Will Climate Change Affect the Way We Eat?

Last Updated on October 24, 2012

wheat fields climate changeSlate Magazine, in partnership with the New American Foundation and Arizona State, will host an event in Washington, D.C. in April 2013 dedicated to exploring the future of what and how we eat in a post-climate-change world. Under the Future Tense banner, the “Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks” summit will examine the options we have when facing a swelling global population and environmental conditions less conducive to growing some of the biggest crops we currently farm. The way we grow our food, the quantity we are able to produce, and the things we ultimately eat are all set to change in the not-so-distant future.

It’s a sobering thought, but not a problem without solutions.

I have to say, the projections sound like something out of a dystopian novel. The next fifty years will see sweeping worldwide climate changes, courtesy of global warming. We’ll be living on a hotter, dryer planet that will be less hospitable to crops like wheat and corn. At the same time, the human population is projected to grow to 9.3 billion by the middle of this century. If they behave as anticipated, nations with emerging economies will see an uptick in diversified, enriched diets—meaning that meat will be more in demand even as it becomes more difficult to farm. The combination of all these changes, warns John Beddington, the chief science advisor to the British government, could result in “major destabilization” as early as 2030. Beddington believes that mass migrations and civil unrest could be consequences of people trying to escape food and water shortages. It’s a  scenario fraught with horrors.

Yet, it’s believed that we can turn the tide and prevent the worst of these outcomes. In the United States and abroad, agricultural trends are already shifting toward practices with long-term sustainability. Technology is out there that has the potential to save lives in a post-climate-change world. Of course, those isolated successes we have had are being stymied by what Slate calls “inferior alternatives propped up by large PR budgets or government support.”

Take, for instance, Monsanto’s well-funded message that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the key to maintaining crop yields in the face of changed growing conditions. Heat- and drought-resistant seeds are a slick, futuristic-sounding idea, and they certainly have the big money backing them—both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Warren Buffet Foundation have invested—but there is precious little data to back Monsanto’s big assertions about crop yields. In fact, peer-reviewed science has found almost nothing to justify the optimism about GMO seeds.

What science does back, however, is a bilateral approach to feeding the world in a changing climate. The theory is  that if we can quickly and efficiently decrease the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gasses (to stave off future climate changes) and simultaneously change the agricultural sector to a model that anticipates and proactively responds to the threat of climate change, experts believe we stand a fighting chance of avoiding a crisis. Current farming techniques are double losers, because they not only emit huge amounts of damaging gases, but they are tremendously vulnerable to hot and dry weather—and the increased amounts of pests and diseases that will thrive under these volatile conditions—as well.

All arrows point to a shift towards ecological agriculture.

“Agro-ecology” is an all-natural approach to growing crops, one that attacks climate-related issues by harnessing the power of nature to overcome problems. The approach disdains chemical fertilizers, for instance, and instead utilizes compost and manure to keep soil fertile and able to retain water. Agro-ecology also supports natural processes to not only raise crops, but to promote the health of the land that is being used for farming. To wit: farmers in western Africa have, in recent years, returned greenery to enough land to be seen from outer space—an impressive 12.5 million acres. It’s interesting what they have accomplished: despite laboring in some of the hottest, most arid weather in the world, these farmers are rejuvenating the soil and promoting growth by capturing the (scarce) rain and planting tree in the midst of their millet and sorghum fields. These trees have the effect of providing shade and replenishing underground water tables. Crop yields are exponentially improved.

In China, farming ducks and fish in rice paddies has the dual effect of not only reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, but controlling pests organically as well. The fish help mitigate the harmful greenhouse gases that the paddies would normally put off. This idea was the brainchild of Lin Erda, senior government scientist who worked with Greenpeace in an attempt to promote agro-ecology as the face of countering climate change.

Of course, to be successful, ecological agriculture must not only provide sustainable, successful methods to overcome climate change and keep the land healthy and thriving, it must go toe-to-toe with industrial agriculture in terms of producing massive amounts of food to feed the world as well.

This is a tall order, considering that one in seven people around the globe are currently going hungry under the “tried and true” methods. African field studies on crop yields have been favorable under agro-ecology as compared with industrial methods, but Africa is also something of a special case. Never part of the “Green Revolution” of industrial agriculture, it was never a part of the world that was churning out massive yields in the first place. In the US, ecological agriculture tends to yield a decreased volume of crops… at least initially. The Rodale Institute has, in the last thirty years, seen yields rebound after a three-to-five year decline.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough support for ag
ro-ecology where it counts, which is with the folks who fund agricultural research and development of the technology to put these methods into practice on a large scale. But the trend toward agro-ecology on the local level, within the developing global communities, seems to be a positive trend and one worth watching unfold.