The food system: Crisis in slow motion

30th May 2013


By Sarah Marshall


Food is gaining increased attention these days; more people are looking into local and organic options, joining CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and shopping at farmers markets.


This basic necessity of life that defines the plight of all creatures has changed dramatically in the last century, and is at risk for major losses in the foreseeable future.


Climate change has already affected crop production around the world, with droughts, unexpected freezes, and altered rainfall patterns. This past Fall, apples did not fruit in the northern US State of Michigan due to a early blossoms and late spring freezes. As apples are the state’s largest fruit crop, the ninety percent smaller yield dealt a major blow to the local economy.


This phenomenon is being seen more and more; unusual weather leading to widespread crop failure. Farmers with contracts to produce certain amounts of specific crops have the potential to go under. Agriculture comes with an inherent and necessary risk in order to feed the world, but these risks are changing with the onslaught of climate change.


Tampering with ecosystems and pumping an overabundance of carbon into the atmosphere has lead to an unstable food system. In fact, the world just reached a carbon landmark, reaching 400ppm (parts per million); yet some scientists have claimed that 350ppm is the safe upper limit. Increased carbon also affects pH in the oceans and in soil, the basis for healthy crops.


An infographic published by The Guardian reveals how the food crisis will manifest itself in the coming decades. Using research from the Met Office and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the study concludes that Africa will be the worst hit by climate change, with Egypt losing fifteen percent of its wheat crop if temperatures exceed 2˚C.


West Africa may be able to grow more food but will have to grapple with prices doubling because of population increase.


The Middle East is expected to see significant decreases in wheat, rice, and corn yields, and forest fires are expected to increase up to forty percent in the region including Europe.


By 2030, China’s basic food supplies will be insufficient to feed its population, while Australia can anticipate more draughts.


California’s crops shall see major yield reduction in staples including rice, cotton, wheat, tomato, and maize while Latin America can expect to be seriously affected by warming and extreme weather events.


Though the numbers look grim, some crops will be able to grow in different areas, moving north as areas near the equator get too hot. Northern Ireland and Scotland may, in fact, see increased crop production with the onset of climate change. Many people are starting to act now in response to the crisis, instead of waiting for things to get worse.


Many are learning to grow their own food, reconnecting with where it comes from. Local food outlets allow people to understand the importance of seasonal variety as well as the impact of less fuel is being used to transport it.


Meat consumption is another major factor when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, exceeding even transportation. Raising animals for food is an immensely energy-intensive process, and with the increased “efficiency,” many animals are inhumanely treated and injected with hormones and chemicals that the consumer eventually ingests.


The future of food lies in the hands of big agricultural operations, seed companies, government, and the consumer.


On May 13, Monsanto, a major seed producer that specialises in genetically modified seed varieties, won a Supreme Court case against an Indiana farmer who engaged in “patent infringement” by re-planting Roundup Ready soybeans without buying them from Monsanto. As part of the company’s standard agreement, farmers are not permitted to save harvest and replant it the next year. This case, in particular, may set precedent for future agricultural legislation.


There are a lot of options that consumers can take regarding their food. Personal choice affects market demand, and demanding in-season local food, opting out of meat a few days out of the week, and learning to grow food crops even on a small scale will contribute to the necessary transformation of the food system.


Learn more about where your food comes from by checking labels, asking your grocer, and meeting farmers. We cannot lose sight of the fact that it is the adaptable who survive.


Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy



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