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The Positive Feedback Loop of Food Production and Climate Change

Guest Writer Victoria Brodsky

Global Food Production is a Leading Cause of Climate Change

As the world faces a growing number of environmental and social challenges, including combating climate change, we need to take a look at the largest contributors of greenhouse emissions.

“Today’s food and agricultural systems are accountable for 1/4 of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.”

 – Roy Steiner Managing Director, Food, The Rockefeller Foundation1

Food production is a top contributor to climate change, and the largest consumer of freshwater. It takes up 50% of the globe’s vegetated land.7 Methane from livestock digestive fumes, nitrogen fixing crops, synthetic and organic nitrous oxide pesticide use in soils, and the millions of gallons of fuel burned everyday to distribute food all over the world by trucks and ships  contribute greatly to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.7

Feeding 10 billion people, and the animals they consume, is the biggest opportunity to make sustainable changes.

Climate Change Adversely Impacts Food Production Processes

Despite our adaptive strategies to date, downstream effects of climate change like weather patterns, biodiversity, drought, and rain patterns continue to have proven negative effects on our food systems, including crop yield, and the nutrient density of our food. This in turn affects the price, availability, and quality of crops, making climate change a cause of net negative impact on international social and economic welfare of both the producers and the consumers of agriculture.

According to the Agronomy study from the University of California, Davis, the highest impacts of crop diversity occur across hydrologic cycles (droughts and floods), averaging rising temperatures of at least 1 degree Celsius, rising atmospheric CO2 levels, and reduction of wild crops leading to a reduction in biodiversity.8

In a meta-analysis of over 1,000 published reviews of the effect of climate change on crop yields, the evidence is that rising temperatures have a negative effect on nearly all crops in all regions.9 Negative crop yields are having an increasingly damaging economic impact due to changes in import/export prices, trade patterns, and market distortion, all of which adversely affect the welfare of regional producers.9

Changes in production, price, and availability of feed-grain greatly affects the economics and efficiency of the livestock industry as well. In addition to grain production, animal growth and reproductive health, disease and pests risks, and health of forage and feed are all impacted. Exposure to higher temperatures in livestock increases their metabolic rate, reducing their overall size and thus meat production; heat-related production losses recorded in 2011 were over $1 billion for livestock producers.10

Food Production and Climate Change Create a Positive Feedback Loop

We have an imbalanced global food system that is contributing to a destructive cycle of climate change and agricultural inefficiencies. A growing population requires greater agriculture output, yet agriculture output contributes greatly to climate change, and climate change negatively impacts agricultural output. This system puts stress on our ability as global citizens to produce enough nutritious, affordable food to avoid worsening food insecurity across the globe. 11,12,13

Since we are currently living in a world greatly effected by inefficient processes of the human race, it is important that we not only look to reduce our impact on the environment, but also to implement strategic adaptive strategies to lessen the negative effects of climate change on agriculture. To do this requires capital-intensive solutions to act swiftly in the time of natural disasters like wildfires and floods, taking preventative measures seriously both by private industries and by the public sector, and developing “efficiency first” technologies in water, energy, and agricultural infrastructure.


Sources Cited:

(1) Steiner, R. (2018, October 16). 4 Ways to Build a Food System for the Future. Retrieved from https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/4-ways-build-food-system-future/

(7) Shah, R. J., Dr. (2018, September 13). Doing More with Less: Fixing Our Food System. Retrieved from https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/doing-more-with-less-fixing-food-system/

(8) How Will Climate Change Affect Agriculture? [PDF]. (n.d.). University of California, Davis.

(9) Moore, F. C., Baldos, U., Hertel, T., & Diaz, D. (2017). New science of climate change impacts on agriculture implies higher social cost of carbon. Nature Communications, 8(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01792-x

(10) Grotjahn, R., Holden, P., & Mader, T. (n.d.). Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Retrieved from https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/sectors/agriculture

(11) FAO.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/climate-change/en/

(12) Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. (2018, October 09). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources

(13) Food Wastage Footprint and Global Climate Change [PDF]. (2015). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations.

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