Climate Change & the Future of Food

Gabriella DiGiovanni

Gabriella DiGiovanni › Gabriella is a local food supporter, new-found vegan, lover of the outdoors, music enthusiast and college ...


There is overwhelming evidence supporting a clear and definite correlation between human activity and a change in the Earth’s climate. We have seen a 0.8° C increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. While critics may turn to natural forcing factors in explaining the warming of our planet, human use of fossil fuels and land use changes have severely altered the natural carbon cycle beyond its ability to self-repair. Fossil fuels uncover carbon that has previously been buried for millions of years into the atmosphere, releasing a tremendous amount of greenhouse gasses or, “heat-trapping molecules” that capture the sun’s energy, contributing to a warming climate. Increased deforestation for development and agriculture in developing countries prevents the sequestration of carbon, further unbalancing the cycle. Methane and nitrous oxide, two other greenhouse gases, are widely emitted through agricultural practices including livestock operations and rice paddies. The agricultural sector itself accounts for 14% of post-industrial greenhouse gas contributions.

Climate change is happening, but what does this mean for agriculture and the future of our food? The biotic world is already showing responses, grapes and apples of the Northeast are currently blooming six and nine days earlier respectively compared to 50 years ago (Wolfe et al, 2005). In the Northeast, climate change has shown itself in warmer winters with greater and more intense precipitation and hotter summers with greater drought. These warmer winters result in higher pest pressures, allowing more insects to overwinter and increasing their range of habitat. Invasive weed species also benefit from warmer winters and a growing habitat. Although it has been suggested that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will be beneficial to C3 crops (including almost all crops except for maize, millet and sorghum), the extent of yield increase has been overestimated by nearly 50%. However, invasive weed species, (also C3 plants) will likely be positively affected by the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Increased damage from frost can be expected despite warmer winters. The warmer fall temperatures decrease crop hardiness, making them more sensitive to the coming frost of winter. Similarly, the earlier arrival of spring-like days cause plants that rely on temperature to bud, resulting in crop death when colder days return. Important species interactions have the possibility to be greatly disturbed. For example, crops and pollinators that rely on different temperature and daylight signals to function may become decoupled, resulting in untimely pollinator presence. Heat stress and water management will be a growing issue that can have devastating impacts on already challenged farmers. Cold water fisheries will also face challenges in adapting to increasing water temperatures.

When examining the negative consequences that are arising due to global climate change, the future of food may seem greatly forbidding. However, with certain mitigation and adaptation techniques, agriculture can continue to succeed in feeding our world. Adjustments on-farm can help serve as a barrier of protection from climate change. Farmers can look for new varieties and new crops and change planting dates to account for temperatures. A key strategy in adaptation is to diversify cropping systems to ensure harvests. New strategies will have to be created to deal with the increased and new pests. Soil health can be improved by conservation agricultural techniques. Livestock operations will respond by implementing greater cooling infrastructure, and fruit crop operators will respond by changing the misting and circulation of air in their operations. Preventative or mitigation techniques include on-farm renewable energy, anaerobic digesters, reduced tillage, cover crops, composting, decreased chemical fertilizer, agroforesty, and more.

The question must be asked, what barriers will farmers face in attempting to adapt? There are physical limits to the land that can harm the pace of adaptation and a lack of needed technologies to adapt. Farmers will face financial barriers, limits on extension and social obstructions. For these reasons, our universities, governments and non-governmental organizations must play a role in providing new tools to help farmers make decisions, new options for crop and livestock systems, increased weather data provisions, greater ways to monitor pests, financial assistance, and integrative land use policies.

You might be wondering what you can do in the face of climate change if you are not a farmer. Individuals can play a large role in preventing continued climate change by taking small daily measures. Energy saving techniques include replacing lightbulbs with products like the EPA’s ENERGY STAR, installing solar panels, maintaining efficient temperatures in buildings and reducing water use (EPA). As interested and active members of the real food movement, you can continue putting your composting skills to work and purchasing local and organic food. We must address agriculture at every level by integrating efforts from the community, farmers, educational systems and government policy to ensure a sustainable future in the face of climate change.

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EPA. “What You Can Do.”

Wolfe et al. 2005. Internat J. Biometeorology 49:303-309

Photo Credit: Cliff Mass Weather Blog