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Climate change’s sinister promise: A hungrier future

The effects of climate change, like drought, heat and storms, are putting the global food supply at risk. What steps must we take to hold off a food crisis?

In recognition of World Food Day, Answers On is exploring how data, human intelligence and expertise can be applied to fight global hunger. 

To the list of concerning developments brought about by climate change, like higher ocean levels, new patterns of disease transmission and increased strain on natural resources, we may soon be able to add one more: Food shortages.

Sacks of different varieties of corn grain are displayed at a market in Mexico City, Mexico. REUTERS/Henry Romero
Sacks of different varieties of corn grain are displayed at a market in Mexico City. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A hotter, drier world

About 23 percent of the world’s cropland accounts for most production of wheat, maize and rice, the most important cereal grains. In other words, just over one-fifth of our arable land, not total land area, is being asked to feed the world’s swelling population. That tremendous pressure is exacerbated by the fact that as standards of living rise, people eat more resource-intensive foods, like meat. Such changes multiply the demand placed on our food system by an order of magnitude.

This perilous system is very much put at risk by the rising temperatures, increased droughts and more extreme weather events climate change may bring to pass.

“There are almost no parts of the world where agriculture will be unaffected,” wrote the authors of The Risks of Multiple Breadbasket Failures in the 21st Century: A Science Research Agenda, a paper co-sponsored by Thomson Reuters. “And agriculture in the developing world will be especially vulnerable.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is similarly unequivocal: “No other sector is more sensitive to climate change than agriculture.”

A tree laden with apples stands in an orchard in Kressbronn near Lindau at lake Bodensee, southern Germany REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
Apples ripen on a tree in an orchard in Kressbronn near Lindau at Lake Bodensee, southern Germany. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Omens of a scarcer future

Unfortunately, we have already begun to see the effect climate change is having on our food supply. For example:

  • A severe 2010 drought in Russia and Ukraine, both major wheat producers, saw worldwide wheat prices increase 27 percent.
  • In Italy, a summer 2017 drought decreased the flow of the Po River, which in turn endangered the local tomato crop. That caused area farmers to lose their investment of about USD$7,000 per acre.
  • In Malawi, decreasing rainfall made the traditional crop of maize a riskier bet, forcing subsistence farmers to scramble to preserve their livelihoods.

The impacts of climate change on food supply are by no means limited to these areas.

“There is a strong consensus that parts of the world in which agriculture is already constrained by water availability or heat waves will become even more challenged by mid-century,” the authors of the Breadbasket report wrote.

What’s especially concerning is the ripple effect a localized crop failure would have on worldwide food supply.

“Before the distribution and consumption of the major cereal crops became globalized, the failure of any one of the major global breadbaskets would have been expected largely to affect the regions that immediately surround it,” the Breadbasket report continues. “Over the past several decades, however, trade and distribution of many, if not most, of the globally important crops (and other foods) has become both global and rapid.”

A canola crop used for making cooking oil in full bloom on the Canadian prairies near Fort Macleod, Alberta, . REUTERS/Todd Korol
A canola crop used for making cooking oil in full bloom on the Canadian prairies near Fort Macleod, Alberta, . REUTERS/Todd Korol

What can be done?

In response to an issue as large and diffuse as climate change, a sense of fatalism is understandable. That does not mean societies are without tools, however.

  • Technology, from “smart” irrigation systems that reduce the amount of water wasted as crops are hydrated to powerful new types of fertilizer, will likely continue to boost crop yields, even if growing conditions become more dificult.
  • Crop growing, tracking and shipping data, such as that provided in Thomson Reuters Eikon, can help calibrate growing methods and seasons for maximum effieciency.
  • Citizens, governments and corporations alike can develop a voice on sustainability. Through cooperation and dedication, many of the issues associated with climate change can be met proactively.

Learn more

Thomson Reuters dedicated sustainability blog drives the conversation around human rights, environmentalism and representation in business. Our most recent sustainable report, Global 100 Greenhouse Gas Performance: New Pathways for Growth and Leadership 2017

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