Last week the U.N. released a report that clearly stated that the world’s food supply is threatened by climate change. It received quite a bit of attention from the media, including this article in the New York Times.
Any time the media talks about climate change and agriculture, I get nervous. Agriculture is not separate from humanity, it is one of our most basic activities. Humans caused climate change through a variety of activities; food production is just one of them.
For thousands of years, every farmer has worried about the weather, every day. We try to plan and prepare for it as best we can, but in the end there is nothing we can do to change it. It’s not that farmers don’t believe in climate change. They are just too occupied with dealing with the day to day realities to spend much time worrying about how to stop it.
Soon, very soon, the rest of the world will likely find itself in a similar mindset. Experts are — too slowly — coming to realize that it’s too late to stop climate change, if it was ever even possible in the first place. We are going to have to figure out, very quickly, how to survive it. Growing enough food for everyone will be one of the biggest challenges.
Extreme weather has always been the largest threat to food production, and those events will probably increase. Millions of people’s traditional regional food supply will be threatened, especially those who live in places dependent on subsistence rain-fed agriculture that have gotten drier and hotter as a result of the changing climate — like Honduras or El Salvador. But other areas will see crop yields improve and crop choices expand with warmer temperatures and higher rainfall. Farming closer to the Arctic Circle in places like Alaska — where there are currently very few farms — could be incredibly productive given their 24 hours of sunshine during the summer.
Policymakers here and in other countries right now are focusing their energy on efforts to help farmers reduce carbon emissions. They need need to shift the focus to adaptation: making huge new investments to help farmers figure out how to adjust to the changing climate. New crop varieties, funding for development of irrigation infrastructure, loans for farmers to invest in crops they have never grown before in their area, etc. This is going to be a huge shift, as most developed countries no longer devote much public funding to agricultural research and infrastructure development.
Worldwide, governments will also have to quickly develop and implement free or very low cost insurance against total crop loss if they want people continue working in agriculture. Small and medium-sized farmers — yours truly included — are not financially capable of withstanding disasters. And existing government-backed crop insurance programs primarily target large growers.
I confess I haven’t read the actual U.N. report. But most of the “experts” consulted for the NYT piece are not discussing adaptive strategies. Instead, they mention a number of vague and improbable solutions to the problem of future food insecurity, such as encouraging people in wealthy countries to eat less meat.
Worldwide, there are millions of experienced and talented farmers who use their land and natural resources to provide high quality food to a majority of people at a very reasonable price every day. We are going to need a lot of help to keep doing that in the uncertain future that climate change is bringing. I hope more people start talking about it soon.