally tolerant pests to threaten our crops. Weeds are the future, and thanks to the marvels of modern genetic engineering, these weeds may be tougher than they’ve ever been. The status quo is unsustainable.

The alternative requires embracing traditional, mindful, and sustainable techniques. This includes growing a variety of crops, but only those that are suitable to local climates. Crop rotation and small amounts of manure are age-old ways to maintaining soil nutrient levels. Synthetic poisons, if they are used at all, should only be used when pests are present

While industrial agriculture is problematic on its own terms, the realities of climate change may put an even greater stress on sustainable agricultural techniques. These techniques rely on what scholars call “traditional ecological knowledge.” In places where agribusiness and other colonizing powers have not coerced locals to abandon traditional methods, agricultural knowledge is extremely localized.

Traditional labor-intensive, fossil fuel-effecient agriculture isn’t merely dependent on localized knowledge, it’s also frequently tied to localized species. As Barry Estabrook illustrates in his new book on Florida’s tomato industry, the increasing importance of global markets has encouraged growers to focus on producing a handful of commercially convenient varieties of produce. While these varieties are easy to store and ship, they frequently lack the taste and nutritional value members of their extended botanical families possess.

Furthermore, this lack of diversity can have disastrous effects given sudden environmental change. Global climate change and localized severe weather can easily threaten crops lacking genetic diversity. Agricultural intensification and the prerequisite homogenization of landscapes has already eliminated the stock of available food crops, yet it is precisely this diversity that forms the backbone of sustainable agroecosystems. For instance, managing soil nutrient levels without synthetic fertilizers requires the use of locally-adapted nitrogen-fixing plants. We don’t need to go back to 19th century Ireland for examples of crashing monocultures– recent years have seen the global banana industry threatened by the emergence of a fungal pathogen.

Sustainable agriculture also requires mindful approaches to pest management. This involves not only growing a variety of crops, but also encouraging the continued existence of native predatory insects in their native contexts. Researchers have recently documented the importance of a suite of forest-dwelling insects in protecting shade-grown coffee from its major predator, the coffee berry borer. Traditionally, coffee is an understory shrub, grown in a rich matrix of biological species. Removing coffee from this understory context requires large inputs of synthetic pesticides. Given the high economic, social, and economic costs of this modern model, growers are increasingly turning to traditional coffee growing methods. Yet what will happen to forest-grown coffee and other crops if changing climates no longer support their traditional environmental settings?

As the earth warms, it is clear that individual species’ ranges are shifting to higher latitudes and altitudes, with some species lost in the shuffle. It is less clear that entire agroecosystems can shift their ranges in concert.

Different species do not react to changing climate at the same speed. Pollinators provide an excellent example of this. Many flowering plants need to receive pollen from another individual in order to produce fruit. While some species accomplish this feat via wind, others require help from insects or other organisms. Pollination is big business, and wild populations of pollinators play a crucial role in generating the world’s food supply.

Wild populations of specialized pollinators are already under threat from a variety of factors. Warming temperatures can disrupt the timing of the relationship between plants and pollinators. Scientists are predicting that slight differences in the way that species respond to changes in temperature (without corresponding changes in day length) may cause pollinators to essentially show up at the wrong time, with potentially disastrous effects on plants and insects alike. While this phenomena is most evident in rare species, it remains to be seen what level of stress changing temperatures will place on local fruiting crops.

While localized knowledge and diverse species are an essential part of sustainable agriculture, they’re no match for massive droughts or floods. Regional meteorological calamities will become increasingly common in the future, and they will disrupt local food supplies. Farmers will need to find crops adapted to new local realities, and the skills to grow them. To avoid unprecedented famine and the massive social upheaval that will follow in its wake, governments need to make global food security a priority. Rather than continuing to pursue massive subsidies and other policies that encourage corporate monoculture, leader need to ensure that communities have the means to pursue site-specific, fuel-efficient agriculture, something that has yet to happen.

Front page photo from the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, public domain.