Conversation about diets and impacts on the climate and nature crises has been hotting up in recent years, but less has been said about how climate change will in turn impact the food we eat.
The latest report from the UN’s climate science body (IPCC) spells out in stark terms how climate change is already hitting food systems, pushing up prices and thwarting jobs, and how that will worsen as the world warms.
But, apocalyptic though it may sound, the report also heralds opportunities for adaptation. Sky News has broken it down in detail.
Climate crisis is already hitting food security, prices and jobs
Droughts, floods, and marine heatwaves are threatening food availability on land and at sea, pushing up food prices, threatening food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of millions, the food chapter of the report warns.
A hotter world means the places plants grow has changed, as has the timing of key biological events, such as flowering and insect emergence. This has a knock on effect on the quality of food and the stability of harvests.
Methane – a potent but lesser discussed climate-heating gas, a third of which comes from livestock – is driving up temperatures and reducing crop yields.
Drought induced by the 2015-2016 El Niño, partially driven by humans, caused acute food insecurity from eastern and southern Africa to the dry corridor of Central America.
Changes in where and how animals graze is negatively influencing their fertility, deaths and recovery rates, which all make farmers less resilient.
In Europe, significant production losses are projected for most areas over the 21st century, which will not be offset by
gains in northern Europe. While irrigation can help, this option will be increasingly limited by water availability.
Climate change impacts everybody, but vulnerable groups, such as women, low-income households, Indigenous or other minority groups and small-scale producers, are often at higher risk of malnutrition, job loss, rising costs and competition over resources, the UN report found.
“For indigenous people, nothing is isolated, everything is connected, especially nature, ecosystems and the people who live in them,” said Consejero Miyer Merchán Catimay from the Colombian indigenous organisation ONIC.
“The saddest thing is that deforestation is happening directly on indigenous ancestral lands, causing food shortages and forced local displacement.”
The hotter Earth becomes, the worse the impacts on food
Changes to the climate will make many of these existing trends worse, hitting jobs, food, and financial markets.
Some areas will be rendered unsuitable for growing food and livestock. Extreme weather will trigger food losses. Greenhouse gas pollution will take its toll on air, soil and water quality and exacerbate the impacts of extreme weather like heat and drought.
These changes will attack nutritional quality of food and increase the number of people at risk of hunger, malnutrition and death.
The number of people at risk of hunger will be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Central America.
But the impacts of food systems will be felt around the world, including via global supply chains, high prices, crop failures and job losses, the report says.
Dr Youba Sokona, the IPCC’s vice chair, said: “Any water stress we impact the system will impact [Africa’s] food system. This is clear.”
But heavy rain will also have a “similar impact because of the poor infrastructure that exists in the continent,” he told Sky News.
Crop failure will have serious consequences on people’s livelihoods, he said, which could drive displacement and urbanisation as people move to cities to find work.
Soon cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry in the low latitudes could face at least 72 additional days of extreme heat and humidity a year, reducing meat and milk productivity, and hot weather will affect labour capacity, driving up prices.
Climate change will reduce the effectiveness of pollinators like bees, while toxic fungi and pathogens will benefit from warmer weather.
Though climate change could create new fishing opportunities as shoals move to new areas, such as the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, ultimately it is expected to reduce numbers and productivity.
Shifting marine fisheries and ocean acidification will affect catch revenue and national economies – without government subsidies, fishing is already non-profitable in 54% of the international 41 waters, it warns.
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Adaptation options exist and work, but are underfunded
The good news is that many adaptation options exist and work, the report emphasises.
These include switching varieties/species, shifting the timing of planting or stocking and community-based adaptation, early warning systems and further.
Advancing technology to simulate light and and sound and remote sensing could help too.
Ecosystem-based approaches such as diversification, land restoration and agroforestry have the potential to strengthen resilience to climate change with multiple co-benefits, though might require some trade-offs.
But public policies are crucial, the report says, which include shifting subsidies, removing perverse incentives, regulation and certification, green public procurement, investment in sustainable supply chains, help with insurance premiums and payments for ecosystem services.
“Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water,” said the IPCC’s Hans-Otto Pörtner.
By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30-50% of Earth’s land and water, “society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential,” he said.