Climate change may affect food systems in several ways ranging from direct effects on crop production, to changes in markets, food prices and supply chain infrastructure.
There has been a dramatic increase in recent years in the public’s awareness of global climate change, reflecting increasing stridency from the scientific community as new and stronger evidence of climate change is revealed.
The Earth’s climate is constantly changing as a result of natural processes. The atmosphere has an effect like a greenhouse on the Earth’s temperature. The energy from the sun reaching the earth is balanced by the energy the Earth emits to space. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) trap some of the energy the Earth releases to space. The GHGs in the atmosphere act as a thermostat controlling the Earth’s climate. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature on Earth would be -18˚C instead of the current +15˚C. Therefore, life as we know it would be impossible.
The majority of the world’s scientists studying this topic agree that the current rate of climate change is faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years because of human activity. Human activities affect GHG levels by introducing new sources of emissions or by removing natural sinks, such as forests. Sources are processes or activities that release GHGs; sinks are processes, activities or mechanisms that remove GHGs.
Since the industrial revolution, concentrations of GHGs have been increasing steadily as a result of industrialization (increasing sources of emissions) and deforestation (declining sinks). Between 1970 and 2004 several key GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulphurhexafluoride (SF6), increased by 70 percent. The scientific evidence for this is very solid. In its fourth assessment report since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that climate change is already happening and can be primarily attributed to human activity.
Global climate change will have substantial impacts on the environment including water resources, fisheries, forests, wildlife and ecosystems. Regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases, are already affecting different natural systems on all continents and in some oceans. Scientists also predict that climate change will increase climate variability.
The impacts of global climate change on food systems are expected to be widespread, complex, geographically and temporally variable, and profoundly influenced by preexisting and emerging social and economic conditions.
Some of the key findings of a recent report by Universal Ecological Fund (Fundación Ecológica Universal FEU-US) make for interesting reading. FEU-US is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that seeks to increase awareness that encourages actions on sustainable development issues through researching, analyzing, producing and disseminating information.
Its report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Food Production: A 2020 Perspective” notes the following:
1. The temperature of the planet would increase by, at least, 2.4ºC above pre-industrial times.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important man-made greenhouse gas. In 2008, CO2 levels reached 385.2 parts per million (ppm). With current increase rates of about 0.5 percent per year, CO2 levels could reach 410 ppm in the next decade. These levels correspond to greenhouse gases (GHGs) concentrations above 490 ppm CO2-equivalent (all greenhouse gases combined). This equals a 2.4ºC increase in global temperature above pre-industrial times.
2. Two of the three main elements of food production –water and climate— would be most affected by climate change.
Obtaining more land suitable for agricultural production is unlikely. It is therefore water availability (mainly in the form of rain, on which 80 percent of food production depends) and climate conditions, which would most significantly impact food production worldwide, with both positive and negative impacts.
3. The most significant impacts of climate change on food production would be on:
• The tropical region –the region between 30º N and S of the Equator—due to reduced water availability and increased temperatures.
• The temperate region –between 30º and 60º N and S—due to changes in precipitation.
4. Positive and negative impacts of climate change by region include:
• Africa: The region with the most severe expected impacts. About two-thirds of arable land in Africa is expected to be lost by 2025. Decreased rainfall would also impact yields from rain-fed agriculture, with estimations of up to 50 percent in some countries. A combination of increased temperature and rainfall changes would lengthen the growing season benefiting, for example, the production of Ethiopian coffee.
• Asia: The most serious potential threat arising from climate change in Asia is water scarcity. Central and South Asia would experience negative impacts, while the impacts on East and South-East Asia would be beneficial. The two most populated countries in the world would experience different impacts –India with negative impacts, and China with positive impacts.
• Europe: Climate-related increases in crop yields, of about 5 percent in wheat, are expected mainly in northern Europe; while the largest reductions of all crops, of up to 10 percent, are expected in the Mediterranean region.
• Latin America and the Caribbean: Overall yield production of wheat, rice, maize, and soybean is estimated to decrease by 2.5 to 5 percent. The impact of climate change in Latin America’s productive sectors is estimated to be a 1.3 percent reduction in the region’s GDP for an increase of 2°C in global temperature
• Northern America: Overall, decreased precipitation will create important problems for the United States, restricting the availability of water for irrigation and at the same time increasing water demand for irrigated agriculture. This would affect in particular the western region of the United States; some yield increases are expected in the Great Plains.
• Oceania: As a result of reduced precipitation, water security problems are very likely to intensify, and change land use away from drier areas. This would negatively affect Australia in particular, the major food producing country in the region.
5. The amount of food estimated to be produced in the next decade would not be enough to meet the food requirements of an additional 890 million people estimated to inhabit the world in the next decade.
• Global wheat production vs. demand: 14 percent deficit
Countries with expected increase in production: China, United States, Canada and
Argentina. Countries with expected decrease in production: India, Egypt, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Italy, Pakistan, France, Germany, Iran, Romania, Australia, Turkey, United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Poland and Spain.
• Global rice production vs. demand: 11 percent deficit
Countries with expected increase in production: China, United States, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Republic of Korea, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Countries with expected decrease in production: India, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Madagascar.
• Global maize production vs. demand: 9 percent deficit
Countries with expected increase in production: China, United States, Indonesia, Canada and Philippines.
Countries with expected decrease in production: India, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Italy, Argentina, France, Germany, Romania, South Africa, Mexico, Hungary and Serbia.
• Global soybean production vs. demand: 5 percent surplus
Countries with expected increase in production: China, United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, Japan, Serbia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Countries with expected decrease in production: India, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Italy, Iran and South Africa.
6. As a result of decreased availability of food, prices could increase up to 20 percent. The inevitable consequence would be the increase in the share of hunger, which could reach one in every five people.
The current level of undernourishment in the world is 1 billion people –one in every seven is hungry today. Currently, about 6.5 million children under five die every year of malnutrition and hunger-related diseases –about 18,000 deaths a day.
Within the next decade, these figures could almost double, reaching one in every five people being hungry. At least every other newborn in Africa; one in every four newborns in Asia; and one in every seven newborns in Latin America and the Caribbean would be sentenced to undernourishment and malnutrition.
Impacts on the Agricultural Sector
Agriculture and fisheries are highly dependent on specific climate conditions. Trying to understand the overall effect of climate change on our food supply can be difficult. Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can be beneficial for some crops in some places. But to realize these benefits, nutrient levels, soil moisture, water availability, and other conditions must also be met. Changes in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods could pose challenges for farmers and ranchers. Meanwhile, warmer water temperatures are likely to cause the habitat ranges of many fish and shellfish species to shift, which could disrupt ecosystems. Overall, climate change could make it more difficult to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and same places as we have done in the past. The effects of climate change also need to be considered along with other evolving factors that affect agricultural production, such as changes in farming practices and technology.
As noted by Dr. Kim Chang-gil of the Korea Rural Economic Institute in a recent research paper, agricultural production is carried out through the selection of crops suitable for the climate of a specific region and application of proper farming methods. Therefore, agriculture is a climate dependent bio-industry with notable regional characteristics.
The publication “The Impact of Climate Change on the Agricultural Sector: Implications of the Agro‐Industry for Low Carbon, Green Growth Strategy and Roadmap for the East Asian Region,” was prepared as a background policy paper for the East Asia Low Carbon Green Growth Roadmap project with funding from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), under the East Asia Climate Partnership.
“Climate change disturbs the agricultural ecosystem, resulting in the change in agricultural climatic elements such as temperature, precipitation, and sunlight, while further influencing the arable, livestock, and hydrology sectors.”
First of all, the impacts of climate change on the arable and livestock sector are made known by biological changes including the change of flowering and harvesting seasons, quality change, and shift of areas suitable for cultivation. Climate change affects the agricultural ecosystem, giving rise to blights and pests and causing population movement and change in biodiversity. In the livestock sector, climate change brings about biological changes in areas such as fertilization and breeding and also affects the growing pattern of pastures.
Climate change affects the hydrology including underground water level, water temperature, river flow, and water quality of lakes and marshes, by impacting precipitation, evaporation, and soil moisture content. In particular, the increase of precipitation by climate change leads to an increase of outflow while the temperature rise increases evaporation, resulting in the reduction of outflow, Dr. Kim notes.
Negative impacts of global warming include reduced crop quantity and quality due to the reduced growth period following high levels of temperature rise; reduced sugar content, bad coloration, and reduced storage stability in fruits; increase of weeds, blights, and harmful insects in agricultural crops; reduced land fertility due to the accelerated decomposition of organic substances; and increased soil erosion due the increased rainfall.
In addition, each crop requires different climate and environmental conditions to grow. So, if climate change like temperature rise occurs, the boundary and suitable areas for cultivation move north and thus the main areas of production also change. The change in the main areas of production might be as a crisis for certain areas but might be an opportunity for other areas, so it cannot be classified either as a positive or as a negative impact.
“In sum, the impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector have ambivalent characteristics of positive impacts creating opportunities and of negative impacts with costs. Therefore, it is very important to formulate adaptation strategies that can maximize the opportunities and minimize the costs that will lead to sustainable agriculture development.”
Beyond the physical impacts of climate change lie a range of market risks and opportunities that are being driven by changing consumer preferences, supply chain demands and government policies – all in response to the challenge of climate change.
Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the environmental credentials, amongst other things, of the food and beverage products they buy. This is consistent with a broad and global trend in which consumers are demanding higher standards of quality, transparency and accountability in food and beverage products. This trend can only continue.
As a consequence food-processing companies have to take the effects of emissions from their operations on climate into account.
This may be achieved by energy conservation and substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources in the day-to-day running of their operations. In this context the ideas and concepts proffered here apply mainly to small and medium sized enterprises.
It is worth noting as well that investment in applications to achieve significant energy reduction requires speedy pay back as most companies now have to contend with cutthroat competition due to the financial crisis worldwide and indeed the continuing recession.
Climate change as a result of human activity further exacerbates the problem and now directly affects the development of existing and new food processing facilities. The renewal of existing facilities in energy conservation terms by ‘retro-fitting’ largely depends on what has gone before whereas the planning of new facilities in terms of location, construction design, utility requirements such as energy, water utilization / waste management and packaging recycling can be more strategically planned.
In dealing with the emerging issue of climate change and its potential negative consequences manufacturers have now to be much more proactive. Previously manufacturers that were proactive in the area of utility savings over the past 30 years did so primarily for economic or bottom line reasons.
What can be done?
As noted by Dr. Kim in his paper, in order to accomplish green growth in the agricultural sector, we should create an innovative way to turn inconvenience into a growth engine by leaving existing convenience and inertia behind, and by achieving a shift in thinking among relevant parties, to ensure that inconvenience and hazard can be properly managed.
“For this to happen, an amicable atmosphere should be created with a bold paradigm shift, where the suggestion of various ideas and active discussion can take place.”
First of all, he notes, it is urgent that we come up with an implementation strategy that allows us to maintain the unique characteristics of agriculture as a green industry, and thereby eventually achieve green growth by actively developing public functions, such as atmospheric purification and environmental protection through agricultural production innovation and clean technology.
“It is particularly necessary to establish green governance where all farmers, relevant organizations and policy makers concerned can work together, where a strong will to implement green growth and an effective execution system are required to accomplish green growth. However, the policy to promote environmentally friendly agriculture itself is not enough to ensure an assured transition toward a low-carbon agricultural system, but reorganization of the overall agricultural system is needed.”
Above all, agricultural policy and low-carbon environmental policy should be properly integrated so that the concept of green growth in the overall agricultural sector takes root. In order to maximize the policy effectiveness through a proper combination of policy instruments in various relevant sectors, a green innovation system should be established where policymakers, researchers, relevant organizations, farmers and other relevant bodies can have proper understanding of green growth and share their roles.
In addition to that, Dr. Kim observes that a systematic stage-by-stage strategy to develop technology should be devised and implemented on a steady basis so that green technology reduction or absorbing of greenhouse gases in the agricultural sector can be utilized as a growth engine.
“When green growth in the agricultural sector is successfully implemented, agriculture will solidify its position not only as a green industry that manages national land in an environmentally sustainable manner but also as a life industry that supplies safe agricultural products and manages national greenhouse gas emissions.”
As for the food industry, the key is to be prepared. The findings of a report: “Impact of Climate Change on Tasmania’s Food and Beverage Industry” prepared by Pitt & Sherry could equally hold for the food industry across the world.
It notes that the industry needs to be first aware of the likely consequences, physical and financial, of climate change.
“At a minimum, or as part of a risk assessment process, businesses should document their ‘carbon footprint’ and understand the extent to which that footprint creates risks and/or opportunities for their products. Assessing these risks and opportunities requires a market-by-market approach, particularly for exported produce.”
For those businesses with a low carbon footprint, or the ability to achieve this cost effectively, there may be market advantage in disclosing this information to consumers or supply chain partners. The attractiveness of this will depend in part on product positioning and the prospects for gaining market premiums.
“For all businesses, there is almost certainly advantage to be gained by reducing their greenhouse emissions to the greatest extent possible: the business case should consider not only direct exposures, such as energy and transport costs, but also supply chain linkages, future policy settings, market risks and corporate/brand positioning.
Where a high standard of proof is required – whether to meet market, legal or corporate expectations – full life cycle assessment of a product’s environmental characteristics may be justified. Despite the availability of software tools to assist with this process, it can involve significant costs. A risk-managed approach might therefore see such assessment reserved for products believed to possess above-average exposure or, conversely, potential to attract premiums. Assessments could be undertaken on behalf of a whole industry or product class by the relevant industry association.
As the information that such assessments will bring to light will also be valuable to governments, to help identify needs and opportunities for targeted assistance and/or investment promotion, there is a prima facie case for government support for this work. At the same time, businesses must remain accountable for determining their own response to climate change and accept the consequences should they choose not to engage actively in managing the issue, the report notes.