Climate change hits your fridge

Medill Reports Chicago (PDF)

Mother Nature is getting more hotheaded, causing problems for farmers and increasingly straining the global food supply. Yet last week a Gallup survey showed that Americans list climate change as one of their lowest priorities.

While the thought of less guacamole at Chipotle can cause a panic, it seems the U.S. is still unaware about how climate change is impacting food security here and around the world. But experts say less guacamole may be just the beginning in terms of food shortages.

"What we have seen in previous years when there’s less food grown, farmers don’t have a lot left over to give us," said Ross Fraser, media relations manager of the Chicago-based food bank network, Feeding America. "There are heartbreaking stories about food pantries unable to open due to bad weather conditions."

Consider how California grows nearly half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With recent droughts and fires impacting the region’s agriculture, it could take a toll on what we put on our plates.

If global temperatures rise by more than 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (about 2-5.5 degrees Fahrenheit), food production is projected to decrease on a global scale, according to the latest IPCC report released by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Currently, about 17.6 million American men, women and children struggle to provide enough food to eat—including the 17.5 percent of Illinois households that are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius.

So how should we begin to adapt? Experts addressed possible first directions to start the fight for food security including policy reform and agricultural innovation organically or through genetic modification. While GMOs remain controversial, experts agree that agriculture is transforming and its ripple effects will make their way into American kitchens.

The need for policy revolution

On March 14, science advisers to British Prime Minister David Cameron made public a report calling on the governments of the United Kingdom and Europe to ease restrictions on genetically modified food to anticipate sustainability issues with expanding populations.

"They’re pushing aggressively to remove policies and to bring them more in line with what science has shown us and what experience has shown us over the last three decades," said Val Giddings, senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Giddings is a co-author of "Feeding the Planet in a Warming World: Building Resilient Agriculture through Innovation." The steady erosion of public support for investing in agriculture technologies, such as GMOs, is because fewer societies today have first-hand experience with farming—the lowest proportion in the history of humanity, he said.

He and his team at the non-partisan think tank are quite concerned about the potential negative impacts from climate change on crops, especially now when global stocks of food are at the lowest level that they’ve been in many decades.

"It’s been a long time since many of those who make policy have really felt hunger," Giddings said. "Most of those in policy decision-making positions have grown up in a world where they at least were never really exposed to hunger. So when you’ve not been burned, you tend not to understand the full seriousness of fire."

Increasing temperatures will make it easier to grow some food crops but harder to grow others in the areas we are accustomed to seeing them flourish historically, Giddings said. Displaced environments alter the behavior of insects, animals and other organisms as well. Those that require warmer latitudes will be moving north and higher in elevation, and vice versa.

It seems like it is happening in slow motion, Giddings said, but little by little these changes will add up. Food must be more capable of resisting expansions of insects, pests and diseases in the future, which could increase during climbing temperatures and extreme weather.

"We need to have policies in place that enable us to more quickly develop and apply new technologies to solve these sorts of problems," Giddings said. "This is a profoundly anti-innovation state of the policy realm and it needs to be fixed."

Diseases, such as rust in wheat and new varieties of the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine, will be exacerbated by climate changes, according to Giddings. It highlights the importance of having tools to protect the global food supply from varied challenges as we move toward the future.

Even for those who still have a full plate at the dinner table, there are consequences—economic ones.

"The most immediate impact might not be in [more] hunger, but it will certainty be in price," Giddings said. "Just look at recent history. Political uprisings in the Arab Spring were galvanized if not initiated by food price spikes associated with commodity price volatility. If people get hungry, they get antsy."

Farms on the front lines

Roger Thurow, senior fellow of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the author of "The Last Hunger Season," knows that climate change has a profound affect on smallholder farmers in the developing world. Africa will feel the adverse effects first, he said, since most farmers have less money and technology to adapt to shifting weather conditions.

"You’re basically flipping seasons, flipping the whole agricultural calendar to accommodate climate change," Thurow said. "Smallholder farmers are really close to the land and close to the weather conditions, because it impacts them so greatly."

Climate change is hard on yields, so creating crop diversity is critical to adaptability. Current research poses solutions that include drought-tolerant maize, beans and wheat. In addition, developing rice that requires less water to grow could increase production in drier regions, as well as rice that can grow in saline areas near the coast as oceans rise as a result of global warming.

Although we should not just be concerned about quantity of food, but the quality as well, Thurow said. Nutrition is the key to sustainable agriculture and when developing countries benefit or suffer, we all will feel it in our stomachs and wallets.

"We’re all linked together in the global food chain," Thurow said. "We saw that in 2007 and 2008, when stockpiles of major commodities, grains, cereals, were reduced to their lowest level in decades. The impacts were shortages and higher prices. There was rioting in dozens of countries around the world."

Global peace as well as social economic stability drove home for world leaders that food security needs attention, and the first step is protecting it from climate change.

"We came face-to-face with the issue of post-harvest losses, which is an issue that is sort of lost upon the American public," said food security expert David Blumberg, describing a 2010 trip to India that exposed first hand the enormity of food safety issues farmers face in developing countries against the weather.

Rain had washed grain into the streets, he said. When touring the rest of the country they found similar food storage problems in almost every other small town.

"There wasn’t adequate storage infrastructure in place to hold onto the harvest of the farmers for that season," Blumberg said. "So food was getting eaten by birds, rodents, insects, or molding because the rain had fell on it."

Blumberg is the chief executive officer of Blumberg Grain, a company that installs technologically advanced grain and produce storage systems that enable farmers to protect their harvests from rot, climate and pests.

About 40 percent of food in the U.S. is lost in the transition from farm to fork, according to a 2012 paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The trend applies to developing countries as well, Blumberg said, and the company looks for ways to lessen losses by providing specialty warehouses featuring controlled atmosphere technology. It pumps nitrogen into the environment to delay expiration, such as extending the lifetime of a mango to five months, for example.

Americans may not be tuned into the true problems facing future generations when it comes to food production because U.S. agricultural systems are modernized, and farming doesn’t have a front seat in public discourse, Blumberg said.

"We take for granted the fact that we can go to a supermarket and we have all of these products available to us 365 days of the year," he said. "But increasingly those products are coming from overseas."

Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo are just some of the countries where Blumberg Grain has deployed innovative warehouses to help farmers deal with unprecedented levels of precipitation, humidity levels and sunlight, he said.

Modernizing such territories quickly and identifying new regions where climate changes have created productive farming potential are the first steps toward maintaining food security, according to Blumberg.

Last month, Blumberg spoke at the World Food Security Summit in Dubai and confirmed the general consensus is that global warming exacerbating the food security problem is a "no brainer." However, the timeline to see those drastic affects remains debatable, he said.

"But there’s no denying that there will be an effect and agricultural players, whether it be private sector or public sector, are now taking steps to do what they can," he said.

In defense of natural innovation

From Africa to America, the agriculture industry often tries to improve upon traditional connections between farming and nature.

For life-long farmer John Kempf, "modernization" in form of pesticides and genetically modified crops, comes with a price. He sees an emerging trend of farmers disenchanted with such "antagonistic" farming practices that sever the reverent connection to the land established by farming forefathers.

"We have adopted a model of agriculture that is based on a warfare mentality based on the elements of search and destroy. Identify a specific pest. Identify a specific pathogen. And see how you can kill it," he said.

With insecticide names such as "Warrior" and "Cruiser," the need for healthier crops does seem like a war. Dependency on pesticides is a vicious cycle, he said, because the more farmers use, the more they need to use, causing plants to become increasingly weaker in the process.

Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, a crop nutrition consulting company, works with farmers across the U.S. to eliminate the use of genetically modified seeds and toxic pesticides, claiming proper crop nutrition will provide more than enough resistance to the disease and insect attacks intensified by climate change.

Regenerative farming means maximizing plants’ built-in immunity potential, making them less susceptible without genetic modification. Results of such natural innovation include crop yields 10 to 30 percent greater than conventional farming and increased nutrient density of 40 to 50 percent, he said.

"Plants that have an original design, so to speak, photosynthesize much more effectively and produce much higher levels of sugars than plants that do not," the agriculture expert said, citing that 90 percent of crops grown in the U.S. are not at an optimum level of health.

Kempf is no stranger to climate change. During the last several years, he has seen the climate extremes facing his clients, from temperatures bouncing rapidly from very high to very low, to significantly less rainfall in the Western U.S.

"We’re seeing a lot of climate shifts really impacting the crops that we grow and our soils," Kempf said, adding that California is running out of water. In Salinas Valley 45 percent of farms will not have enough water for 2014 growing season, he said. On the other coast, heavier rainfall in the Northeast is causing rampant soil erosion.

Yet agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases, which are at the root of climate change. When soils are tilled, the organic matter oxidizes and it is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. But agriculture also has the biggest opportunity to correct it, according to Kempf.

"If we grow plants that are really healthy, that have adequate mineral nutrition, they can capture more carbon dioxide that is released from the soil," he said.

Kempf maintains a more proactive approach is needed and that farmers around the world should not be complacent with current yield expectations.

"We should not be talking about sustainable agriculture today," Kempf said. "First of all we are too far downhill to sustain the levels of where we are now. Our soils are too degraded. Our crops are no longer healthy enough. We should have no desire to sustain current levels of health and productivity."

Instead, he said the first step is to aim higher. Only after consistently producing larger crop yields with greater nutrition should sustainability be considered.

From the crop field to the kitchen, consequences of climate change increasingly impact economic, political and social stability. Experts agree that the future holds further changes. Yet how to begin adapting may not be a black and white solution, but a combination of policy reform and agricultural innovation.

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